Thursday, May 3, 2018

Pauley Perrette’s exit as “Abby Sciuto” from “NCIS” is well timed

Devotees of “NCIS” know well that the No. 1 most popular procedural in America and beyond was created in the mind and from the heart of Donald Bellisario, a gifted writer and showrunner whose tendency toward perfectionism and temperament as Pater Familias caused more than occasional chaos and frustration in producing new dialogue for the actors to learn with 15 minutes until shooting. Or, so goes the legend and myth around his eventual exit after four seasons.

Bellisario, despite being the heart and soul of “Magnum, P.I.” (with co-creator Glen A. Larson), “Airwolf,” “Quantum Leap,” “JAG” and “found himself on the outside looking in" one day after four seasons, with his brainchild being entrusted to different talented personnel. After Bellisario left, Shane Brennan took over in Season Five, moving on to his own show with “NCIS: LA” and scoring a hit there. I still miss Bellisario's brilliant sense of humor and creativity. (Note: All photos by Cliff Lipson/CBS, courtesy of CBS)

It was Don's voice that was the "whoof" that you would hear at the beginning of the shows of the first season at least, indicating the scene changes. Bellisario actually placed his own photo on the "Most Wanted" wall of the NCIS squad room as one of the top enemies to search for, and he was also noted for his occasional on-camera appearances walking through. Remember the episode, "Call of Silence," which won an Emmy for actor Charles Durning? Don walked right past "Kate" before the "big dance" scene to his own amusement.

After all it was Bellisario's own father, Albert Jethro Bellisario, who became the A. J. of JAG Admiral Albert Jethro Chegwidden, and then using his father's and grandfather's names for Leroy Jethro Gibbs is oh-so-Bellisario. So much time has passed that it's relevant to remember who it was who created all this wonderment in his very creative mind.

Gary Glasberg then assumed leadership of “NCIS” and in his tenure before his untimely death at age 50 (in 2016) found a way to steer the show, despite the exit of both Cote de Pablo as “Ziva” and Michael Weatherly as “Anthony DiNozzo, Jr.” When Cote left, I remember well all the interviews that Pauley Perrette gave where she referenced “The Core Four” as having been integral to the show.

"The Core Four," of course, are Mark Harmon, David McCallum, Michael Weatherly, and Pauley Perrette. In the interim, the show stayed strong, and viewers welcomed, ultimately, Emily Wickersham as “Ellie Bishop,” who was clearly not intended as a replacement for NCIS Special Agent Ziva David, but the comparisons and emotional flailing about of some fans for a season or two eventually showed that Bishop could have a place in Gibbs’ heart, so why not give her a second chance.

That’s the key. The fans of “NCIS” have been loyal to this show for, now, 15 seasons, and CBS has inked the lifeline for Season 16, assessing a “let’s see how it goes” attitude for the one-year commitment. Fans read assorted blog posts, comment frequently on, and care deeply about the future of “NCIS.”

When Michael Weatherly first showed signs of looking around to his future, it came as an appearance as a smooth-talking felon on an episode of “Major Crimes,” a cable-TV favorite. His role was too much like the personality of wiseacre DiNozzo for comfort, so no one raved about it.

Then CBS decided to explore the fans’ loyalty to their individual characters, and they went musical. Yes, they did. Perrette and Weatherly each released a song, courtesy of the CBS Press Team, showing Perrette’s versatility as songwriter and singer, and Weatherly’s love of music going far beyond his performance of filing a report “reggae style” curbside to then NCIS Director Jenny Shepherd via earpiece. Neither found fame or further acclaim from the singing stint, but it could be that it was a programmatic attempt to keep fans aware that Michael is not “Tony,” and Pauley is not “Abby,” and that these are simply extremely talented actors portraying perfectly the characters who say the dialog written by people you never see and will never meet.

The secret to these beloved characters has always stemmed from the creative mind of Don Bellisario, and Brennan and Glasberg followed the path of the characters to play out the roles. Brennan was in for a year, one and done, onto his own show, “NCIS: LA,” which continues to be fresh, funny, and a same-but-different family feel that holds its own just as much as the original. Pauley Perrette and Mark Harmon as well as Chris O’Donnell, crossed over between the two shows, playing their same characters.

A failed pilot, “NCIS: Red” showed no ratings magic and the cast was as generic as “CSI: Kalamazoo,” or “Law and Order: Ice Cream Truck”…same base franchise name, no real variation. Then came “NCIS: New Orleans,” with Mark Harmon and Gary Glasberg taking a chance on developing a third show that would “stick” at least into five seasons to guarantee syndication. But then Glasberg died unexpectedly in 2016 at the young age of 50.

