NCIS and NCIS: LA, Top-Rated High-Tech Investigative Procedurals Thanks to Show-Runner Shane Brennan

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By Frank Barron

From l, “NCIS” show-runner Shane Brennan with Frank Barron.

The most popular dramas on TV are NCIS and its spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles, and fulfilling the task of keeping the CBS shows at the top of the ratings heap is the executive producer and show-runner Shane Brennan.

The key ingredient for that task is storytelling from great writers. The focus on compelling characters, their relationships with each other, and especially their sense of duty and moral centers have captured a huge audience over the years. Brennan also gives viewers great visuals by incorporating a high-tech look to frame the outstanding ensemble casts.

All of that has gone into the equation that has kept NCIS on the air a remarkable nine strong seasons. Set in Washington, D.C., NCIS stars Mark Harmon, David McCallum, Pauley Perrette, Michael Weatherly, Sean Murray, Cote de Pablo, and Rocky Carroll. The show follows a dedicated team from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Their primary job is law enforcement and counter-intelligence, investigating major criminal offenses. The show, which started as a spin-off of JAG, primarily films in Santa Clarita.

NCIS: Los Angeles is in its third season with stars Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J, Linda Hunt, Daniela Ruah, Eric Christian Olsen, Barrett Foa, and others playing an undercover NCIS investigative team. Most of the filming takes place on the streets of L.A.

Although both shows have their characters hitting the streets for good investigative work, they also showcase the procedural formula aspect of the storytelling with innovative high tech gadgets and filming techniques. That has made them stand out in the crowded television landscape.

“I’m a great believer in taking technology that is cutting edge and putting it into the show,” Brennan, an easy-going Australian fellow, told me when we had an enjoyable long talk at the last CBS All-Stars party. “It’s the nature of NCIS: LA to tap into that technology. Ours is the very first show to ever sign a contract with Lockheed/Martin. They’ve taken us through some of their technology, and we have used some of it. For them it’s like ‘OK, you’re creative. What do you want to do? Tell us something you’d like to see, and we’ll see if we can make it happen.’” Brennan has also gone to Microsoft for some of their ideas.

The technology, Brennan explained, “is being used out there by defense people, plus police and federal agencies. The tech is kind of scary because it is so unbelievable. Yet, it is real. One of the things we have to do is convince the audience that it is real, and it is. We add a lot of the technological things into the stories, and the end result is a fairly high-powered show.” Much of the new technology involves cameras and other equipment.

“I’m a great believer in harvesting all that stuff — anything new out there. I’m a geek. I spend a lot of time looking for things and thinking, ‘How can we put this in the show? What’s another way for us to tell this really good story?’ But we use technology to tell it in a way that lets the audience get something extra from it.”

Audiences have just seen the tip of the iceberg with high-tech equipment and visual effects, according to Brennan. “There are a lot of other things we can do, and you’ll see them as the series continues.” But don’t think it’s all green screen effects. Brennan added that he is proud that “on our show at least 75% of what you see on the screen is happening. It’s not CGI, it’s actually happening. It’s the actor doing it.”

With the new technology always evolving, Brennan noted, “Even after episode 50 on NCIS: LA, we look at some of the things we used in episode one, and it’s scary how passé it is now. You’ve got to stay ahead of it. But above all, it’s the?story?that?is para-mount.?You could make this show without the technology, and it would still be good because of the characters. But what the technology brings is a visceral kind of experience. It makes us stand out, and puts us head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Changes are good for the film industry overall, Brennan said, “and you need to change with it to be competitive. You’ve got to find ways to serve the production, deliver the scripts, deliver the story, obviously in the most efficient way you can. It’s got to be exciting. But you still have to have your eye on the dollar and the production budget.”

As for filming on locations around Los Angeles, Brennan emphasized that because L.A. is in the show’s title, “It’s important to get out there and shoot, because Los Angeles is a character in the show.” And yes, they have filmed in our Valley neighborhoods.

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