Why I like NCIS: The Melodramatic Affect Machine

I have written about the shift post-9/11 in genres of tv shows before (exemplified by representations of science and truth in the X-Files vs CSI, etc), but did not really say that I watch and enjoy the cop/detective program NCIS. The Pauley Perrete frozen drink goth sexiness certainly has something to do with it, but I get sucked in by the superficial emotional interplay between the core characters. The characters themselves are not very attractive, in fact, watching the show sometimes is a bit like watching a demolition derby during the lighter moments and driving past a car crash when it is darker. Even though it would seem like a paradoxical thing to say, there is a dimension of subtle melodrama to the interaction between the characters that other shows — such as the CSI series — completely miss. CSI: New York is the worst of the CSI bunch. It is total crap, with little or no interplay between characters and boring science scenes jazzed up with cool music. Pffft. I started thinking about why I liked NCIS much more than CSI and I realised it was because it reminded me of Buffy.

It is a completely different genre to Buffy’s horror/fantasy, but because of the show’s basic premiss and narrative construction contains a similar melodramatic extrapolation of the everyday. I don’t know anyone in a military detective unit, nor am I very close anymore to anyone in the armed forces (I used to have mate who was in the army and was a member of one of the car groups I used to hang out with in Perth. He helped me changed the gearbox in my Silvia once). Steve Shaviro has a post that is worth reading on the melodramatic qualities of Buffy on his blog. The big difference between Buffy and NCIS is that crazy stuff happened to the Buffy characters, which dislodged them from being mere ‘cheerleaders’ for the world around them, while on NCIS the characters are far more processual and it is the high velocity dynamic at play between characters that sustains at least my interest. Shaviro describes melodrama thus:

Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved.[…]

Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-”. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand.[…]

NCIS as social critique? Nup. Don’t think so! However, the affective dimension played out on a superficial level between the caricatured passionate ‘exteriors’ of the main characters operates in a similar way to affect amplifying machine of melodrama.

Photo of Nuremberg above via Anne.