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Friday, August 14, 2009

NCIS: THE SIXTH SEASON -- DVD review by porfle

Thanks to the magic of DVD, I've been discovering some pretty awesome TV shows lately that I probably never would've run across otherwise. For one thing, I can no longer handle commercial breaks, especially since they're longer and more frequent than ever before. Also, I hate watching one episode a week--if I like a show, I want to be able to indulge myself in it until the wheels fall off. That's how it was with NCIS: THE SIXTH SEASON, a 6-disc, 25-episode set that I went through faster than Rosie O'Donnell with a box of Ring Dings.

My first impression of this series about a team of agents for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was that it was going to be a dour, melodramatic show, but it's anything but. The stories rarely stop dead in their tracks to include "comedy relief" scenes as the wit and humor are usually well integrated with the serious stuff. Even though the subject matter is always grim, with an abundance of dead bodies in various states of graphic injury or decay, the interplay among the lead characters is almost non-stop lighthearted fun--sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny. Yet the stories still manage to maintain an aura of gravitas and believability that can veer headlong into raw, dead-serious drama at any moment.

Mark Harmon has probably his best role ever as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, team leader and father figure for the family-like team of agents. He's a tough, no-nonsense, seemingly infallible agent who inspires utmost respect and even awe in his co-workers but, despite his gruff exterior, is always supportive of them. An ex-Marine, his history includes all sorts of shadowy Black Ops-type stuff and other mysterious events that sometimes bob to the surface during a case.

In the episode "Heartland", circumstances lead the team to Gibbs' hometown where they're delighted to actually find out details of his past including getting to meet his semi-estranged father, Jack (Ralph Waite). Stories like this play up Gibbs' human side, as does "Deliverance", an inner-city gang drama in which we find that he may be the father of a teenaged gangbanger who's stealing military assault weapons to sell on the street.

Character interaction is a major element of what makes NCIS tick. Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) is prom-king handsome but acts like a mischievous kid with a narcissistic streak. He loves movies, women, sucking up to his superiors, and himself. DiNozzo also enjoys picking on semi-dorky computer genius Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) and pointing out his geekier qualities at every opportunity.

Both men harbor unrequited romantic fantasies for their strikingly beautiful partner, Officer Ziva David (the strikingly beautiful Cote de Pablo), an Israeli whose war-ravaged upbringing has made her capable of taking care of herself in rough situations. DiNozzo is on hand to help Ziva learn to lighten up and do goofy stuff, like competing in an online air-guitar contest. A funny running gag is her ongoing effort to learn American colloquialisms (she refers to a turf war as a "Smurf war.")

The delightfully cute forensic scientist Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) is a brilliant but extremely eccentric Goth chick who loves her work and can solve any problem as long as she's kept adequately supplied with super-sized containers of "Caf-Pow!" Any visit to Abby's lab is a treat as she giddily spouts more technobabble than half a season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" while rattling off factoids about sexually-active molds or the difference between Satanic pentagrams and the hubcaps on a Buick Skylark. Rounding out the cast is the venerable David McCallum ("The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", THE GREAT ESCAPE) as Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, the urbane and endlessly erudite medical examiner who's always up to his elbows in cadavers.

Season six gets off to a great start with a mini-story arc about the dispersal of Gibbs' regular team and their replacement with relative novices. At first, this decision seems unnecessarily arbitrary on the part of by-the-book NCIS Director Leon Vance (an intensely effective Rocky Carroll), but it's eventually revealed that Vance suspects one of the three new agents of treason and is hoping that Gibbs will be able to sort out the culprit. Liza Lapira as Special Agent Michelle Lee and Jonathan LaPaglia as Special Agent Brent Langer are very good in this suspenseful storyline which covers several episodes before coming to a nail-biting surprise conclusion.

Computer whiz McGee gets out of the office on a solo assignment for a change in "Caged", only to find himself a hostage during a riot in a women's prison. In "Bounce", an old case in which DiNozzo put an innocent man behind bars for three years comes back to haunt him when the people involved start turning up dead. Since it's his case, Gibbs temporarily puts DiNozzo in charge of the team, leading to all sorts of seriocomic complications.

David McCallum's "Ducky" gets his own episode with "Broken Bird", a story of torture and guilt that starts out promisingly but turns a little too turgid for my tastes. "Knockout", a story that spotlights Rocky Carroll as Director Vance, gets similarly bogged down in melodrama as he returns to his hometown of Chicago on an unauthorized mission involving the death of a childhood boxing hero.

These lapses are rare, however, and the four episodes on disc six begin another story arc which contains some of the most riveting television I've ever seen. It involves a rogue Mossad agent in the U.S. and Ziva's possible romantic connection to him, which may have compromised her loyalty to NCIS. The paranoia is knee-deep and the twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat right up until the shocking season finale cliffhanger (I hate those). Rocky Carroll, Michael Weatherly, and especially Cote de Pablo are outstanding in these episodes, with the Ziva character becoming the focal point for a maelstrom of intrigue.

Almost insanely entertaining at times, most of the plots move so fast you practically need to be strapped in. Very rarely does an episode slow down long enough to give the viewer a chance to even think about getting restless or bored. And visually, this series has style to burn with cinematography that is consistently beautiful.

The DVD set consists of six discs in three slimline cases with a cardboard cover. The 16 x 9 image and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are fine. Closed captioning for the hearing impaired is available. Each disc contains its own bonus feature. These are:

Disc one: Brian Dietzen, who plays Dr. Mallard's assistant Jimmy Palmer, takes us on a fascinating tour of the special effects shop where the show's realistic dead bodies are made in the featurette "Bodies of Work."
Disc two: Pauley Perrette performs an acoustic version of her song "Fear", which is featured in one of the show's episodes.
Disc three: "Starting With a Bang" covers the making of the season's opening story arc.
Disc four: David McCallum and director James Whitmore Jr. do a commentary track for "Broken Bird", while Michael Weatherly supplies a gut-busting stream-of-consciousness narration of his big episode, "Bounce", in which we learn that he was four months' pregnant during filming.
Disc five: Featurette "Horsin' Around" is a look at the filming of episode "South by Southwest" on location around the famous Vasquez Rocks in California. There's also a lighthearted commentary by Pauley Perrette and Sean Murray for the Abby episode entitled "Toxic."
Disc six: "Season Six: Cruisin' Along" and "Six Degrees of Conversation" examine all the elements that make the sixth season so special. The latter features the entire cast in an interview setting.

NCIS: THE SIXTH SEASON is a stellar collection of episodes from a series that seems to be hitting its stride with no signs of slowing down or running out of steam. With an excellent cast, superb writing, and top-notch production values, it's pure, unadulterated escapism of the highest order.

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