American network television loves its long running crime franchises. Once upon a time, Australia did too. But the days of Division 4, Homicide, Cop Shop and Blue Heelers are long gone. Can NCIS: Sydney bring back some of that long running magic?
Probably not: the first season is only eight episodes long. But as the latest spin-off from a franchise that’s been running for 20 years, it does bring a certain amount of crime-solving experience back to our shores.
When a mysteriously ill-looking American sailor falls off a nuclear sub and into Sydney harbour during the Australian Foreign Minister’s big speech about the importance of AUKUS, we have a problem. He’s dead in the waters off an Australian naval base, so it’s an Australian Federal Police matter. But he’s also a US sailor, and as everyone knows, that gives NCIS instant powers to do whatever the hell they like to solve the case.
The standard pissing contest (their words) between NCIS and the AFP is rapidly sorted due to a politically mandated awkward team-up that makes it at least slightly plausible that NCIS – who have spent the last 20-odd years running roughshod over every other police organisation in the world to investigate every crime that has even the tiniest connection to the US Navy – are now working hand in glove with the Australians.
In the role of ‘non nonsense chief’ we get NCIS Special Agent Michelle Mackey (Olivia Swann); filling the all-important ‘cocky handsome guy’ slot is Sergeant Jim ‘JD’ Dempsey (Todd Lasance). He gets to run around chasing crims, she gets to fly a helicopter, it all evens out.
As the slightly less colourful but still easy on the eye back-ups we have NCIS Special Agent DeShawn Jackson (Sean Sagar) and AFP liaison officer Constable Evie Cooper (Tuuli Narkle). The quirky tech nerd position goes to AFP forensic scientist Bluebird ‘Blue’ Gleeson (Mavournee Hazel), and as the gruff old-timer who’s seen it all and tells it like it is while cutting open dead bodies we have AFP forensic pathologist Dr. Roy Penrose, played by William McInnis.
But of course, the real star here is Sydney. This is a lot more location focused than other NCIS series (even NCIS: Hawaii), with the harbour getting a lot of love from both the camera and the bad guys who can’t stop hanging around there.
Slightly more surprisingly, this feels more at home in Australia than you might expect. Partly that’s a deliberate storytelling choice. That initial inter-agency pissing contest is designed to tilt the audience’s sympathies in the Australians’ favour, though by the end they’re all one big happy naval crime investigating family.
And the depiction of Australia itself isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could be, even if there is a reminder that Bob Hawke was both our Prime Minister and the holder of a world beer drinking record (DeShawn finds this information ‘dope’).
It’s also partly thanks to the overall NCIS vibe, which is more light-hearted than your typical long-running US crime franchise. The mysteries are often a little more over-the-top, mixing explosions and chases with halfway decent banter. Despite international conspiracies and numerous possibly radioactive corpses, this week’s episode is never too grim – and how could it be, with Sydney Harbour right there?
To be extremely clear, this isn’t trying to do anything new with the by-now very well-established NCIS formula. If you like those series you’ll almost certainly like this, even if your interest in the franchise is strictly just ‘I can’t find the remote after The Cheap Seats has finished, guess I’ll stick around and find out who murdered that naval cadet working on a secret code-breaking formula, hope the relationship between the sexy NCIS agent and the sexy NCIS coroner isn’t on the rocks because it’s the anniversary of his wife’s death’.
There also the occasional slightly awkward ‘yay nuclear subs’ moment to remind you that the (pro-) military culture in the US isn’t quite the same as it is here, and that in the end this is still a series made for American consumption. That difference would be interesting for this series to explore in later episodes, but that’s unlikely.
NCIS has been a smooth-running entertainment machine for two decades now; a joke about Wagga Wagga is about as much change as we’re likely to get.
NCIS: Sydney is streaming on Paramount+, with new episodes each Friday.