After the shows produced by Glasberg that were already in the can were released, CBS execs announced that “NCIS” would be run by veteran writers and executive producers George Schenck and Frank Cardea, who should be “any fan’s first choice” if Exec. Producer, Chas. Floyd Johnson didn’t want the job. Speaking personally, Johnson worked with Bellisario on so many shows, if anyone knew the hearts of these characters, it would be him. Yet, Schenck and Cardea wrote some of the strongest storylines and scripts over the course of the show, that they’re the “right” choice for the job.

And yet, the dimensionality of the show was up for grabs the season after “Bishop” came in. Weatherly likely saw the writing on the wall that if ever he were going to be known as anyone but DiNozzo, it better be “now.” When he left, it was to the guaranteed hit slot between two “NCIS” shows, and in a project that showed him looking and acting nothing like DiNozzo as the ersatz creation of former jury consultant Dr. Philip McGraw, aka “Dr. Phil.”

America loved Weatherly and it is through “Bull,” that his fans actually focus on his real name. They ‘know’ a real Dr. Phil, aka “Dr. Jason Bull,” so now the fans see Michael and know “Weatherly.” Smart move.

Cote de Pablo had likely left for the same reason so people would forever not be calling her Ziva. Wonder how well that has worked for her. An initial CBS project was a nice one-shot but not a series. She will return to the screen no doubt, but maybe film vs. TV. And so, what about Pauley?

After Cardea and Schenck blew up Ziva’s home (maybe Ziva, maybe not Ziva) and Tony went off to raise Tali in unidentified job, fans still tuned in to see the (now) core 2.5: Harmon, Perrette, and somewhat less of Ducky (McCallum). David McCallum continues to bring dignity and grace to whatever role he’s given fans over 50+ years, and he is a stellar actor. He was not pegged as Illya Kuryakin when he became Dr. Donald Mallard. Everyone has had plenty of time to watch Brian Dietzen grow and stretch perfectly in the role of Dr. Jimmy Palmer to be accepting of McCallum’s absences this season and potential retirement next season.

But in Season 14, if Pauley Perrette was ever going to feel her role diminished, it was proven so with the addition of three new NCIS agents (presumably to take the place of one Tony DiNozzo) in Alex Quinn (Jennifer Esposito), Nick Torres (Wilbur Valderrama), and MI6 agent Clayton Reeves (Duane Henry). That season was mostly a friendly clusterstorm of “remember how much you love ‘NCIS’…well hang in there with us while we figure it out.”

Esposito left and Maria Bello was brought in as a new character, Jacqueline (Jack) Sloane, who Gibbs can resonate with. FBI agent Tobias Fornell was weaved in and out of a few episodes and now that you’ve been reading for three paragraphs, where the heck was Abby Sciuto? Right? Entirely forgotten, dismissed, and irrelevant as the unnecessary but necessary forensic scientist in a role that anyone could play.

Abby had had no real major storylines in months and months, at least in my perception. And Perrette may have, wisely, seen that being a “favorite beloved character” all the time meant being forgotten. Her early announcement that Season 15 would be her last gave Schenck and Cardea plenty of time to give her a two-part season finale exit.

But, on Tuesday night, had I had an object in my hand to throw at the TV set, I would have tossed it that direction, given what the writers did to Abby’s character as the episode closed out. The “plan” and plot and dialogue was absolutely off-base, misguided and beneath the intelligence of the character Bellisario created.

Thanks to media access, I had seen a photo of the “Two Steps Back” (Part II after this week’s “One Step Forward”) finale. Abby’s not going to die. That much I know. Even so, the entire premise of the week’s cliffhanger is off target. Remember the show again. The show revolves around the true-life need for assistance to our nation’s veterans in multiple ways, which continues to not be met commensurate with need. The softer side and more back story to introduce viewers to more of Clayton Reeves’ nature set the predicate for Abby’s choosing him to go to the dinner she’d “won” mysteriously at the descriptively noted “Igloo” restaurant supposedly booked months in advance.

No one, not one person, questioned the way the pop-up came onto Abby’s screen, telling her she was the winner of this dinner for two? Abby is supposed to be a forensic scientist with particularly special computer hacking/restoring/repairing/recovering skills and she didn’t question a pop-up? Nope. The entire show drifts along leading viewers to wonder who she’d be taking as her escort. Remember they had her prior love interest as Bert, the very nice park ranger? No one had seen or heard about Bert since no one had seen or heard about Abby much. And, so…here we are after leaving Igloo, the one place she was easily going to be predictably found.

