NCIS: Hawaii isn’t just another crime drama. When the CBS series premieres tonight, it’s aiming to keep characters front and center amongst the crime drama. Ahead of tonight’s series premiere (10:00 p.m. ET/PT on CBS), Crime-TV.com spoke to executive producer Jan Nash about the buzz surrounding Vanessa Lachey’s character Jane Tennant and why character drama is as important to the producers as the mysteries they’re putting together.
Crime-TV.com (Brittany Frederick): You just finished a successful run on NCIS: New Orleans. What made you want to launch another NCIS series with NCIS: Hawaii?
Jan Nash: I happen to love procedural television. I have spent most of my career in procedural television, and I love the puzzles of it. I don’t know what it is about my brain that makes it satisfying to me to try to tell these stories, but I happen to really like procedural television. [executive producer] Chris [Silber] and I were talking about, for the purposes of New Orleans, where the empty NCIS offices were and arrived with the question of “Why is there not an NCIS show set in Hawaii?” There was nothing about that, that was uninteresting to either of us.
The great thing about television right now, is that there is an interest on the part of networks and viewers to have stories that allow the characters to be more front and center than they might’ve been open to in the past. It’s certainly something that they let shows like NCIS do over time, as the audience falls in love with those characters. But they let us do it from the get-go. That was very important to [executive producer] Matt [Bosack] and Chris and I, that we really be able to live through and with these characters.
BF: You have to strike a balance between a series that feels true to the NCIS brand but also has its own fresh, unique voice. What were the conversations like between you about tone and just what you had in mind for the show’s identity?
JN: Honestly, I think it was a function of where our natural interests lie. If you were a fan of NCIS: New Orleans, and you looked at the history of that show, I think what you would find after Chris took over as executive producer and then after I joined him, is that the show moved more in the direction of who were these characters and what were the stories that could be told that would illuminate who they were.
Matt, who we had not worked with before, is very similar. He is drawn to who are these people and what are the circumstances of their lives, and how do those qualities affect how they work with each other, how they solve crimes.
Balance is really an issue of just looking at it and being like, we’ve swung too far one direction or the other. And we definitely had those conversations. We definitely had the conversations along the way of feeling like we’ve swung too far toward the procedural, or we’ve swung too far toward the character, as we wrote the story and wrote the outline and wrote the script. It was just a matter of finding what we thought was the right balance.
BF: Most of the pre-premiere conversation has centered on Vanessa Lachey’s character being the first female Special Agent in Charge in the NCIS franchise. Will there be a similar discussion within the canon of the show, given that she’s not the only female SAC in her world?
JN: There’s a moment [in the pilot] when [Captain] Milius sort of gives us her bio…He says something about her inability to sort of tow the line and do what she’s told. And she comes back and basically says, “Yes. And if I was you, they would say I was determined.”
She comes back and she redefines what he says in the context of what would be said if she were a man. We can do things like that, and I think we’ve had an interesting conversation by doing it that way. I think to the extent that we start trying to make it too big of an issue, we alienate the very people who we want to find her to be a credible leader. And so we’re trying to figure out ways to say it and to show it.
One of the great things about Vanessa is she very much seems like she’s in charge of the team, but she’s doing it her way, which makes the point about what it means to be a woman in this kind of world better than any words we could use.
BF: Aside from Jane Tennant, how did you develop the other characters? Based on the pilot, NCIS: Hawaii seems to subvert the standard character types that viewers see in every other procedural.
JN: I’m not sure who gets the credit for that. Casting is luck and certainly a team effort, but they are really, really talented, this group of actors. They can do a lot of different things, from both an exposition perspective, or a humor perspective, or an interpersonal perspective. So it really is a pleasure to write for all of them.
I hope that the audience will be compelled by this group of people and come to appreciate them for the variety of their gifts and life experiences. We didn’t want them all to be the same, or of the same background. And we want to try to make sure that we’re showcasing the lives that they’ve walked in a way that is interesting in the context of our stories.
BF: You are, as you mentioned, a veteran of the procedural drama. You also know CBS very well with your work on series like NCIS: New Orleans and Without A Trace. Does any of that past experience feed into NCIS: Hawaii, knowing what might work or what might not?
JN: The longer you do this, the more familiar you become with the way you can do this. I think [it’s] a blessing, because you can run through a lot of different ways to solve the problem. It can also be a handicap, because you can fall back on things that you’ve already done in a way that potentially will be interesting to the audience, that certainly won’t be interesting to you.
So one hundred percent, all of the work that I have been able to do on so many good shows that were created by other people has helped make me the writer I am today. I’ve gotten a lot of really positive mentoring and feedback from talented people over the years. And I hope that’s made me a better writer.
Frankly, this show may be closer to Without A Trace than almost anything I’ve done since, because of the character stories. The character stories of Without A Trace were embedded within the flashbacks. That was the character story on that show, but it was the really juicy part of that show. What we want to do, Matt and Chris and I, is infuse this procedural television show with that juicy character stuff that makes audiences want to come to a show and stay with the show.
People who want to solve a crime, want to do the puzzles, they’re going to get hopefully a really good puzzle to do. But for the people who really want to know and love, or frankly, if we have some that people don’t like the character, we’re hoping to give them that too.
Brittany Frederick has worked 20 years as a professional journalist, reaching millions of readers worldwide with thousands of articles. Her one goal is to meet Jonathan Groff, but she’s sung with Adam Levine and gone 200 MPH with Mario Andretti. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @tvbrittanyf.