NCIS New Orleans
Season 1: A Lesson in Coherent Character Construction
I have recently started watching NCIS: New Orleans and, from the first episode of the Season 1, the famous Musician Heal Thyself, I have been overwhelmed by the need to write about this outstanding television series – for more reasons than one (the most important of which being that the series features Scott Bakula, easily one of the most talented actors of present days). NCIS New Orleans is a lesson of how a television series should be done.
There are literarily numberless TV-series for us to choose from; it is absolutely impossible to watch them all and to be able to compare everything with everything. As anyone else, I have my preferences and I tend to watch a rather heterogenous collection of shows, among which, lately, Star Trek, The Resident, NCIS New Orleans, Sherlock. I have seen a variety of construction techniques and, as one does, I tend to focus on the characters which most draw my attention and to see how they are made, how they are being built – not only through the means of the script (which is, in NCIS New Orleans, impeccable) but also through the skilful way in which the actor knows how to express, how to construct (and eventually deconstruct and reconstruct) the image of the character he / she embodies.
NCIS New Orleans features a group of very diverse actors: Scott Bakula as Dwayne Cassius Pride, the NCIS Senior Special Agent; Lucas Black as Christopher LaSalle, NCIS Special Agent, second in command; Zoe McLellan as Meredith Brody; Rob Kerkovich as Sebastian Lund, forensic specialist; C.C.H. Pounder as Loretta Wade, medical examiner (coroner) for NCIS.
NCIS New Orleans is very patient and careful with the hermeneutics of character construction and development. It takes a few good episodes to even get to know these people; the way each actor portraits their character is downright remarkable, because they pay attention to one of the most important thing in television: to detail. To the tiniest of details. Those who watch, and especially those who re-watch – and there are many – observe and rejoice every time a character reacts as an actual human-being they can relate to. Through their extraordinary day-to-day missions and adventures, throughout their ferocious fight for truth and justice, the NCIS New Orleans team members are so very… human. Not super-heroes. People, actual people. Extraordinary People.
Dwayne Cassius Pride, the Senior Special Agent of NCIS New Orleans, is played by Scott Bakula, an actor I have known and studied for years, so I know his modus operandi in depth. The role Dwayne Pride is complex and requires multiple skills, which Scott Bakula possesses to the highest degree. It was remarkable to see him build the role step by step, from the very first episode – Musician Heal Thyself. He comes across as a warm and compassionate federal agent; he conveys orders to the subordinates in his team on a friendly, firm, but not commanding tone – yet, you know he is in charge there. Christopher LaSalle, played by Lucas Black, calls him King. One of the most important values Dwayne Pride tries to inoculate to his group of people is that of responsibility. “We face what we gotta face,” he says. We find out quite soon that he has a room somewhere upstairs, above the main office. “Where you lay your head in this city, defines you,” Pride tells a co-worker. And so, we see that he is defined by his work. For this reason, there are deep implications for the character – because everything revolves around work. Not a job, but a profession to which he is dedicated with everything that he is.
Dwayne Pride is exceptionally well prepared for his profession. He reacts fast, investigates deeply and is very protective of those who need it the most: the vulnerable ones, the children, the young people. We find out soon that he has a daughter of his own, but that he and his wife are on the verge of divorce. Discretion being the key-word, many episodes will until we find out more.
Dwayne Pride’s team is sketched with equally discrete but inciting colours. Christopher LaSalle is disciplined, courteous, friendly and his accent is a pure work of art for which the actor deserves praise. “We are one big family,” Chris says at some point – a very good way of describing the manner in which a team is built and coagulated. Meredith Brody (beautifully played by Zoe McLellan) is an eager learner with a black belt in Aikido, not easily impressed, with a cold demeanour (our intuition already tells us, because of the actress’ skilful portraying, that the respective coldness is only a mask); she wants to keep work and personal life separate; she has a prodigious memory and makes startling associations. An agent Dwayne Pride values.
Sebastian Lund (played by Rob Kerkovich) is another remarkably built character, the development of whom I have studied with great satisfaction. Sebastian works in the forensics laboratory, a genius for all it takes, reminding me of Sherlock Holmes with his passion for truth and eye for detail, as well as for the dexterity with which he uses to tools of chemistry and physics to uncover bits of information essential in the apprehension of the true villains. Rob Kerkovich constructs a fantastic role, and the manner in which he conveys verbal information, with digressions and divagations and bits of concrete information is something I applaud in each episode: it looks effortless, it is – for us – full of savour and brilliant – and the amount of hard work which the actor puts in the construction of the character deserves all praise.
