‘NCIS: New Orleans’ Review: Scott Bakula Steers CBS’s Competent Expansion of the Franchise

At this point, it’s hard to get these long-established formulaic shows wrong

Nearly 20 years after “JAG” premiered on NBC, the latest spinoff of the long-running franchise is set to hit CBS. “NCIS: New Orleans” is the third iteration of the “NCIS” brand, and it follows long-established patterns that virtually guarantee it will be a hit.

CBS knows that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it’s working, make another one. “CSI” spawned countless spinoffs in its heyday, and now it’s “NCIS’s” turn. One of the reasons “NCIS” has resonated for so many years is that sense of family that Mark Harmon established for his team.

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Scott Bakula, in leading this new team of agents, takes that even a step further. In the pilot, his Dwayne Pride is practically living at the office, serving up breakfast to the team and even entertaining them. Most of them refer to one another by their first names, which is why Zoe McLellan’s Meredith Brody is so important to the team.

She’s a new transplant to this tight-knit family, so she’s clearly there as the audience proxy. As she learns the ins and outs of the group, so do we. As she acclimates to this new environment that is New Orleans, so do we. And as she loosens up and learns to relax around these unfamiliar faces, the hope is that so will we.

“NCIS: New Orleans” got a soft launch earlier this year in a two-part story during Season 11 of parent series “NCIS.” The backdoor pilot introduced the characters and the location, and that’s really all you need with these shows. The premise is the same across the board: the team investigates and solves crimes.

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All that matters is the makeup of the team and whether viewers will enjoy spending time with them every week for years and years and years. With Bakula, CBS has one of the most likable leading men in television, so they’re set there. C.C.H. Pounder is perfectly cast as the show’s medical examiner, Dr. Loretta Wade.

She’s one of those actresses that most everyone recognizes from one role or another, but can’t always place. I’ve always felt she deserved to be a bigger star than she is, as she’s one of those people with a demanding screen presence.

Perhaps her biggest role came in FX’s “The Shield,” though she impressed recently on “Sons of Anarchy” as well. She’s proven she can play tough, so it was nice to see a lighter, more playful side to the actress.

Rob Kerkovich takes on the requisite quirky-social-misfit role as Pounder’s lab assistant, Sebastian Lund. Eager to please, he didn’t get a lot to do in this pilot, but he managed to steal most of the scenes he was in with his earnest attempts to connect with Bakula’s Dwayne Pride.

The oddball of the group is Lucas Black as Christopher LaSalle. Born in Alabama, I can only hope that Black is tapping into the accent of his hometown for this role, because his accent is so much thicker than anyone else’s on the cast that it’s almost comical.

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Bakula’s accent comes and goes with an inconsistency that borders on annoying. Either commit to the accent or skip it altogether. If the idea is to just have a hint of the accent, it’s not really working. Honestly, it’s one of the few things that really bothered me about the pilot.

Another of them was the guest star problem that crime procedurals like this always have. It was especially egregious in the opening scene featuring three young guys fighting over a beautiful young woman. I’m grateful the woman had no lines, as I don’t know that I could have taken another person spewing terrible line deliveries.

I realize that it’s difficult to find bit actors for these kinds of scenes, but if it’s the opening scene of your show, you should really make sure you’re getting a solid performance out of your actors. And if it’s the opening scene of your entire series, you cannot overestimate the importance of getting it right.

Luckily, things quickly settled in once Dwayne and his team arrived on the scene, but it was very off-putting how awkward the opening scene was.

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I was able to appreciate the use of music in this premiere, and it’s something I hope continues as the series progresses. The opening case connected to one of Dwayne’s musician friends, so the inclusion of jazz in the pilot was relevant to the main plot. Even when it’s not, I hope the soul and music of New Orleans continues to permeate through the show.

New Orleans is one of those magical places that has an identity and spirit all its own. You don’t have to identify it as New Orleans, La. because New Orleans is enough. It brings to mind images, tastes and sounds that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

While there will be murders and crimes to solve in every episode, I appreciate that the city itself is a major part of the character of the show. Otherwise, there is no point at all in even setting up shop there and calling the show “NCIS: New Orleans.”

As a fun reminder, the pilot featured Loretta consulting with “NCIS” chief medical examiner Ducky Mallard (David McCallum). “NCIS” is the top show on television, so tying this one into it with an appearance by one of its most popular characters is just smart marketing. I expect more crossovers between all three franchises as the years progress.

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It’s a bit early to start ranking the “NCIS” shows, but I really feel like “New Orleans” is poised to stand at or near the top. It’s the strong sense of family within the team that’s going to keep viewers coming back. These are nice people, and despite the unpleasantness of what they do, it’s nice to spend time with them. And that is the key to a successful crime procedural.

“NCIS: New Orleans” premieres Tuesday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS, directly after the 12th season premiere of “NCIS.”