And this well dressed robber with carefully coiffed hair has a gun at both Reeves and Abby; Reeves sort-of steps in front of her to protect her, yet he moves away from shielding her to allow her to both interact with the robber and be in his perfect shot sight. An MI6 agent doing that? No, just no. C’mon George and Frank, you know better! Then, it’s not clear that the robber is homeless. But Abby talks to him about wanting and offering to get him help. Several seasons ago, Abby had interactions with a young homeless woman whom she was able to help, but “this” wasn’t “that.”

Fade to black. Commercials. Return to preview next week’s season finale. Gibbs whispers: “I know I let you down, Abbs. I said that I would always keep you safe.” Concerned looks on faces. Gurney with Abby entering hospital “She’s coding,” an offscreen voice says. Now, Frank and George…seriously? That’s the best you can do? Even caused E! Online to write the headline “Will Pauley Perrette’s Abby Die in Her Final NCIS Episode?”

Now, next Tuesday more will be revealed, and here’s a picture proving that Abby is alive. (Note: Photo by Patrick McElhenney/CBS, courtesy of CBS)

But if the premise for Abby’s leaving the only people she has as true family (Gibbs, McGee, and Ducky) is even the least bit hokey, the fans will likely let the showrunners hear about it. But, they didn’t have to shoot Abby to prepare viewers for her exit. Everyone knows she’s leaving. Imagine if she could have just grown up and moved on to a career position of her dreams somewhere so compelling that she would willingly leave her safe family behind?

Instead viewers are going to have to endure the return of some previous season miscreant who is “targeting ‘NCIS’ personnel” as the reason for this, the first hit of the planned shootings, trying to ruin Gibbs’ happy days, one team member at a time.

Col. Merton Bell is gone. La Grenouille is also, Ziva took out Ari Haswari, Trent Kort is gone, the entire gamut of people who had it out for Gibbs (hurt his family, hurt him) are seemingly gone, or are they? It’s not Benham Parsa. Harper Dearing (Richard Schiff) is dead, and the Phantom Eight went up with the almost-loss of McGee still inside the building, trying to back up the computer before running for his life. Sergei Mishnev was killed by Fornell. But, wait, is Alejandro Rivera (Marco Sanchez) dead or just in prison? The remaining member of the Reynosa cartel had threatened Abby once before. Could be he’s out of jail for good behavior and is ready to try to take revenge, again, against Gibbs for the death of his father, Pedro Hernandez and his sister, Paloma Reynosa. Five days will provide the answer, and you can count on the fact that he’s going down.

Pauley Perrette definitely picked the right time to leave. She’s not typecast forever as the loveable forensic scientist. As to her “real reasons for leaving,” they should be hers to keep. She left with grace and only pleasant things to say about her experiences that propelled her to a position of worldwide fame and acclaim. Life’s been tough on her, as well, during the fame, so there’s nothing wrong with wanting a “normal” life outside the world of flashing light bulbs of surreality.

Her plans aren’t a case to be explored ala “NCIS” style. An in-depth CBS “Sunday Morning” interview didn’t get one new iota of information out of her except she loves being with her chihuahuas and vague projections for the road ahead. Pauley has been a lovable, bright spot on Tuesday nights for 15 years, and she deserves to do whatever she wants to do.

Next season won’t be the last one for “NCIS”—as long as the scripts continue to bear quality. The Bello-Gibbs matchup is good for another season. Won’t miss Jon Cryer (the original “Ducky”) one little bit, seriously. Done and done. There have been hints and myths that Gibbs will leave the heart of the action and take on another more supervisory role, but most of all that is likely the fodder of the myriad of bogus online blogs masquerading as legit news sources. They’re filled with misspellings and incorrect facts, so forget them.

What does need to happen, imho, is for viewers to stop having to spend time on the backstories of Reeves, Torres, and Sloane, as most really, really don’t care. Great acting on the parts of the actors—nothing to criticize but gone are the days of the compelling backstories. Come up with some intricate multi-episode stories as you have been doing. Then, include Gibbs saying, “Grab your gear,” focus on the heart and soul of the primary characters, and let Abby be forever a fond memory and quirky character.

The character, Kasie, portrayed by Diona Reasonover, was introduced a few weeks back probably as a possible replacement. She will be fine and she won’t “name” her equipment (ala Major Mass Spec), but she’ll get the data to the team.

“NCIS” can endure as long as Mark Harmon wants to be there. His is the pivotal character around which the show was built. Without him, there’s no show. Farewell Pauley, and thanks for 352 episodes of fun.

The "real" Pauley, as beautifully captured for CBS "Watch" magazine by photographer Cliff Lipson, shows the lovely actress beneath the character. Pauley Perrette is wisely moving on, and she’ll find success in whatever she does in the future. Viewers have had 15 enjoyable seasons of a quality show, and this is in substantive measure to "The Core Four," who were there at the start. Ooh-rah, Abbs. And then there were two.