Loretta Wade (portrayed by CCH Pounder) is the coroner, the one who conducts autopsies and another key-member of Dwayne Pride’s team. There is a certain warmth between them – the way Pride speaks her name, Loretta – suggestive for a rich friendship which goes way back. Loretta is calm, warm, motherly, comforting, but at the same time very meticulous and, as everyone else in the team, completely dedicated to truth.
It is not my intention to narrate the contents of each episode, but rather to follow the way the actors build their respective characters. There is fluency and cohesion in the way they accomplish this. Even the music (fantastic! – but I shall consecrate a special article to the music of NCIS New Orleans) talks about continuity and coherence. The first episode ends with Go to the Mardi Gras in B flat; the second episode, Carrier (my favourite of the first series) starts with the same tune. We have the opportunity to observe more of Dwayne Pride’s compassion – the way in which he talks to the victims’ families, how he takes time for the apparently unimportant things; how he does not rush through such chores, even though his mobile phone is constantly ringing or beeping. In Carrier, we have the opportunity and the privilege to witness an exceptional lesson of acting, with Scott Bakula exhibiting an entire plethora of emotions in the way he builds Dwayne Pride – most of which are expressed with his eyes: he is troubled, upset, apprehensive, hopeful, furious, determined, reminding me of a character in Albert Camus’ Plague. The feelings he expresses are not random; they evolve from one another and they are convincing because they are… natural. Loretta’s scream – “The man isn’t drugged. He has bubonic plague!” – is something all those who love NCIS New Orleans will remember, a shocking cry of despair and surprise which has become iconic. “All we can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Dwayne Pride states at some point. It seems like this phrase is one so well embodied in his consciousness, that his entire personality emanates from it.
The next few episodes add to the already brilliant composition.
Breaking Brig shows Dwayne Pride stopping at nothing to protect those in his team – in his family, as Christopher had previously called their small group. When he shoots a wanted criminal in the head to save Brody from his hands, he exhibits no remorse and he is ready to give his job up in order to face the consequences of such a dangerous act. “Between a traitor and one of my own, there is really nothing to choose from,” he says to his superior. Such a behaviour is balanced with the heart-melting moments of him talking to his estranged wife, Linda Pride, who wants them to undergo couple therapy. The character Christopher LaSalle also evolves; we see him as a multitasking machine but, at the same time, as someone completely devoted to Pride, to the point in which his own life does not seem to matter. Loyalty is a theme which is differently explored by each character, which makes it very interesting to observe and to analyse.
We get to see Dwayne Pride’s daughter, Laurel, in The Recruits. Pride completely melts when he sees her – and that particular moment is something I often go back to. It is so natural, so wonderfully built, that I cannot do anything else but applaud. His entire being reflects warmth – his voice modulations change when he talks to her, his eyes are warm and loving – we see a different face of a prism and how it reflects the same light, and yet differently. The character becomes richer and more complex, within a scene which is only minutes long. The Recruits is also the episode in which we get to meet Patton Plame – an investigative computer specialist – or a hacker, in Christopher’s terminology. He is played by Daryl Mitchell as a computer genius in a wheelchair – many episodes will have to pass until we get an insight into why the character is disabled. Patience with the character construction is one of NCIS’ great virtues. Talking about iconic scenes, there is one such scene in this episode – a scene which has been henceforth transformed into endless gifs and studied by fans frame by frame. Dwayne Pride does not even do anything in the respective scene – he merely stands there, waiting for an offender to come in sight (officer Mike Benton). He is calm and in control, his gun – held with both hands – is pointed straight at the offender. He only makes a short gesture with his hand, indicating to Benton to drop his weapon. His presence is overwhelming – and he is simply being there, nothing else. Marvellous acting!
Also, the musician in myself was happy to learn the name of the piano the character owns – an Upright Hamilton, similar to the one in my own living-room – and to see Dwayne play the sweet duet with his daughter. It is not the first time we see him play the piano, but here he is calm and serene; the simple tunes are the hardest. Scott Bakula is an accomplished piano player and I feel privileged every time I get to see him play, and I am happy that the script offers him numerous such occasions.
