What NCIS-LA Can Teach Us About Diversity

There are a plethora of cop television shows and most follow the same basic formula. While I had watched the original NCIS show occasionally on my DVR, I did not watch it with any regularity. But, when the NCIS-LA show started I was drawn into this version of the show not because of the California location but because the creator of this show – the Australian Shane Brennan – has chosen to incorporate diversity in a way other shows in this genre have not.

The lead characters in NCIS-LA are diverse in the characters that they portray. The investigative team is lead by G. Callan (Chris O’Connell), a man with an unknown past and a childhood history of a long string of foster homes, leaving him with little room for commitments of any kind (even to having furniture), notoriously bad eating habits and a penchant for understating things. His partner, Sam Hannah (LL Cool J) is black, a fitness and health fanatic, married with kids and a former Special Forces operator who speaks Arabic and has a deep knowledge of the Middle East. The other investigative team is Kensie Blye (Daniela Ruah), a Navy brat who holds her own with the guys and who still aptly portrays the gender gap when the opportunity arises. Her partner is Marty Deeks (Eric Olsen) is a LAPD undercover cop who is also a trained lawyer, a bit of a womanizer and the show’s fall guy as he is often the set-up person for comments that add some interesting social commentary, that while not needed for the show’s plot, add depth.

In creating the characters, each has over the seasons been provided an opportunity to show a richness of background that is not normally revealed in a series like this where dialogue primarily focuses on the current case. Re-occurring themes within NCIS-LA such as Callan’s childhood in foster care and what this means to him personally, Sam’s concerns over being a good male role model and Kensie’s stories about growing up with a single Dad in the military contrast with Marty’s more idyllic childhood stories. The show’s writers have used these diversities of perspectives to provide richness to the show and also to add commentary on social issues. Marty’s character is often used to set up these situations such as when he tells Sam that he should be the one to search for a suspect in the dessert because he is from Africa. To which Sam coolly replies that he is from Brooklyn.

The team reports into Hetty Lang (Linda Hunt) who stands 4’9’’ tall and who as an undercover agent has traveled the world, can handle any weapon and yet has an obsession with drinking all kinds of tea and whom we learn is a political junkie. Hetty’s height is occasionally commented on verbally and nonverbally (using camera angles that show others sitting in her chair and using her computer) and she is shown as both using her height to her advantage as well as adapting so it is not interfering with her work.

The diversity of the characters themselves make this a much more interesting show to watch as you never know what component each character will contribute to finding the solution to the case. The show uses this diversity to its advantage to strengthen the final product, just as work teams can when they are working together. What the show illustrates on a weekly basis is that while the team members may disagree, and they all certainly bring their own unique style to the team, there is a real respect for each other as individuals. Even Marty who is the person most often making a comment or raising a question that might rile the others is accepted as being an important part of the team.

One question that I have is: how has the diversity of background that each actor brings to the show in real life, impacted the show’s story lines? For the real life diversity of the actors themselves is certainly impressive. Within the core team you have someone who is a rapper and entrepreneur, a lesbian, someone raised mostly in Portugal and who was active in Portuguese Jewish community and a surfer who is interested in Japanese and a married man with 5 children. I would guess that these diverse backgrounds have provided innumerable stories that the writers could use as they touch upon diversity themes within the show.

I think what I enjoy most about this show is that it is showing the viewing public how the American workplace could exist if we were all willing to apply the required time and focus. Our work teams of the future can be much more diverse and interesting than they are now, bringing a diversity of thought, background and idea that in turn will help our teams to solve their current case of business issues. While TV may not provide us with many things we want to imitate in real life, this might be one of the exceptions to the rule.

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