Wednesday, January 6, 2016

NCIS & NCIS: New Orleans: “Sister City” (Belisarius Productions, Wings Productions, When Pigs Fly Productions, CBS Television Studios, aired January 5, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night the CBS-TV shows NCIS (the original one that kicked off the franchise, based in Washington, D.C.) and NCIS: New Orleans did a so-called “crossover event,” a story that not only crossed over the time slots of the two shows but told a continuing story with both sets of regular characters. The combined episode — combined considerably more artfully than Law and Order and “Chicago Trilogy” producer Dick Wolf has been able to achieve when he’s done these sorts of cyclical shows — starts out with a modern-day high-tech knockoff of the mystery of the Marie Celeste: a plane with a full fuel tank but no one on board — at least no one alive; there are five crew members and passengers, but they’re all dead — enters the airspace over Washington, D.C. and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (which is what NCIS stands for, both on these shows and in real life, though these days you’d never know that from most of the scripts) is assigned to jam the input to the plane’s automatic pilot from the GPS system so the plane crash-lands harmlessly in a deserted field somewhere instead of the middle of a major metropolitan area, where its nearly full fuel tank could explode and jeopardize hundreds of innocent lives. The plane is owned by a super-capitalist high-tech entrepreneur named Jenner Blye (Samrat Chakrabarti — and given how much of the American manufacturing sector has been taken over from companies from China and India, it’s chillingly appropriate that this Anglo character be cast with an actor whose name proudly proclaims Indian, or at least subcontinental, origins!) whose company developed a defense weapon called Manta Ray. From the script by Christopher J. Waild, we never learn much about what Manta Ray is, how it works (or doesn’t, since it’s established early on that the U.S. Defense Department rejected it), or why it’s so important that elements of the Russian secret service were sent to steal it and kill anybody involved in it or who knows its whereabouts.

There was supposedly a secret meeting between Blye, his executives and Russian representatives, including Anton Pavlenko (Lev Gorn), and someone else has sent a professional assassin to kill everyone who was at that meeting. The assassin is Eva Azarova (Cassidy Freeman — someone created a woman out of a clone of David Cassidy and Bud Freeman?), who gets access to the Blye entourage by setting a so-called “honey trap” which, as anyone who’s ever seen a film noir with Barbara Stanwyck in it (or, for that matter, a James Bond movie) could guess, means a woman who sexually seduces and enthralls a man as part of an espionage plot. The man is Luca Sciuto (Tyler Ritter), brother of NCIS series regular Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette, she of the ever-annoying pigtails), a master chef whom Blye hired to cook his meals wherever he was — only he wasn’t on the plane with the other four even though he was supposed to be, which of course leads the NCIS team to suspect that he had something to do with the murders of everyone who was on the plane. Abby predictably pleads that her brother could never have committed such a despicable crime, and when we finally meet Luca, he turns out to be the most dementedly clueless character since the role Cillian Murphy played in the film Breakfast on Pluto, utterly unwilling to believe that his hot girlfriend was just using him for a plot that included sabotage and murder. As the story rolls on and the people at NCIS D.C. trace the plot to New Orleans, where Eva was based and the haunted flight originated (and we get some nice glimpses of CCH Pounder as the New Orleans medical examiner — I always liked both her name and the air of no-nonsense authority she projected, and it’s a pleasure to see her here just as it’s a pleasure to see the older David McCallum, whom I had a hot boy-crush on in his days on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as the D.C. medical examiner even though he’s weathered the years less well than I have — odd that with all the hot, in both senses, young and young-ish actors on these shows the two most interesting players would be the venerable character actors playing the medical examiners!), and the story travels there for the second half.

We meet a few more interesting characters, including Eva’s hard-assed boss in the Russian secret service, Paulina Kurteva (Tina Benko), and we find that the killings were all (or almost all — at least one of the surprise baddies gets offed in the more prosaic manner of getting shot) done with a super-toxic poison that’s deadly to the touch, and which was administered by lining flatware and bottle tops with it, so the person who lifted the knife or fork or opened the bottle would die while the others in their party who didn’t handle “spiked” utensils would live. Yeah, right — though since the real Russian secret service has been accused of offing its enemies by feeding or exposing them to radioactive polonium (the other element Pierre and Marie Curie discovered, and which she insisted on naming after her native country, Poland), maybe this plot device isn’t so nonsensical at all. Eventually there’s a shoot-out inside an art museum and Jenner Blye’s security person, Blake Huxley (Alex Quijano), is killed (he’s the one who just gets it with a gun instead of an exotic poison), and it seems like Huxley was in league with the Russians to steal his boss’s big secret Manta Ray weapon — only it turns out [spoiler alert!] that the real crook is Jenner Blye himself; when the U.S. turned down Manta Ray (for reasons which Waild’s script leaves as ambiguous as he does as to what Manta Ray was supposed to do in the first place), he decided to sell it clandestinely to the Russians and then apparently had to off everybody who could have testified that he had offered it to the Russians so he couldn’t be prosecuted for treason and could claim to have been the victim of industrial espionage instead. It’s a show with more than its share of silly premises and plot twists, but “Sister City” is an effective two-hour suspense melodrama if you can forget how improbable it all is and how unbelievably naïve Luca Sciuto is (eventually it turns out that both he and Abby were adopted by their parents, and though they weren’t blood relations they inherited their parents’ willingness to take in “stray cats,” an expression I was using long before Waild put it in his script, meaning people who are homeless or disabled or crazy or all three and trying as best one can to help them out), and handle the annoying characters on either end: Pauley Perrette (who since it’s her brother who’s in peril at least gets to act a bit more emotionally than usual) in the D.C. NCIS and Rob Kerkovich as the terminally (and infuriatingly) nerdy Sebastian Lund in New Orleans