PASADENA, Calif. —The CBS drama "NCIS" will join a select group of prime-time TV shows tonight when it airs its 200th episode. Only 62 series — out of the thousands that have filled network and cable channels — have reached that milestone.
And "NCIS" shows no sign of slowing. It's consistently the highest-rated drama in the weekly ratings and has 13.7 million Facebook fans. The popularity is global: It airs in more than 200 international markets and is heard in 20 different languages.
The show appeals to more than just older viewers. It has higher ratings with viewers ages 18-49 — a demographic advertisers love — than "Glee," "Dancing With the Stars" and "The Office."
So how does a series about the weekly exploits of a team of Navy investigators become such a hit?
Series star Mark Harmon says it started with mediocrity.
"I think, from the very beginning, we were a show that wasn't good enough to get all that noticed and wasn't bad enough to get canceled," Harmon says.
That might sound strange, but he has a point. TV shows that start as big hits have a tendency to fade quickly, such as "Twin Peaks" and "Glee." Series that start slowly rarely last past a few episodes, such as "The Playboy Club."
Because "NCIS" started out in the middle of the viewing numbers, the series had time to build a solid foundation of story lines and characters.
"NCIS" is loaded with characters, from the gruff boss played by Harmon to the quirky lab rat brought to life by Pauley Perrette. Toss in a nerd (Sean Murray), a swaggering hero (Michael Weatherly), a suave British doctor (David McCallum) and a hot foreign agent (Cote de Pablo), and the show has a host of interesting places to go.
Executive producer Gary Glasberg credits series creator Don Bellisario for establishing such a versatile character blueprint.
"There was a foundation that he started with, a brilliant foundation of story and character that was there. And over the years we just sort of kept scratching the surface of it. And to be nine years into a show now and still have so much to work with is a real comment on what Don came up with to begin with," says Glasberg.
Weatherly has made the most of what Bellisario created with his character of Tony DiNozzo.
"I get, in one episode, to do crazy physical humor, an interrogation scene, and I get to kiss the girl and then have my pants fall down to my ankles and all of these things," Weatherly says. "Some shows, you hit your mark and bark. You show up, say your lines, wear the clothes, and reflect the light and don't make too much trouble. And this is a show that's always growing and always searching."
Harmon's not certain how long "NCIS" can keep growing and searching, but being the top-rated show on TV makes it a lot easier to keep going. Maybe it's his sports background of playing football at UCLA, but Harmon loves the team aspect of television, especially with a group of actors he likes so much. As long as the team — both in front and behind the camera — remains, he's ready to make episodes 201, 202 and so on.
Whatever the lure, the show has reached 200 episodes riding high. And whether it's episode one or 200, the cast has treated each the same way.
"There are other things on this show more important than the size of your trailer, and it's always been about the work. I've felt that we've always, from the beginning, had control over nothing except what we did each day in the work, and I believe that remains the same," Harmon says. "I'm not confused at all at what it took to do this and that we're still here and doing it well and in some ways doing it better than we ever have before. I think you have to give credit to the people who have stayed there and done the work."