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NCIS: A Whiter Shade of Pale?

It may be the most popular drama on television, but I don’t often watch NCIS – in spite of Mark Harmon’s blue eyes and no-nonsense acting style -- because of the formula and dialogue. And since its beginning nine years ago, I have noticed that the cast of the CBS version of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service we see each Tuesday night at 8 has a, well, pale cast to it.  Very pale. 

You must have seen NCIS at least once (it’s hard to avoid), and I wonder if you think Jethro Gibbs’ NCIS unit looks like the U.S. Navy you see in San Diego?

Think about it.  Gibbs, Dinozzo, Caitlin, Jenny, Ziva, Ducky, Abby and Mr. Palmer, not to mention various stray law enforcement agents from elsewhere.  Pretty much all white.  And the actress with the Hispanic surname plays an Israeli.

People of color do pop up occasionally.  Rocky Carroll currently plays Leon Vance, the NCIS director.  Pancho Demming played an asst. medical examiner until his character got shot, like seven years ago.  And Liza Lapira was either a traitor or not a traitor for several weeks one season.  But these are recurring roles, folks.  They appear briefly or some weeks not at all, especially if they are dead. 

Both the military and most major American cities contain quite a mixture of ethnicities, so why do you think Hollywood doesn’t often reflect this reality when casting? Perhaps it just doesn’t occur to most show-runners and producers to hire actors who don’t look like they do. 

So which drama series do make casting decisions that reflect the ethnic make-up of their locations? TNT's series seem to manage it. “The Closer,“ with its multi-ethnic major crimes unit, looks quite like LA.  Jada Pinkett Smith is the chief nursing officer in “HawthorNE,” set in a big-city hospital, and “Memphis Beat” features Alfre Woodard in a major role.  Elsewhere, the “Law & Order” franchises have always included actors of color, as have CSI and its spin-offs. ABC’s “Gray’s Anatomy” is often held up as a paragon of color-blind casting.  And then there’s…can’t think of any more.  Any ideas?

Since television viewers are as scarce as ham radio operators these days, wouldn't you think that networks and producers would not want to leave any potential viewers feeling dissed by feeling left out? Amazing. More amazing to be asking that question in 2011.  

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