“Anybody ever tell you you’re cute when you’re homicidally angry?”
NCIS Los Angeles delves into the world of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service’s Special Operations Unit. Lead by “G” Callen (Chris O’Donnell, Batman and Robin) and his partner Sam Hanna (LL Cool J, Last Holiday), the duo are joined by partners Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah, Red Tails) and Los Angeles Police Department Liaison Detective Marty Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen, The Thing). Overseeing everything is OPS Manager Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously) and the whole team receives technical support from Eric Beale (Barrett Foa) and Nell Jones (Renee Felice Smith). Season Three takes us to the dark side of what it means to be an NCIS agent and a member of this team specifically. Each core character receives their own crisis to battle and ends up carrying their own episodes. It’s safe to say the series has finally hit its stride, stepping out from the shadow of its predecessor.
In my review of Season Two, I pointed to a noticeable lack of tension, when compared with the show’s big brother. Happily this season changes that trend. Beginning with Hetty’s Romanian adventure, there are several episodes which revolve around the darker aspects of each team member; informed by a factor of their past that affects the present, or a present concern for the character in question. We learn Hetty knew who Callen’s mother was all along and that she, like Callen, was part of the intelligence community. Deeks not only gets fired from NCIS, he’s also once again confronted with the fact that he’s not an agent and has to accept the distance between himself and the rest of the team. Of course, this is minus Kensi, because they continue their “will-they-or-won’t-they” dance that’s been going on since the characters first met. But this year takes a turn for the couple, as they choose not to acknowledge anything occurring between them outside of their working relationship.
Speaking of Kensi, we learn her sole purpose for joining NCIS was to find out what happened to her father, a former Marine who was killed when she was fifteen. Through her arc, she deals with the issue of power. Specifically, what do you do when you have the chance to take revenge for those you have lost? Do you cede your power to the proper authorities and hope for the best, or do you take matters into your own hands?
When it comes time for Sam to get his turn at the crisis wheel, we’re hit with a situation that’s rare for a show such as this. LL Cool J has to up the angst, when it’s revealed the relationship he had cultivated with a female asset may have crossed the line, the seriousness of which is brought home when we finally meet Sam’s wife and daughter. It’s an angle that underscores the ugly nature of what these characters are asked to do, and the grey areas they have to traverse when it comes to their own moral codes.
Probably the most shocking of all crises begins with the introduction of The Chameleon (Christopher Lambert, Highlander), a master criminal who engages in a vendetta against Callen who shot him in the face. Callen faces an adversary who takes everything and leaves nothing, forcing him to accept that the politics of his job will often be in direct violation of his personal beliefs.
I won’t completely spoil the season finale, but I honestly have no idea where Season Four is going. The production team may have completely jumped the shark, as the unfolding events leave little room for salvation. The most basic element of a show like NCIS Los Angeles — namely “Can you trust your partner?” — has now been shaken to its very core. It will surprise me to see this team regain their cohesiveness. However, from the special features, we learn Season Three puts into motion story elements which will play out over Seasons Four and Five. So even if we can’t see where things are going, we at least I know someone has a plan. Which is why I continue to watch.
Season Three sees the acting improve as a direct result of the writers fleshing out these characters. Our heroic quartet solidifies their partnerships, dropping the tendency to have reveals that go nowhere. This makes for dangerous ground to tread, as we have a tough time accepting the pairing of any of these characters with others, but it also makes for viewing we can get invested in.
The practical and special effects continue to be top notch, and are never out of scale with what we expect. This season, more than the first two, show a consistency in direction which strengthens the narrative immeasurably, a tough feat when every week finds a new person calling the shots, even in the two-part episodes.
I’ve mentioned the writing only in terms of the characters, but I also appreciate Season Three’s attempt to make the cases as interesting as possible. Yes, ultimately we watch because we are invested in the characters, but it’s nice to have genuinely interesting adventures for them to embark upon.
Presented in standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the larger aspect ratio is necessary for a show that uses the whole frame to tell the story. The tech-heavy nature of the series is backed up by a darker palette, resulting in a blue-eyed hue when the team is in the OPS center. I also appreciate that so much attention is paid to the white balance, something most people don’t notice unless it’s out of whack. Paramount offers up audio in both Dolby 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo, which you might be tempted to say is overkill, but I like the choice. Sometimes the explosions and crashes can get really loud, and if I don’t want to experience their full symphonic splendor I can downshift and still hear the dialogue and critical effects.
Bonus features consist of the Hawaii Five-O crossover episode, a lone commentary track, some deleted scenes, and featurettes. The commentary is as delightfully wacky as Season Two’s effort, and the deleted scenes run the gamut from completely superfluous to mere enhancers. The featurettes include an in-depth look at the making of the crossover, a comprehensive background on the show’s technical advisor, a pretty standard recap, and behind-the-scenes insight.
I recommend NCIS Los Angeles: The Third Season to any fan of the crime procedural. The missions are compelling, the actors all step up their games, and the effects make these weekly experiences feel cinematic in scope, which helps set the show apart from others of its ilk. The series refers back to its own mythology far too much to suggest you can get away with merely streaming a few episodes here and there, especially if you’re a new fan looking to get caught up.