Bellisario's Anomaly: JAG Compared to NCIS and Quantum Leap

Recently, in my ongoing need for more mystery shows (while I wait and wait and wait for Diagnosis Murder, Season 4 + to be released on DVD), I got out the first season of JAG from my local library.

It was a rather surreal experience; I'm not sure if I remembered the show differently or if it changed after Season 1. The season itself is standard action-drama fare. What makes it surreal is how different it is from Quantum Leap and NCIS, both Bellisario productions.

I have a fondness for Bellisario. The guy is all about telling a story, and he will go to just about any lengths to get the story told. But the first season of JAG is missing elements that made Quantum Leap a hoot-and-a holler and have made NCIS so remarkably successful.

1. The absence of domestic crime.

Quantum Leap is all about solving the personal crime. NCIS (despite the presence of a trillion terrorist episodes) is surprisingly domestically-minded. Episode solutions range from the friend who kills his friend for money to the neighbor who tries to kill her romantic rival. And even the terrorist episodes create personal relationships with the crew; Ari was one of the best TV villains ever.

The first season of JAG, on the other hand, is almost exclusively action-current-events oriented. Every other episode takes place in Bosnia. The ones in-between are taking place in Hong Kong, Cuba . . . Since I like my mysteries domestic, I tend to lose interest. (And there's only so many times Harm can fly a plane somewhere.)

2. The absence of Gibbs.

To be more precise, the absence of separate characters to represent chivalry, toughness, and roguishness.

In Quantum Leap, Al and Sam take on the separate roles of chivalry and roguishness while dividing the toughness. In NCIS, Gibbs is the tough guy with DiNozzo taking on Al's persona and McGee as the sweet, chivalric knight (I get to Ziva below).

In JAG, poor Harm has to be all things to all people. The women, at least in Season 1, aren't strong enough foils, so he has to be Gibbs, DiNozzo, and McGee all at the same time with an emphasis on the latter two. (Halfway through Season 1, the show does bring on the marvelous John M. Jackson to play the much-needed Gibbs-role.)

It isn't that all shows have to have these characters divided in this way, but Bellisario does. Hence, the rather incredible success of NCIS which, by dividing the roles into thirds (not just halves), allows for quick, balanced dialog. (Completely tangential side note: like his character, Michael Weatherly is something of a film aficionado. For truly interesting commentary, listen to him by himself; like Rob Morrow, he likes to talk about camera work, and it's pretty interesting stuff.)

3. The actors in JAG just aren't as good. At least in Season 1.

I do believe that actors can improve. David D. and Gillian A. (who are both extremely fine actors) improved after the first season of X-Files (Gillian A. really takes off in Season 3). Still, there's a radical difference between starting a show with Dean Stockwell and Mark Harmon and starting one with David James Elliott. All I can guess is that JAG was a tad expensive for the mid-90s (you want to use HOW MUCH footage of aircraft carriers?) and Bellisario had to wait until NCIS to get the starting cast (plus military venue) that he wanted.

4. The female characters are way more annoying in JAG, Season 1.

To give Bellisario credit, the guy likes his women smart, sassy, and sexy. Bellisario belongs to the John Wayne mentality of feminism . . . where men are real men and women are real women, and a little sexual harassment never hurt anyone. (One of the funniest scenes in NCIS is when the crew has to take sexual harassment training, and Abby gets upset because she wants to hug people at work.)

Unfortunately, JAG started when women in the military were first entering combat; consequently, Season 1 JAG women are SO shrill and SO combative and SO defensive about their rights. Think Ziva without the humor (and even Ziva improved in Season 4 when she started getting more in-depth/personality-oriented scripts).

In a way, Bellisario was using available material: Women in the military! Conflict! But it grates after about two episodes.

It is possible that the show improves with the arrival of Bell and Labyorteaux in Season 2. I don't remember Bell being quite so shrill, and Labyorteaux does supply a nice McGee foil. I'm planning to get Season 2 and make the comparison. I'm also hoping the crimes get more interesting. Give me the body in the library any day over International conflicts that I don't think a television episode can solve anyway. (And then give me my Diagnosis Murder!)


Joe said...

I think JAG started out with an entirely different concept. I remember liking it, but the it failed with the public and so Bellisario reworked the show.

One thing I've noticed about all three is that I stopped watching them before the end of their runs.

To be fair, I never did get into NCIS. It was just too cutsie and cliche for me and had too many main characters. When I start accurately predicting dialog and scenes, I rarely keep watching a show.

Magnum, P.I is another Bellisario invention. Magnum has chivarly, toughness and roguishness all in one! Where the show goes wrong (for me) is when it takes the focus off Magnum.

With that in mind, perhaps JAG was an attempt to redo Magnum as in "what if Magnum stayed in active duty and became a lawyer?"

Kate Woodbury said...

Knowing Magnum is one of Bellisario's puts all his shows in context for me! Bellisario really likes the charming rogue character (Al, DiNozzo, Magnum), and I think you're right, Joe: Magnum was Al AND Sam in one. And since Magnum was Tom Selleck, the show worked! After Quantum Leap unfortunately cancelled, Bellisario must have thought a return to what worked initially was the solution.

Plus Magnum is more of an action-detective show than an investigative show which JAG, first season, is as well.

Magnum did have his Gibbs/Ziva/McGee foil, Higgins, right off the bat. Which Harm doesn't in the first season of JAG. In fact, he gets three different (blond) partners over the course of the season! None of them are strong foils. I'm assuming Catherine Bell (who shows up in Season 2) proved a stronger foil since she ended up staying the course.

Joe said...

The more I think about it, the more I realize that JAG is very derivative of Magnum. It even has many of the same characters (different actors, different names, but the same character.) The difference is, as you said, Tom Selleck and John Hillerman. Likewise, like any show, Quantum Leap had some stinker episodes, but Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell carry it.

a calvinist preacher said...

I served 12 years in the Navy. I couldn't stand either one of 'em - just couldn't suspend disbelief to that extreme. The only thing worse than NCIS were the NCIS spin-offs.