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How "NCIS" Skewered So-Called "Tokenism"

The writer behind the Oct. 27 episode "Viral" talks to BuzzFeed News about revenge porn and whether women belong. (Spoilers if you have not seen this week's episode.)

Posted on October 28, 2015, at 2:59 p.m. ET

Darren Michaels / CBS

Cabot (Kelli Williams) and Gibbs (Mark Harmon) talk to Navy Lt. Kara Gifford (Kelly Frye) on NCIS.

"These women didn't get where they are based on merit," a male Navy captain (Gregory Harrison) says to a former sailor in the Oct. 27 episode of NCIS.

This week's installment, titled "Viral," revolves around a sailor (Ryan Kennedy) who takes naked photos of two female officers, posts them online, and murders a man to cover it up. Medical examiner Ducky (David McCallum) realizes the criminal photographer is "a subordinate who resented taking orders from a woman," and everyone but the criminal is on the women's side — even that seemingly slimy captain. It turns out he is using his gender to trick the perpetrator into confessing: He pretends that he too believes women are "less qualified" and are often in the Navy because of "quotas so they can say that there's gender equality." But his point of view is almost immediately revealed to be reprehensible.

Jennifer Corbett, who wrote the episode and was an officer in the Navy, told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview that she wrote an indictment of the belief in "tokenism" in part because she encountered it during her own service. The captain's line about merit in particular is what some people "wanted to say, off the record"; it is something she believes the captain would have "heard before, probably whispered."

Corbett said that she was one of two female officers on board a ship of 300, and while she always felt comfortable with her commanding officers, "You do run into sort of the old school mentality of how things were." Even now, on NCIS's writing staff, she is outnumbered by men. "Gender equality isn’t where it should be in a lot of fields," she said.

Corbett came up with the concept for "Viral" while reading news reports of so-called "revenge porn." She read about women whose lives were affected for years, with little or no legal recourse. "There’s no erase button," she noted. Her victim-centered reading of the potential real-life consequences is visible in the episode: One of the characters whose photograph is published online kills herself. The surviving lieutenant Kara Gifford (Kelly Frye) calls the experience "hell."

In "Viral," the violation requires "immediate action," the captain says, and then he discusses how the Uniform Code of Military Justice was quickly amended to treat such crimes more harshly. And nearly all the characters take the crime seriously and work together to solve it. "That’s how it should work," Corbett said. Five years ago, she wouldn't have necessarily seen this as a realistic response from the Navy. Now, after years of scrutiny, the military treats these issues with greater urgency, Corbett said, a shift that is hinted at in the episode. When Gibbs (Mark Harmon) and Cabot (Kelli Williams) ask Gifford about her case from two years ago, she spits, "No one seemed to care then."

But the characters — in particular, the male characters — care in this episode. The person who makes the crucial leap in the case and realizes the crime is an act of male resentment is Ducky, a man; the person who tricks the petty officer into confessing is a male captain. In "Viral," men bear the bulk of responsibility for seeking justice. For the captain, "having him be a man was kind of crucial, because he needed to get [the criminal] to trust him," Corbett said — the bad guy, of course, wouldn't have trusted a woman. But it was also "important to show that other military people ... the captain and his other shipmates, were the ones that helped bring him to justice," Corbett said. "You need to stand up for your fellow sailors."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.