Head over heels for ‘NCIS’

Infatuation is grand. But for a relationship to endure, it must be based on something more than superficial attraction. There must be mutual respect and compatibility and shared interests.

No, this isn’t a stray chunk from an Ask Amy column. This is a love story.

But can it last?

Several months ago, I suddenly discovered the TV series “NCIS.” The initials stand for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” although for me it might as well have been “LIFA” -- for “Life Is Forever Altered.”

The series had been on the air for six seasons, but somehow I’d missed it. I’d missed Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) and Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) and Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) and Timothy McGee (Sean Murray). I’d missed DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) and Ducky (David McCallum). I’d missed the clever, emotionally involving adventures of the agency charged with solving crimes involving the Navy and Marine Corps.

Once I stumbled upon the reruns that have made “NCIS,” I soon learned, the No. 1 show on USA network, I was hooked. Bewitched. Entranced. Over the moon and under its influence.

I had no history of losing my head over fictional characters -- as a literary critic, I must maintain a strict professional distance and have resisted the charms of everyone from Nick Adams to Jay Gatsby -- but a few dozen episodes of “NCIS” had me swooning. I caught myself humming the “Marines’ Hymn” (“From the halls of Montezuma . . .”) at odd moments during the day. Doodling “JK” and “LJG” -- separated by a small heart -- on a napkin.

But my infatuation was based solely on those USA reruns. It was like a romance that blossoms over spring break. It didn’t feel quite real to me yet. After all, CBS was still airing original episodes. Would my love last back in the real world of first-run episodes, without the sun and the sand and the piña coladas?

The 2009-10 season would be my first experience with “NCIS” in its regular time slot. I was nervous, of course. This was prime time, baby. This was grown-up stuff. This was the show.

And just to up the ante, CBS chose this season to unveil a spinoff: “NCIS: Los Angeles.” I felt like a newlywed who had just found out that her husband is bringing along his brother -- a real troublemaker, I’d heard -- and installing him in the spare room. My apprehension intensified.

First, the good news: “NCIS” is still terrific. Midway through the season, I’m more in love than ever, and my love is enhanced by knowing the back stories of the characters: Gibbs’ tragic loss of his wife and young daughter; Ziva’s decision to seek U.S. citizenship and work full time for Gibbs, instead of moonlighting from Mossad; McGee’s career as a thriller writer. The novel aspect of “NCIS” is that the characters evolve; like people in real life, they change as a result of the experiences they undergo.

What else explains the magnetic pull of “NCIS”? The writing, of course; the plots are as clean, tight and neatly configured as the insides of a fine pocket watch. The dialogue between characters can get a bit petty -- but that’s what makes it authentic. Workplace interactions rarely sound as they did on “The West Wing,” in which everyone spoke like the archly ironic characters in a Noel Coward play. When DiNozzo ribs McGee, it’s supposed to be annoying and infantile.

Guys such as DiNozzo are annoying and infantile -- except when they’re saving your life in the field. You get the idea that DiNozzo’s bad jokes and schoolboy pranks are a way of keeping himself sharp for the job. If he were wittier and more mature in the office, he’d be duller and more distracted when apprehending the perp. (At least that’s my theory. The guy has grown on me.)

At the center of it all is Gibbs -- dark, moody, dour, unreadable, indispensable Gibbs.

This Marine is almost a generation removed from his staff, and while the gap is played for laughs -- he hates cellphones and e-mail -- the writers are smart enough to know, and to show, the positive side of Gibbs’ antiquity. In an episode that aired last month, a power outage forced the team to fall back on old-fashioned materials such as paper and pencil and a tin of sardines. Wisely, the case wasn’t cracked by duct tape and a rotary-dial phone; that would’ve been too implausible. But the contrast was instructive: With no juice and with batteries running down, the fanciest computer in the world was little more than a nice paperweight.

Alas, the report is not so positive on the brother-in-law front. “NCIS: Los Angeles” utterly fails to entice. Chris O’Donnell, who plays Callen, is no Harmon, and the attempt to make him as edgy and mysterious as Gibbs is clearly doomed. O’Donnell is a far less complex presence; he comes from the George Clooney School of Gestures ‘n’ Tics, in which quick smiles and charming head-bobs are substituted for actual acting.

LL Cool J, who plays Sam Hanna, is marginally more convincing, but the verbal interplay between him and Callen would bore even the brainless frat boys whose repartee it is intended to emulate.

Most annoying of all, however, is the show’s willful and persistent misuse of Linda Hunt. She’s a spectacular actress, yet here she is reduced to the role of a tedious bureaucrat named Henrietta Lange who scolds the daring agents when they don’t file their expense reports in a timely fashion. I had the same feeling when watching Judi Dench in the Bond films.

Why are immensely talented women forced to play the parts of joyless schoolmarms -- while the men get to run around, risk their lives and save the world?

But the disappointment of “NCIS: Los Angeles” can’t diminish the pleasure of the original “NCIS.” The latter is that rare thing: a series that has increased its audience, year by year, and that keeps finding new ways to entertain. Recently, Leslie Moonves, who heads CBS, called “NCIS” a “billion-dollar franchise,” thanks to cable sales of the original and the spinoff.

I love being in love. I especially love being in love with a show that puts the American military in a positive light.

I know “NCIS” is just a TV series, but at a time when our armed forces are fighting two wars and bringing their usual honor and splendid grit to bear upon the job, I’m glad that my heart belongs to “NCIS.” And always will.

Julia Keller is cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune