The Big Picture

  • NCIS
    began as a spin-off of
    JAG
    , creating the foundation for a successful franchise that continues to grow with multiple series.
  • The
    NCIS
    universe includes spin-offs like
    NCIS: Los Angeles
    and
    NCIS: New Orleans
    , along with crossovers with other Peter M. Lenkov-created shows.
  • Changes in the original
    NCIS
    cast have paved the way for new characters and storylines, such as the upcoming
    NCIS: Origins
    , keeping the franchise fresh.



It’s been over 20 years since NCIS first aired on CBS, changing the television procedural landscape in ways that audiences could never expect. With Mark Harmon generally in the lead as Special Agent Leroy Gibbs, the show has run for an impressive 21 seasons and over 450 episodes. Of course, a lot has changed over the years, with a cast of often rotating faces, even Harmon didn’t stick out the entire series run. Nevertheless, NCIS spawned an entire universe of spin-offs and sister shows that continue to delight fans everywhere. But how many shows exist within CBS’ NCIS universe in total?


NCIS TV Show Poster

NCIS

Created by
Donald P. Bellisario

Latest TV Show
NCIS: Hawaii

First Episode Air Date
September 23, 2003

Cast
david mccallum , sean murray , Mark Harmon , Brian Dietzen , Pauley Perrette , Rocky Carroll


‘NCIS’ Originated as a Spin-off of ‘JAG’

Did you know that NCIS itself is actually a spin-off? Much like how The Flash originated as a spin-off of Arrow before taking on a full life of itself, NCIS was a spin-off of the long-running legal drama JAG. That show, which ran for ten seasons between 1995 and 2005 (hopping from NBC to CBS during its lifespan), was conceived originally as a sort of mash between Top Gun and A Few Good Men, albeit with significantly less Tom Cruise. But in the show’s eighth season, nearing the end of its impressive run, JAG aired two episodes that would change television forever. The first was “Ice Queen,” which was followed a week later by “Meltdown,” and each set the stage for NCIS masterfully.


“The episode and what we’ve done with it doesn’t look anything like JAG,” noted JAG and NCIS creator Donald P. Bellisarioback in 2003. “It’s quick and it’s fast; there’s just a whole different style to it. And hopefully we’ll pick up some younger viewers because of the cast.” It’s funny to think looking back on it now that NCIS was hoping to grab the younger demographics, but back then it was a big deal for two whole episodes of JAG to be devoted to this new cast (and with a brand-new style) with the hopes that audiences might want more. Backdoor pilots are often a gamble, but this JAG two-parter did the trick, and by the next season, Mark Harmon and his team were back in action on their own show: NCIS. It wasn’t long before NCIS––which is the third-longest-running scripted, live-action U.S. prime-time TV series currently airing, running behind two installments in the Law & Order franchise––produced a plethora of spin-offs of its own.


While the show did occasionally revisit its JAG roots (most notably at the end of Season 10 when we discover who won that infamous finale coin toss), more often NCIS opted to set the stage for new characters and locations to develop into new shows. The Washington D.C.-based NCIS spun off in its sixth season with NCIS: Los Angeles (which ended in 2023 after 14 seasons), followed by NCIS: New Orleans after the twelfth season (which concluded in 2021 after seven seasons). NCIS: Hawai’i first aired in 2021 after receiving a direct-to-series order (but has since crossed over with NCIS), and the 2023 series NCIS: Sydney became the first in the franchise to exist outside the United States (and so far the only show not to cross over with the others). In 2024, it was announced that longtime NCIS star Mark Harmon would be returning to the franchise via the prequel series NCIS: Origins, which would follow the early years of Leroy Gibbs with Harmon serving in an executive producer and narrator capacity.


The ‘NCIS’ Franchise Exists Alongside the “Lenkov-Verse”

Chris O'Donnell as G. Callen and Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho Kelly on the "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "Hawaii Five-0" crossover.
Image via CBS

As NCIS continues to expand its reach both nationally and globally, it’s important to note that NCIS isn’t relegated just to itself and JAG. JAG itself crossed over on one other occasion with the Donald P. Bellisario-created legal drama First Monday, which ended nearly as quickly as it began. Likewise, JAG was crossed over with both the sitcom Yes, Dear and Bette Midler‘s short-lived Bette, but both of those confirmed that JAG was nothing but a TV show, thus excluding them from the greater NCIS universe. But there’s another big television franchise that connects to NCIS, one helmed directly by Peter M. Lenkov. That’s right, Hawaii Five-0, MacGuyver, and Magnum P.I.all exist within the world of NCIS, though we’re not talking about the original shows from the 1980s.


In the 2011 episode of Hawaii Five-0 titled “Ka Hakaka Maika’i,” NCIS: Los Angeles star Daniela Ruah traveled from LA to Hawaii as Special Agent Kensi Blye to help the Five-0 Task Force with a case involving MMA fighter Chuck Liddell. Later that season, the two shows crossed over again, this time with different members of their respective casts, for a two-part event titled “Touch of Death.” “Crossovers are not easy to pull off when you’re working in the same town,” NCIS: LA creator Shane Brennan told TV Guide, “and when you’ve got the other show being shot a five-hour flight away, it’s particularly challenging.” Nevertheless, the crossover was a hit and firmly established these franchises––both NCIS and the ’80s action drama reboot franchise helmed by Lenkov––as being a part of the same world.


Sadly, NCIS hasn’t crossed over with any of the other shows (nor did NCIS: Hawai’i and Hawaii Five-0 ever find each other, which is a real shame), but all three Lenkov-created reboots have crossed over with one another at some point in their concurrent history. The Lenkov-verse officially ended in January 2024 with the conclusion of Magnum P.I., so we likely won’t be seeing any other crossovers any time soon. Additionally, NCIS: Los Angeles crossed over with the CBS action drama Scorpion in the latter series episode “True Colors,” which connected Robert Patrick‘s Cabe Gallo with NCIS: LA‘s Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt). Scorpion was canceled only a few years later, and another crossover between the shows never materialized.

‘NCIS’ Has Undergone Plenty of Changes Since It First Premiered


Including the upcoming NCIS: Origins, there are twelve television shows total that exist within the shared universe of NCIS. That’s a lot of TV to cover. Thankfully, many of the external crossovers (i.e. Scorpion and Hawaii Five-0) are only minor between NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles, while more important shows within the universe (JAG and the other NCIS spin-offs) crossover on a more regular basis. Nevertheless, if 21 seasons of just the original NCIS sounds like too much, adding a couple hundred extra episodes of TV might feel overwhelming. Thankfully, these shows make it pretty easy to keep up.

But over the years, NCIS has undergone a plethora of changes that make it feel somewhat removed from the original series we remember from the early 2000s. For starters, Mark Harmon’s Gibbs and Pauley Perrette‘s Abby Sciuto have been gone for a few years now, leaving a hole within the show that has attempted to rebrand itself with newcomers like Gary Cole‘s Alden Parker and Katrina Law‘s Jessica Knight. Even worse was the death of David McCallum, whose tenure as Dr. Donald Mallard was the longest in the franchise (and one of the longest on television proper). Thankfully, Season 21 made time to properly say goodbye to our old friend Ducky.


With more spin-offs getting the spotlight, all while being distinctly removed from the flagship series, it seems as if the franchise is attempting an expansion that will reinvent the wheel. Thankfully, with Harmon’s upcoming Origins as well as a planned spinoff series for Ziva and Tony in the works, it seems like the creative minds behind NCIS won’t be straying too far from what made the series great originally.

NCIS can be watched on Mondays on CBS and streamed on Paramount+.

Watch on Paramount+

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