Beginning with Desert Storm, back in 1990, the role of the military in mainstream media has undergone a rehabilitation. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, Hollywood was generally sour on the military, most clearly because of the long aftermath of the Vietnam War. But a concerted effort on the part of some more conservatively political members of the Hollywood community has caused many Americans to look at the military community more sympathetically.
Donald Bellisario, a former Marine, has done a great deal to bring military life to the screen. His first big hit was “Magnum P.I.,” which began airing way back in 1980. Magnum himself is a former Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam, and two members of his team are former Marines. The plots occasionally intersect with the military past of the characters, but often they do not. It is always clear, however, that their training serves them very, very well.
Bellasario’s next high profile series arrives after Desert Storm changed the general public’s view of the armed forces. The public relations message was explicit: the fighting men and women should not be held accountable for the plundering of the brass and the political hacks who worked with them. Military personnel are performing their patriotic duty to the country and this is also their career in many cases.
“JAG” appeared in fall 1995 and remained on the air for a decade (two years longer than “Magnum P.I.”) and plunged the viewer entirely into the military community. The judge advocate general is the Navy’s justice office; judge advocates are Navy attorneys. As such, all their clients are Navy and Marine personnel.
In 2003 “JAG” spun off Bellasario’s most successful series to date: “NCIS.” On “NCIS” you move from following around military attorneys to following around military law enforcement.
I have seen relatively few episodes of “Magnum P.I.” and “JAG,” as they were broadcast well before the streaming era, and I have not been ever actually been a regular television watcher. (Growing up we were only allowed to watch it on weekends and sparingly at that.)
Now renewed for a 17th season, “NCIS” has endured well into the streaming era and older seasons are readily viewable on Netflix. Over several years I have dipped into the series, watched a few seasons, and then set it on the proverbial back shelf for a while.
The only constant in the show over the years is Mark Harmon, as the ex-Marine NCIS officer Leroy Jethro Gibbs. His staff, generally consisting of two men and a woman, has rotated at varying paces. Sean Murray as Tim McGee has been present nearly from the beginning and Michael Weatherly as Tony diNozzo only left after 13 seasons. The remaining position has a Spinal Tap drummer quality that would be funny if the ends of some of the women weren’t so sad.
These people all live in a very straight world where steak dinners are fancy, dry cleaning your clothes is normal, childhood rites of passage like proms and summer camp are discussed without irony, and family is very, very important. Any sort of countercultural element is treated as a bit of a joke.
The overall effect is the humanize the armed forces community. On “NCIS” they are constantly being killed and the circumstances always represent a betrayal of bedrock beliefs by corrupt forces like greed, jealousy, political extremism, and sheer selfishness. Even if you have not been in the military, you feel for these people, both the victims and the law enforcement, because their lives are presented in such a granular manner. In between the crime-solving, you get bits and pieces of their private lives that accumulate show to show.
So, Bellasario’s shows have rehabilitated the military’s image. “Mission accomplished.”