From Severed Legs in Dumpsters to Abandoned Ghost Ships, Just How Real Is 'NCIS'?

A real-life NCIS agent said paperwork wouldn't make for good television but we would watch Gibbs file his nails.

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Mar. 25 2024, Published 6:01 p.m. ET

(L-R): Gary Cole as Alden Parker, Sean Murray as Timothy McGee, Katrina Law as Jessica Knight, and Wilmer Valderrama as Nicholas “Nick” Torres
Source: CBS


It's hard to imagine a time when NCIS, or one of its many spinoffs, has not been on our televisions. And while that show was spun right off of JAG, it ended up dominating the world of procedurals second only to Law & Order. Feel free to make the noise after reading that. If one were to compare Law & Order with NCIS, one might liken the latter to an overzealous theater kid. It's a little bit quirky and a little bit odd, but you have to love its earnestness.

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NCIS has been cruising into our lives for over 20 years. That means we've experienced more than two decades of kidnappings, torture, star-crossed lovers, crime solving, and one time when a body exploded on the morgue table during an autopsy. Goodness, what did that guy eat? Obviously Hollywood injects more than its fair share of glitz and glamour into the show, but surely some of it is rooted in fact. Is NCIS a real thing? At the very least it's real cool.

(L-R): Wilmer Valderrama as Special Agent Nicholas “Nick” Torres and Sean Murray as Special Agent Timothy McGee
Source: CBS

(L-R): Wilmer Valderrama as Special Agent Nicholas “Nick” Torres and Sean Murray as Special Agent Timothy McGee

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Is 'NCIS' a real thing or did Hollywood make the whole thing up? Let's dive in.

As MaryAnn Cummings, NCIS communications director and retired Army colonel, told the United Service Organizations (USO), "It's entertainment." The version of NCIS we see on the small screen is just the "Hollywood version," she told the USO. Like all of us, NCIS the government agency contains multitudes. Some of those multitudes have been borrowed by Tinsel Town and some have been plucked out of the ether in a writers' room.

One big difference between the show and the agency is the "struggles over jurisdiction." Ed Buice is a public affairs officer who said they always work with other agencies. The drama on the show that comes from different bureaus refusing to work together doesn't happen in the real world. That would be detrimental to the cases they are working on. As Ed so delightfully put it, "good relationships and paperwork—a large part of the job—just aren’t entertaining."

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The part of the series that MaryAnn identifies with the most is the idea that these people are your family. This job has created a bond that few can understand, but NCIS the show has captured that beautifully.

"I think on both sides … you see teams of dedicated, hard-working people trying to do their best," she said. "You’ve got a lot of individuals who work very hard to do the right thing every single day." Speaking of which, what does the actual NCIS do?

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What happens in the real world of the NCIS.

As a reminder, NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service which exists within the Department of the Navy, per the NCIS website. They are the "civilian federal law enforcement agency uniquely responsible for investigating felony crime, preventing terrorism and protecting secrets for the Navy and Marine Corps." Because they operate on a global scale, the NCIS is often the first federal law enforcement agency contacted when an overseas crime occurs.

If you're interested in an other medium where fact and fiction intersect, and you miss Gibbs as much as we do, look no further than his book Ghosts of Hololulu: A Japanese Spy, A Japanese American Spy Hunter, and the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. Actor Mark Harmon co-authored this book with Leon Carroll Jr., the former NCIS special agent who has been the technical advisor on NCIS the show since the beginning.

While chatting with CBS Mornings in November 2023, Mark and Leon shared why they chose to write this book. It centers around Douglas Wada who would go on to essentially be the first NCIS agent. Mark was approached about writing a book but refused to do so without Leon who told the outlet that his job was to make the show look as realistic as possible. Leon also admitted to enjoying the fine art of interrogating, which makes us want to revisit the NCIS interrogation scenes on the show.

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