Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Serious Business: NCIS and the Back Door Pilot

In 2002, the CBS television show Jag was long in the tooth. The show, which CBS resurrected in the mid-1990’s after NBC had canceled it, was looking old fashioned compared to the science based procedurals that surrounded it on the schedule. CBS asked Jag creator Donald Bellisario to meld Jag with CSI. He decided to accommodate this request with the 2003 back door pilot Ice Queen.

A back door pilot is a way to slyly use an existing television show to launch a new one. Typically this involves introducing the new characters and premise on an existing show in a way that will encourage viewers to want to watch the new potential program. The back door pilot for NCIS, however did none of these things. In fact, it almost seemed as though Mr. Bellisario wanted the show to fail.

Instead of introducing the new characters in a positive light, Bellisario chose to have them accuse a beloved Jag character of murder. Loyal viewers of Jag had seen Harmon Rabb fight for truth and justice for seven seasons. They knew nothing about any of these NCIS characters who come off as complete jerks throughout the entire episode. In fact, the NCIS team acts like the sort of investigators who would be the arrogant outsiders who get everything wrong on a regular crime show and get schooled by the familiar investigators. Looking back, it’s amazing that the show got picked up, much less become the monster hit that would eclipse Jag.

The show tries to mitigate this somewhat by having Harmon Rabb forgive NCIS because they were only doing their jobs, but the Jag viewers would still leave the episode with a negative view of NCIS. CBS would still pickup the show with minor changes. In the end, NCIS would fully eclipse its older sibling.