Remade Abroad: NCIS: Sydney
As long-running crime franchise NCIS expands to Australia, showrunner Morgan O’Neill tells DQ how NCIS: Sydney blends familiarity with scale, ambition and a new cultural perspective.
For 20 years, the special agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) have been investigating crimes involving the US Navy and Marine Corps and their families. NCIS, which is set in Washington DC, debuted on US network CBS in 2003 and has led to a number of spin-offs, including NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans and NCIS: Hawai’i.
Now the series is heading to Australia – but rather than being a local adaptation in the traditional sense, NCIS: Sydney is the first edition of the long-running franchise to take place outside the US.
Launching on Paramount+ in Australia and CBS in the US this November, the eight-part series is set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most iconic harbour cities – and rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific. It follows a multi-national taskforce made up of US agents from the NCIS and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) as they attempt to keep naval crimes under control in the most contested patch of ocean on the planet.
The team is led by NCIS Special Agent Michelle Mackey (Olivia Swann) and her 2IC AFP counterpart Sergeant Jim ‘JD’ Dempsey (Todd Lasance). The cast also includes Sean Sagar as NCIS Special Agent DeShawn Jackson; Tuuli Narkle as AFP liaison officer Constable Evie Cooper; Mavournee Hazel as AFP forensic scientist Bluebird ‘Blue’ Gleeson; and William McInnes as AFP forensic pathologist Dr Roy Penrose.
Produced by Endemol Shine Australia for CBS Studios and Paramount Australia, NCIS: Sydney was created by Morgan O’Neill (Les Norton), who initially sought to uncover what had made the original show and its other iterations so successful – a process that led him to watch countless episodes of the drama over several months.
One key reason the showrunner identified is that the stories are authentic to each show’s setting. O’Neill consequently led a diverse writers room that could offer an insight into Australian culture and society, including First Nations perspectives.
“If you watched those shows, the original, which is still going, is very different from Los Angeles in terms of its tone, its swagger, its tempo, its colour palette, its sonic palette, and very different again from New Orleans, which is in itself different from Hawai’i,” he tells DQ.
“That really informed the decisions I made trying to create this world, because I felt like no one was interested in retelling those stories. They wanted to see what an authentic take on a different part of the world, from a different cultural lens, was going to look like.”
Pitching his take on NCIS, O’Neill was encouraged to “swing for the fences” – a phrase that became his mantra. “And we really did,” he continues. “We really wanted to make sure this show feels distinctively Australian, distinctive from all the other iterations of the show, that we’re looking at it through a cultural lens that is going to be authentic for an Australian audience and is going to be intriguing as a result for an international audience.”
However, the unique Australian take on NCIS doesn’t mean the Sydney edition strays too far from the original story format – a four-act structure with a cold-open teaser. “Usually, within the first two minutes there’s a body drop, and by the end of the hour it’s usually solved,” O’Neill says.
He also points to the self-contained episodes as one of NCIS’s strong points, providing comfort to viewers who don’t need to have followed an entire series – consisting of multiple seasons – to be able to dip into the latest story.
But while viewers might come to the show for the crime, O’Neill hopes they stay for the characters. “One of the things the [other NCIS] series do very strongly is they build this sense of family around the five or six key characters in the show, and they don’t really go home with them very much in the same sense as something like NYPD Blue did years ago,” he says.
“They basically decided that people who work long hours doing arduous jobs actually find family in the people they work with, so we’ve hewed very closely to that. We leave the private lives alone and throw all our attention into trying to make sure these people are interesting and connected.
“I pitched the version of the first NCIS blended family, because that’s what these characters end up being, by hook or by crook. You spend so long in the office working with these people that eventually they take on a sense of genuine family. And in our case, it’s a blended family and everything that comes with that – good and bad.”
O’Neill has worked closely with officers from the real NCIS office in Sydney to make sure the series reflects the work of its staff, as well as the cultural alignments between the NCIS and the AFP.
“What’s really fascinating in the first season is how quickly those cultural barriers fall away, because what the show is at heart is a police procedural with a wink,” he says. “It’s got a twinkle in its eye. It’s not a heavy-handed police procedural where you get into the dark innards of the human psyche. It touches on that but, really, it’s a show that’s profoundly entertaining.
“What’s interesting too is that the show itself and the organisation it portrays is often seen as a bit of an underdog. In a funny way, that sounds like Australia. We’re a very big country geographically, but we’re a very small country in terms of population, and we thrive on the idea that we have to scrap our way out of things. It’s what we do as Australians and it feels like a very good, natural fit that NCIS should arrive here.”
The Royal Australian Navy has also been involved during development and production, and was on hand to assist in one action-packed stunt in the opening episode.
“I’d written – I don’t know why I wrote this – that there was a chase across Sydney Harbour with a US Navy Seahawk flying 50 feet above the water, chasing a speedboat laden with explosives,” O’Neill says. “I wrote it and no one questioned it. No one asked how we were going to do it. I kept waiting for that tap on the shoulder to say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ No one ever did.
“We got to the point where the navy said, ‘What do you need from us?’ I said, ‘Well, we need a fully crewed Seahawk to fly 50 feet above Sydney Harbour and chase down a boat laden with explosives.’ And they said, ‘OK, good, we can do that.’”
On the morning of the shoot, O’Neill’s wife wondered why he was looking stressed, and he explained what they were about to film. “She said, ‘Well, you came up with it. Whose fault is that?’ And she’s right,” he laughs. “There are a whole bunch of moments where I was questioning whether my ‘swinging for the fences’ ambition was actually the right thing to do. But looking back, it was exactly the right thing to do.
“We were very fortunate to have partners like the navy who facilitated us to really achieve things you couldn’t otherwise do. What you see is a production value that completely outstrips its budget.”
Working on NCIS: Sydney, which is distributed outside Australia by Paramount Global Content Distribution, has been “the most fun I’ve had in my 25 years working in this industry,” O’Neill concludes. “It’s a joy to be telling really ambitious stories in my hometown with a cast and crew of really talented Australians who are having just as much fun as I am. When people are having a good time doing what they’re doing, somehow it transfers to the screen. You can see a genuine Australian twinkle in the eye, and I’d like to think the Australian audience is going to really dig that.”