When a sailor collapses during a ceremony in Sydney Harbor, it’s not immediately clear the cause of his death. But though he was a submariner on a visiting US nuclear submarine, his body ended up in the bay – technically Australian waters – and so begins a delicate dance over who has jurisdiction. Eager to show co-operation in one of the most active maritime areas, it is agreed that two NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigation Service) agents will be involved in the investigation but with the full co-operation of the AFP (Australian Federal Police). While none of the agents are particularly pleased about having to share the investigation it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to the death than meets the eye – particularly when the body appears to show signs of radioactivity.
The combined team makes progress but if there’s one thing that NCIS Special Agent Michelle Mackey and AFP counterpart Sergeant Jim ‘JD’ Dempsey hate more than dealing with international counterparts, it’s being lied to by their superiors and so begins a race against time…
With so few tv shows having new episodes ready for the current season (because of the recent industry strikes) and most out of on-screen action until February, there was always the danger of some major gaps in the November / December / January schedules. So it seems entirely logical that CBS would look at the next offshoot of their NCIS franchise – NCIS: Sydney (already well into production and the first to be based and filmed away from the US ) and think ‘Let’s use that!‘ Merely days after it debuted for domestic audiences in Australia (and on Paramount+ in the UK) we see the show settle in to the US’s Tuesday evening schedules for the foreseeable (with NCIS repeats bolstering elsewhere on the schedule).
It’s entirely true that NCIS: Sydney deliberately stays within a familiar template and remit, one that sees it fit in snuggly somewhere (tonally, if not geographically) between the original mother ship show and the recently-ended NCIS: Los Angeles (and, as my friend and colleague Paul Simpson notes, the lamented NCIS: New Orleans). As such, there are some disparate stereotypes thrown in from the outset – there’s the colder, efficiency, ‘might is right, get out of my way‘ aspect of American shows and the ‘Calm down, mate – everything will work out‘ aspect of Australian attitude though you know that the rougher edges of that cultural collision, though prominent in the opening act will largely be ironed out by the closing credits.
The main ensemble are the disparate personalities that we know to expect, a jigsaw of talents and attitudes and there’s a fair amount of exposition in their introduction. Olivia Swann is Special Agent Michelle Mackey on temporary secondment after an unspecified incident saw her run foul of other agendas and shipped off to other climes rather than ousted. Sean Sagar plays her ‘right hand Special Agent DeShawn Jackson, a guy who is appreciating the assignment for its more exotic appeal. The home-team are Todd Lasance as AFP counterpart Sergeant Jim ‘JD’ Dempsey, amiable and good at his job, but less than happy his usual beat is being usurped by newcomers. Tuuli Narkle is JD’s operational partner (or is he, hers?) and Liaison Officer Constable Evie Cooper. William McInnes as Forensic Pathologist Dr. Roy Penrose is more Jim Gaffigan than David McCallum but has some sardonic charm and Mavournee Hazel gives us a tech-savvy, quirky Bluebird Blue’ Gleeson, the team’s brainbox and AFP Forensic Scientist who’s likely the team’s obligatory ‘Abby’.
It is interesting that, at least for the pilot, it’s remembered that American agents and officers are not generally allowed to carry fire-arms in foreign territories. This means that while Mackey rather smugly retains operational command over her Australian colleagues, she and Jackson have to rely on the AFP team to do a lot of the heavy-lifting. The action sequences – a chase sequence and a climactic shoot-out – manage to share the duties and it’s a clever piece of writing to have Mackey fake-out one the enemy combatants by reaching for a gun she knows she doesn’t have. Ultimately it’s Mackey and JD’s frustration over their respective superiors’ to potentially undermine them that unites them in a common cause to prove them wrong.
Beyond a quite obviously post-production-created award ceremony in Sydney Harbour at the very outset, (which is initially worrying on a is-this-how-we’re-going-to-roll? FX aspect) the pilot episode (Gone Fission – see what they did there?) makes good use of its genuine central exterior locations around the famous bay, Opera House and Bridge and as someone who’s been there in the real world, emerging out into the shadow of such sites and sights would never get old. One of the highlights for US audiences will be the different backdrop and the cultural touchstones while Australian audiences will likely welcome a dash of the American budget and bravado. Yes, much of the resulting action is over-the-top and unlikely (the possibility of a nuclear submarine leak in the harbour would be hard to downplay, our agents stealing a Navy helicopter would be suicidal and a climactic chase and explosion of an escaping boat could hardly be played off as a ‘fishing accident’… but this is a pilot and it’s entitled to flex a little in its debut. But whether it will sink or swim will be more down to the personalities aboard and they are engaging enough to stick with for the moment.
The dynamic of two opposing teams forced to work together is, of course, a classic staple, but as most NCIS shows have debuted with teams-in-place (often from backdoor pilots in previous shows), it’s fun to see us start from ‘Day One’ with the initial butting-of-heads and development of the teamwork… knowing (even ahead of the characters) that this isn’t one-and-done, but a new status-quo to which they’ll have to adjust.
That being said, we have no doubt that grace under pressure is when these new neighbours become good friends.
- Production Value8