CarterMatt Extended: Can ‘NCIS’ really live forever?

Extended -The news of Michael Weatherly’s departure from “NCIS” will resonate for weeks to come. If you consider yourself a longtime fan of the CBS procedural, there’s no other way around it. You are looking here at a character who appeared in thirteen seasons of the show, which has been at some points the most-watched series not only in America, but the entire world. That is a shocking prospect to think about; Weatherly could go to a foreign country halfway around the world and be recognized as Tony DiNozzo.

When Weatherly does leave at the end of the season, this will mark the second time in three years that the series has underwent a major cast change. It would be a waste of time to remind you about Cote de Pablo’s dramatic exit early in season 11; everyone remembers, and this remains a point of contention for many fans still. If you’ve been reading across the site over the past 48 hours, then more than likely you have seen the stance we’ve chosen to take about Ziva in relationship to Tony’s exit: She should return, if for no other reason than to help see off someone she worked with for so many years. Whether or not that happens is up to the powers-that-be.

The question that Weatherly’s exit raises is one that many similar long-running series (“Law & Order,” “ER,” “CSI”) have wrestled with in the past, and that is whether or not a show is made by the concept, or by the cast. Is there any one “NCIS” cast member that the series would flounder without? If you were to look at Mark Harmon, then you would obviously say that it is him. He is, after all, the star at the top of the metaphorical poster, and while his popularity online may not be on the same level as many top-level stars of other shows, the sense you get is that he remains intensely popular with casual viewers, those who don’t always venture to social media to profess their support.

It would be a shame for “NCIS” to lose Harmon; yet, at the same time, some could see it as an asset. It’s a chance to reinvigorate the show, bring in a new leader, and also lose off the books one of the highest-paid actors in television. Maybe some would argue that losing him would be a bridge too far, but in reality, it’s hard to see it that way when so many offshoots have shown that Gibbs is not the reason the “NCIS” brand is so strong.

Are there any actors who are absolutely critical to the show’s longevity?

If you look across the board, the answer is probably that everyone can be replaced in some shape or form. It’s part of the strength of the show for what its concept is set up to be, and that is a weekly procedural about solving crimes in the Navy. If this was a “Monk” style show where it was about one detective, it’d be different. However, at the same time these are characters who made the show a hit in the first place, and without them, it’d be long gone. We just find that it is easier to fill holes than it is to start from scratch, so “NCIS” could be fine to lose more people time to time at least from a ratings perspective. We cannot speak for quality.

The characters at the moment that may be the hardest to imagine the show without are the ones who bring it some of its lightness: McGee (Sean Murray) and Abby (Pauley Perrette). These are some of the people you do not realize you miss so much until they are gone, and it is hard to replace their energy or their rapport. Yet, if the need called for it, CBS probably could. This philosophy more than likely has to leave most actors in a bittersweet position; if you choose to leave a show (as Michael is deciding to do), you want to see it succeed without you. However, at the same exact time you also have to be well aware of the notion that a show still can prosper. That, even unconsciously, has to be a humbling experience. (We have no doubt that Michael wishes all of the cast members well, just as we assume the ratings will at least be reasonably consistent moving into season 14. “Grey’s Anatomy” is doing fine without Derek.)

How long can “NCIS” last?

If the show really does ever replace Harmon and continue to cycle in new cast members past and present, it is easy to see many more years. What about a season 20? It’s possible. It may sound a little nutty, but perceive it in this way: The days of the great procedural are dying. If you look at the landscape, maybe “Scorpion” is the only surefire hit that CBS has launched in this genre for the past several years. “Blue Bloods,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Criminal Minds,” and other shows are starting to see their numbers wane. “NCIS,” despite its age, remains the most-watch show for the network and one of its leaders among dramas in the 18-49 demographic.

If you were CBS and caring more about business than anything else, would you want to end a show that you not only helped to produce, but was continuing to get such high ratings? It’s hard to envision a scenario where you’d want to when newer shows are not sustaining. This could be a series that remains so popular thanks to international syndication that it could last so long as the producers continue to want to make it. Maybe eventually it won’t be #1 in viewers and be put on a different night, but it is at present doing a decent job of retention on Tuesday nights. Following Cote’s departure we did see a drop in ratings (there was a 15% decline when you look at the average from season 10 to season 11 in the demo), but to date season 13 is down less than 10% from season 12. That is a pretty standard decline for any TV show in the age of the DVR, and is not a cause for concern

Given that “NCIS” is already looking at potential new cast members for season 14, it has drawn its line in the sand: It is here to stay. The question mostly remains whether or not there will be any familiar faces aboard on a regular basis by the time it finally drives its metaphorical ship into the sunset.

CarterMatt Extended is a feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night. If you want to sign up for news sent to you every week, you can do so on our Newsletter page.

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