The NCIS Franchise Can Take a Page From One Chicago

NCIS is one of CBS’ biggest success stories. The original series has gone from a spinoff of JAG to having almost twice as many seasons as its parent show, and it’s spawned an entire franchise of equally popular procedurals. But the one thing that the NCIS franchise has never had is the complete and constant integration of all its shows so that they truly feel like they exist in the same universe.

Its biggest competitor has mastered that plan. NBC’s three One Chicago series — Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Medare all clearly interconnected. Technically, they even exist in a greater universe of shows produced by Dick Wolf, because Chicago P.D. has crossed over with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and the P.D. character Hailey Upton guest-starred in an episode of FBI. Wolf and his team have created the TV version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the NCIS powers that be would be smart to learn from them.

NCIS has done its fair share of crossovers, but they’re typically few and far between and often narrow in scope. Most of the crossovers have either been backdoor pilots (an episode specifically designed to launch a spinoff) or just appearances from one character on another show. A two-part event between NCIS and its formula-breaking newcomer NCIS: Hawai’i is planned for March, but before that, the last full crossover took place in 2017 when NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans had the “Pandora’s Box” two-parter.

In sharp contrast, One Chicago dedicates time to two crossovers every season. One features all three shows, while the second, smaller event is between Chicago Fire (which recently lost original star Jesse Spencer) and Chicago P.D. These crossovers are heavily promoted and tightly plotted, involving the biggest possible crises from giant fires that harmed main characters’ families to a lethal outbreak that threatened the whole city of Chicago. The crossovers are normally the largest and most dramatic storylines of the entire One Chicago season, which is why fans tune in for them in droves.

The other aspect that gives One Chicago the edge is that its character appearances happen on a regular basis. They’re not special happenings like they are in the NCIS franchise; they’re standard operating procedure. The caveat is that the Chicago shows can do that because they’re all set in the same city and — more importantly — all three film on the same soundstages. NCIS would not only have to come up with a reason for its characters to travel between three cities, but it’d have to coordinate travel for the NCIS: Hawai’i cast (the other two series both film in Los Angeles). That’s far different from Chicago Fire‘s firefighters logically going to get medical help from Chicago Med‘s Dr. Ethan Choi (played by Brian Tee of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame) and the actors just walking to another set.

While the NCIS shows may not be able to do that, there are ways the franchise can learn from One Chicago’s success. NBC has made a concerted effort to treat the Chicago dramas as one entity, which is where the nickname “One Chicago” came from in the first place. The network reorganized to put all three series back-to-back-to-back on Wednesday nights, a formula that it followed with the Law & Order dramas on Thursdays. CBS has put NCIS and NCIS: Hawai’i on the same night this season but NCIS: Los Angeles is on a separate evening now, and the network doesn’t always market the shows as one unit. If they got viewers to see the franchise as one entity instead of three shows, they could pull more audiences into all three series.

Small details like that and like weaving in more mentions of characters and/or events from other series would strengthen NCIS to feel like one whole universe. Different Chicago characters have sometimes been mentioned even if they’re not seen, which not only helps move an episode along but reminds viewers that hero is out there and what they’re doing. The NCIS characters can talk about each other or react to each other’s stories, leading up to an actual on-screen event. If the little crossovers become normal — and the whole point of franchises is to have a shared universe — the big ones will come easy and NCIS could be as cinematic as One Chicago.