NCIS and its sibling NCIS: Los Angeles are the top-rated dramas on television, a distinction they have held for several years. Next season there will be a third iteration, which ones hopes will be titled NCIS: Spinoff. As Quartz’s Jason Lynch notes, viewers love these formulaic procedurals—while critics ignore them.
But what exactly are so many Americans watching—and rooting for—when they tune in for these TV shows? A closer look reveals that both series are uncomfortably akin to a cheering section for the NSA: The shows depict a world in which terrorists planning mass slaughter are under every bed, in which viewers root for the good-looking, wisecracking agents to smash down doors without warrants; in which super-advanced electronic surveillance is used exclusively to protect the public. In the NCIS version of reality, we’ll all die unless powerful government agencies treat the United States Constitution like a big joke.
Of course primetime TV is rich in galimatias: Wacky sitcoms are hardly realism, and virtually all action programming overstates the frequency of violent crime. That crime is in steady decline simply isn’t mentioned on procedurals like Hawaii Five-0 and the Law & Order franchise, which depict homicide at runaway levels. Primetime dramas also exaggerate the use of firearms. In the actual NYPD, 1 officer in 800 fired at a suspect in 2012; on TV, the streets of New York City are as bullet-ridden as the Wild West. Procedurals further overstate the chance of criminals being caught: A disturbing number of real crimes never are solved, while in primetime, as the top of the hour approaches, the cell door slams behind the villain. Viewers long have clicked on the tube to entertainment in which crime is rampant, gunfire echoes down the mean streets, and bad guys always get what’s coming to them.