Another exceptional composition is realized in the Master of Horror episode. It is also the first time we see Linda, his estranged wife – and we get to notice how troubled Dwayne is to see her. Troubled is the key emotion of this episode, majestically played. Not only is he troubled because of having seen his wife, but also because he personally knew the victim (judge Melanie Herman). “I fell in love with you because of your hunches, Dwayne”, Linda tells him. Hunches alone will help him solve the case. The scene in which Dwayne contributes to making Mr. Hyde surface, manifest itself from the criminal’s double-personality is absolutely fantastic, a Shakespearian moment to the tiniest detail. Leaned against a wall, in the interrogation room, behind the criminal, he promises to do the worst possible things to him, unless he cooperates. He is dark strong, threatening, but at the same time you can feel that the character himself is playing a role here – this is not who he is, how he is. And yet, he is convincing. Who is he, really? About darker areas of his personality we shall have the opportunity to discuss as they reveal themselves to us.
The entire Baitfish affair gets us that opportunity. We see Dwayne Pride more and more focused, more obsessed to solve something that is just slightly out of reach: what he thought to be an old-case coming back to haunt him, finally turns out to be something far more dangerous and more complex, threatening to endanger the lives of all the people living in New Orleans. By the time the entire plot is unfolded, another agent joins the team, adding value and diversity – Sonja Percy, played by Shalita Grant – an energetic, brilliant young woman whose expertise proves to be invaluable.
The episode My City is the last instalment of the Baitfish affair. Dwayne Pride is upset, worried, not a single smile on his lips for almost the entire duration of the episode. He takes charge of everything and leads his team personally through all the operations. “Something big is coming” – and his entire demeanour points at that. We learn that terrorists are planning to destroy New Orleans by bringing about a nuclear apocalypse. Terrorists and nuclear war, our biggest fears – a man and his small team against all this, and they manage to make it credible. Dwayne Pride does everything he can to find out the whereabouts of the villains – he even goes to his father in prison, and they have long been estranged, their relationship is severely deteriorated. He gets to him – and manages to have his allegiance – how? – by being abruptly sincere, as he always is – he knew his father would eventually help because he loves New Orleans just as much as Dwayne does. However, keeping his emotions tightly under control, he shows that truth and justice are non-negotiable. “Done good, Cassius.” Calling him Father or Dad would have been too great a gift at that point, and they both know it.
Dwayne’s grief and worry are concealed throughout the mad race to find the terrorist; his demeanour remains calm, but we can sense and perceive his inner struggle throughout the entire way of acting – his voice, his body-language, the way manipulates objects with his hands; he is unsettled and deeply angry, and yet he remains in full control of his emotions. This is his biggest battle.
The island scene is fantastic to the last detail, and I have watched it numerous times, frame by frame, trying to see if I could pinpoint any fault – I could not. It is a scene which required extreme focus and very hard work to construct; there is a lot of running and fighting, despair and agitation and fury: he will not let his city down. Shot in the shoulder, Dwayne still functions, after having broadcasted to his people that “he is fine”, whereas he is far from fine. In a rush of adrenalin, he takes down two of the terrorists – more or less with his bare hands – and manages to shut down the RF transmitter and its trigger mechanism. “I got this,” he murmurs as his trembling fingers look for the blue wire which must be removed.
When Christopher LaSalle finally shoots down the terrorist which holds Dwayne at gunpoint – Ekpo himself – the two men look at each other for a moment – a short moment, one of the most remarkable ones in the entire series. Silent understanding and gratitude for the help given; shock, surprise and relief. Contentment for a job well done. And no words are spoken.
The series conclusion is heart-warming. Sonja Percy has hacked into the budget to see if there was room for another agent. She wanted to be a part of the family. “Your family,” she tells Dwayne. “I’m home,” Brody also confesses to Christopher, when she explains her reasons for being a part of the team. The closing song puts it into words better than spoken words would have managed; yes, this is Dwayne Pride’s family, one for which he had sacrificed his personal life and had risked his own life, honour and career on a daily basis. What did he get in return?
“To the ends of the Earth would you follow me?” the song sings, and each of his team-members would certainly reply with a Yes.
This Season 1 analysis has been written with great admiration, appreciation and love for the hard work and talent of all the team-members who have made NCIS New Orleans possible. They all, from the directors and writers to the filming team – deserve congratulations for the extraordinary work they accomplished.
I cannot end these lines without expressing my ever-lasting gratitude towards Scott Bakula, from whom I never cease to learn things. He may never read these lines, but he will forever remain my inspiration and my most important teacher.