Death of Sunday movies
By Ross Warneke
May 13, 2004

Channel Ten's decision earlier this month to end decades of Australian TV tradition and replace its Sunday night movie with two weekly hour-long drama series (and the occasional miniseries) makes a lot of sense.

As was documented in Green Guide last week, after outings in the cinema, on DVD and then pay TV, not even the biggest Hollywood blockbuster, especially with ad breaks every 10 minutes or so, is likely to draw a huge crowd on free-to-air TV, often two or three years after its initial release. Sunday night movie ratings have been dropping for years.

But coming up with an alternative strategy is not as easy as it sounds. The secret is choosing the right shows to fill the timeslot. Both have to work. For Ten, it was always going to be a gamble. But early indications are that it might work.

In their first back-to-back outing on Sunday night, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and NCIS won their timeslots. Both made Melbourne's top 10 on the night. None of the movies or telemovies on Nine, Seven or the ABC did.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent averaged 403,232 viewers. NCIS scored 395,565. Nationally they blew the opposition away with 38.6 per cent and 44.6 per cent respectively of all viewers watching commercial TV.

There was never much of a risk that Law & Order: Criminal Intent would not pull good ratings. It is riveting drama and one of Ten's top raters. Its lead character, Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio), has developed a cult following.

The new and untried NCIS, however, was something else. Created by Donald P.Bellisario (Magnum P.I., Quantum Leap and JAG), it is a spinoff from JAG, this time focusing on the work of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Like JAG in its early years (that show rated better here than in the US when it started in 1995 and was dumped by the NBC network after several years and was picked up by CBS, where it now thrives) NCIS has not been a huge hit so far in the US. But on Ten, straight after Law & Order: Criminal Intent, it could be a winner.

It deserves to be. In style and intensity it is more like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation than the relatively slow and talky JAG. Sunday's season opener, about a murder aboard Air Force One, set a cracking pace. Next Sunday's, about a night-time marine parachute exercise that goes horribly wrong, is more in the style of a traditional whodunit, but is just as enthralling.

The key to this show's appeal is its characters. Foremost among them is NCIS agent Jethro Gibbs. He's still wincing from three failed marriages and is a bit of a renegade within the service.

On Sunday he all but hijacked the crime scene - Air Force One - to keep it out of the hands of the interfering FBI and Secret Service. Next week he solves the crime-of-the-week by cajoling his way on to a Marine Corps Hercules aircraft. The end justifies the means for agent Gibbs.

He is played convincingly by Mark Harmon, a veteran of two of the best hospital drama series we have seen. In St Elsewhere in the mid-1980s, he was the mischievous Dr Bobby Caldwell. More recently, in Chicago Hope, he was the risk-taking Dr Jack McNeil. Agent Gibbs is not too far removed from both of those characters.

And like Jack McNeil in Chicago Hope, he also has a heart of gold, as you will see this Sunday night in a somewhat predictable but touching finale.

Gibbs is the ring master on NCIS, but he has lots of help.

Sasha Alexander plays agent Caitlin Todd. If Gibbs is to have a romantic attachment in this series, it looks like it might be her.

Michael Weatherly plays agent Tony DiNozzo, fearless but a bit wet behind the ears.

Pauley Perrette is young NCIS forensics expert Abby Sciuto. Her role is pivotal in the show because, as with so many crime series these days, the forensics laboratory is the scene of much of the action.

Perrette's only shortcoming is her diction. Am I the only one who has difficulty understanding her?

But the sealer on this show - particularly for us baby-boomers - is NCIS coroner Dr Donald "Ducky" Mallard. (Get the joke?) He is played by David McCallum, who was secret agent Illya Kuryakin in the hugely successful 1960s' TV spy spoof The Man from UNCLE. Working for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement, alongside fellow agent Napoleon Solo (the dapper Robert Vaughn), he fought the enemies of mankind - usually nasty looking types with thick Eastern European accents - and particularly the evil-doers at THRUSH (the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity).

In NCIS, McCallum is quietly brilliant as a slightly eccentric medical examiner, the one who zips open the body bag and explores the remains for possible causes of death.

He has an amusing habit - although to the impatient Gibbs, it's thoroughly annoying - of veering off course into quirky tales of past cases as he cuts into the skull or the torso of one crime victim or another.

But he's very good at his job and it's not too hard to imagine some episodes where Mallard will be much more central to the plot.

NCIS has the makings of a hit for Ten. Along with Law & Order: Criminal Intent, it could soon have the other networks thinking about dumping their Sunday night movies, too.