Last season, “NCIS” ended in a cliffhanger, one actually worth fretting over. After a several-episode-long arc in which Jethro Gibbs ( Mark Harmon) was doing his best to take down a Mexican drug cartel, he’d succeeded only in part. The head of the family, a Tennessee Williams-quoting black widow named Paloma Reynosa ( Jacqueline Obradors), was seeking revenge on Gibbs because, as it happened, he killed her father, a secret he’d kept for years. In the final scene, she entered Gibbs’ father’s general store in Pennsylvania, bent on evening the score.
Of course, she wouldn’t succeed, but the scene was chilling nonetheless. It was also the rare moment of genuine tension on this show, built up over weeks. Typically, “NCIS” (8 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS) undercuts the sobriety of the average procedural with the equivalent of an air horn and a whoopee cushion. It’s a procedural with slapstick heart.
But “NCIS” has become more charming as its tics have aged. What once felt unfocused and irksome is now a respite from the dour crime-solving taking place elsewhere on CBS, where hardly a laugh can be heard. The show feels loose, like improvisational theater. Gibbs is the straight man, stingy with approval, a minimalist with words who connotes menace largely through a severe haircut. He’s unchanging, which allows those around him to explore their full absurdity.
His is not a staff hired for their seriousness of purpose. Anthony DiNozzo ( Michael Weatherly), the alleged lothario of the team, has the allure of a Midwestern weatherman, or a minor character in a drama on the USA network. Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) has enough sass to hush DiNozzo, but not much more. Timothy McGee ( Sean Murray) is the eager beaver, the agent most committed to procedure but, more important, with his boyish looks and wide-eyed demeanor, a perfect punching bag for the rest of the squad.
Meanwhile, down in the morgue, Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard ( David McCallum) sings while cutting up corpses, and in the forensics lab, Abby Sciuto ( Pauley Perrette) suggests a precocious child badly in need of Adderall.
Their roles are prescribed as cleanly as in any other procedural, but an air of irregularity and chance suffuses “NCIS,” making for a blend of light and dark achieved by no other show. It also takes liberties with its characters that would practically upend " CSI: NY.” The relationship between Abby and Gibbs has a sometimes uncomfortable mix of paternal and sensual energy, and the most romantically appealing character on the show is Ducky, by far the oldest character. Plus, the series forgoes ostentatious visual effects in favor of small gestures: The cuts to black and white just before each commercial break are a simple tool, but a reassuring one.
The Reynosa arc was neatly resolved in this season’s opener — Gibbs’ father is, of course, safe, and Reynosa was killed. The neat bow was a shame, though, since the story provided some of the most invigorating tension this show has seen in seasons.
The breath of female air was also welcome. With last week’s renegade grandfather (played by William Devane) in search of his granddaughter, the show returned to its steady device of using a series of alpha men to face off against Gibbs. Naturally, they all submit to his superior stoicism.
For what it’s worth, though, director Leon Vance ( Rocky Carroll) only hid the forensic report that incriminates Gibbs in Reynosa’s father’s murder in some musty file box; maybe it’ll be rediscovered a few seasons hence.