If ever a TV show felt like it came out of a focus group, it's CBS's latest "NCIS" spinoff.
That's not inherently a bad thing, but when you look at "NCIS: Hawaii" (Monday, 10 EDT/PDT, ★★½ out of four), it's hard not to think someone down at ViacomCBS corporate headquarters thought, "Hey! What if we combined 'NCIS' and 'Hawaii Five-0'!"
What if, indeed. The latest series in the mega-popular "NCIS" franchise, which includes the original, "LA" and the recently canceled "New Orleans," recycles familiar parts of the Naval investigative formula against the starkly gorgeous backdrop of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Although the one major change here is that instead of a Mark Harmon-type baby boomer hunk at the center like in the original and "New Orleans" (or a Chris O'Donnell-type Gen X hunk, like in "LA"), "Hawaii" is anchored by Vanessa Lachey, a younger woman of color. It also includes LGBTQ characters in the ensemble cast.
It's a modicum of a new direction for "NCIS," one that might alienate some fans but also bring new ones to the franchise that has a reputation for being enjoyed by very old (and old-fashioned) viewers. But overall, "Hawaii" doesn't change much about the core structure of "NCIS," in which agents investigate crimes involving members of the U.S. Navy, this time in Hawaii. The first episode of the new series had all the trappings of a typical "NCIS" affair: Dramatic crime, joking NCIS agents, connections to international espionage, patriotism, an action set-piece and a predictable ending.
As an extension of the popular procedural, "Hawaii" is a perfectly serviceable series. Lachey plays the leader of our new group, Special Agent in Charge Jane Tennant, a soccer mom and a tough-as-nails agent. Her team includes newbie Kai (Alex Tarrant), a native Hawaiian who reluctantly returned home because of his father's health; Lucy (Yasmine Al-Bustami), a rule breaker dealing with romance complications; tech expert Ernie (Jason Antoon); and second-in-command Jesse (Noah Mills), who has few defining traits (so far). Also occasionally involved is CIA agent Kate (Tori Anderson), a sometimes foe of her NCIS colleagues.
The first episode finds the team investigating a suspicious crash of a Navy pilot flying a top-secret jet. The Navy believes it's just an accident, but Jane and her team suspect foul play.
It's all very standard, and all very entertaining in the same way the easy mysteries of the other series are. What sets "Hawaii" apart is its setting and its cast. Most of the actors are appealing in their own way, although Lachey is not quite strong enough of a performer to anchor the show, lamely line-reading her way through most of the episode. The character with the most potential is Kai, who already has a backstory and a connection to Hawaii that the others lack. Stories set on the islands have often received criticism for ignoring the indigenous culture in favor of exoticizing the state and elevating the experience of white residents and tourists. This "NCIS" spinoff isn't about to start any kind of revolution in how Hollywood treats Hawaii, but it seems to be doing slightly more than just paying lip service to native Hawaiians.
It seems like "Hawaii" is trying to hit a sweet spot between the old and new (leaning about 85% toward the old). It might work for CBS, commercially. Creatively the series has potential but all the same tired pitfalls its predecessors did. There is very little surprise to the series. For some, that's a feature, not a bug. But after so many years one can only wonder, how many times can we see the same story over again? How many locales can "NCIS" find a team of agents?
As broadcast TV faces increasing competition from streamers and the industry continues to change, we might find that even "NCIS" has a shelf life.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'NCIS: Hawaii' review: Trying to be different and the same at once