Culture > Television

J.A.G. vs. N.C.I.S.

Television | Although these two military shows sound like clones of each other, J.A.G. is far superior

Issue: "Social Security breach," Feb. 19, 2005

In the 1970s, in the shadow of Vietnam, the military was a target of mockery and irony. On television, M*A*S*H dramatized the absurdity of war and of military culture. Today, though, the military is in good cultural graces. Though not everyone supports the war in Iraq, the public as a whole appreciates the sacrifice and heroism of our men and women in uniform. So television sometimes celebrates military culture.

J.A.G., about military attorneys in the navy's "Judge Advocate General" office, has been around for 10 years on CBS and is currently undergoing a surge in popularity. Two years ago, J.A.G.'s producer, Donald Bellisario, started another military crime drama, N.C.I.S., for "Naval Criminal Investigative Service," that has become a hit for CBS this season.

Although the two shows sound like clones of each other, they are actually very different. And J.A.G. is many times better.

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N.C.I.S. imitates the plethora of autopsy and forensic shows, with gory corpses and gross autopsies. It might as well be called N.C.S.I. The head of the outfit (Mark Harmon) is grumpy without being charming. The medical examiner (David McCallum from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) is supposed to be a lovably eccentric Englishman, but he seems out of place. As the cast goes about its grisly business trying to solve the mystery, everyone tries to engage in witty repartee, but it does not really work and the ensemble cast-unlike that of J.A.G.-does not really click.

Also, N.C.I.S. has little flavor of the military. The investigators are federal agents, without uniforms, who solve cases involving the navy, which is thus seen from the outside and usually when it goes bad. J.A.G., on the other hand, shows the navy from within-its customs and protocols, duties and missions. More interesting than the cases the attorneys solve is the show's portrait of the military culture.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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