Anna in Sugar and Spice and Vicious Beatings (Ny Times)
AS the producer in charge of the long-running CBS hit “NCIS,” Shane Brennan is also the man responsible for the image of its beautiful tomboy assassin, the former Mossad agent Ziva David.
“NCIS,” now the top-rated drama on television, is known for its comic banter, its constant movie references and the smoldering eyes of its star, Mark Harmon. Less remarked on is that while it’s a traditional crime procedural in a military setting — with all the violence that implies — and features three strong male characters, the main dispenser of that violence, the agent so lethal with gun, fist or foot that her partners gladly stand aside and let her do the dirty work, is a woman.
Mr. Brennan acknowledges the visceral thrill to be had — on whatever level you care to have it — from watching a woman, rather than a man, pound heads or pump bullets. “We try to deliver that, but we try to be credible about it,” he said. “You’ll never see her leap in the air and do the splits and kick two guys at the same time. Save that for the John Woo movie.”
Shooting two guys at the same time is not a problem, though. Fans of the show recall fondly a short scene in Season 6, in the episode “Dead Reckoning,” when Ziva (played by the Chilean-born actress Cote de Pablo) spotted two suspicious men entering the government safe house where she was protecting a witness. Putting down the cellphone on which she was talking to headquarters, she pointed guns at each of the room’s two doors. A few seconds later, as the smoke cleared, she picked up the phone: “Under control.”
With her credible combination (by prime-time standards) of physical domination and quiet cool, Ziva David is one of the most appealing of a growing group of female action heroes who are infiltrating cop shows, spy shows, science-fiction shows and other genres where men once did the lion’s share of the enforcing.
It’s not a new role — the prototypes go back at least 50 years, to Diana Rigg in “The Avengers,” and include the women in “Charlie’s Angels,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Alias.” It’s sufficiently established that shows based on tough women can fail in batches without killing the trend: in recent years “Bionic Woman,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “Dollhouse” have come and gone.
What feels different now is the degree to which action women have become an unremarkable part of the television landscape. In some cases they’re the stars, on “Nikita,” “Chase,” “V,” “In Plain Sight,” “Covert Affairs,” “Rizzoli & Isles” and other current shows. But they also appear, often in more interesting, less predictable fashion, as ensemble or supporting characters.
These are the women who absorb punishment and provide gee-whiz thrills so that other actors — usually but not always men — can be lighter, funnier and more “relatable,” and can focus on family or romance or bromance. In addition to Ziva David, they include Yvonne Strahovski’s Sarah on “Chuck,” Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda on “The Good Wife,” Anna Torv’s Olivia on “Fringe,” Gabrielle Anwar’s Fiona on “Burn Notice,” Robin Tunney’s Lisbon on “The Mentalist” and Candice Accola’s Caroline on “The Vampire Diaries.” (Grace Park’s Kono on “Hawaii Five-0” is more in the category of conventional eye candy, but both she and Daniel Dae Kim tend to play businesslike and heavy while Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan try for laughs as the mismatched “Turner and Hooch” leads.)
Plenty of reasons could be proposed for the proliferation of these characters, including the overall softening of the action star following the 1980s heyday of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cartoonish, ultra-macho film heroes. Craig Silverstein, who developed the new “Nikita” series for CW, recalled the original 1990 French film “La Femme Nikita” as a “cult antidote” to those excesses.
This goes along with a desire on the part of many creators to cross up gender and racial stereotypes if it can be done without too much trouble, which can also be seen in the perhaps disproportionate number of television squad rooms and investigative teams led by African-Americans (almost always as secondary characters).
The main impulse, though, is most likely economic: producers’ ever-growing realization that they need to appeal to female viewers — the decision makers when it comes to television viewing — in every kind of programming.
“I think one of the reasons that it’s popular and it works in general is that for a woman warrior there’s a juxtaposition of nurturer and destroyer that creates a natural added tension,” said Mr. Silverstein, who radically changed the “Nikita” story line, giving the isolated assassin a younger female protégé who serves as her mole within the government. “And as far as Hollywood goes, I think that juxtaposition is a good way for an action show to appeal to both the male and female audience.”
For the writer or producer concerned with more than niche interest, a female action character is a two-fer. She can beat someone senseless while talking about her feelings, something that traditional male action heroes on TV still have trouble doing in more than monosyllables.
“When you’re writing a male action figure, you’ve got maybe one moment where the audience has to dig really hard to understand and emote with him,” said J. H. Wyman, an executive producer of “Fringe,” whose ensemble cast includes as its tough cop the F.B.I. agent Olivia Dunham. “It’ll usually be done with a few shots of him looking at a grave. We really feel that people are on board with Olivia to have her actually put into words what she’s going through, which I think is an acceptable female action prototype, and maybe not so much as a male.”
This awareness of the female gaze may also explain why so many of the new action women, even in shows that could not by any stretch be called realistic, dress as if they were going for a run on a cold day. Ziva David’s practical costumes are close-fitting but notoriously frumpy; Olivia Dunham favors trench coats and slacks, while sexy for her means a muscle-T and a sports bra.
When “Nikita” had its premiere last fall, billboards of its star, Maggie Q, wearing a fire-engine-red bikini in the pilot episode were ubiquitous around Hollywood. But on the show, while Ms. Q’s endless legs are often shown to good effect, she has generally been much more covered up. “We haven’t repeated that type of thing since the pilot,” Mr. Silverstein said. “She does walk around sometimes in her underwear in her loft, but that’s because no one else is there.”
Looking back, many of the predecessors of the current action heroines — the original Nikita, James Cameron’s Sarah Connor and Ripley, Buffy the vampire slayer, Sydney Bristow of “Alias” — were pioneering portrayals in widely influential films or TV shows. It’s not clear that any of the current crop will be remembered that way; perhaps Ms. Panjabi’s steely-eyed, sexually omnivorous Kalinda Sharma on “The Good Wife” has the best chance.
Instead we can turn to them, as we do to the sitcom father or the reality-show housewife, for predictable comforts. If it’s Tuesday night, it’s time for Ziva to kick some serious tail. Credibly, of course.