REVIEW: NCIS Season 21, Episode 8 Is Heartless – Literally and Figuratively

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NCIS Season 21, Episode 8, “Heartless” is about a defective heart, but that’s not the only thing the CBS show is lacking as it misses its target.

NCIS is normally very good at balancing drama and comedy — and knowing when to lay off one in favor of the other. The CBS crime drama’s comedic aspect, often manifested as slice of life subplots for the main characters, has become a must. NCIS Season 21, Episode 8, “Heartless” leans too far into the funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, which results in an incredibly uneven hour.

“Heartless” surrounds the abduction and murder of renowned Naval surgeon Erik Harper. When it becomes clear that Harper was taken for his medical expertise, the NCIS team tracks down his mystery patient… revealed to be a Colombian drug lord who’s eluded the agency before. The episode takes a particularly nasty turn for Alden Parker, who gets himself thrown into the middle of the action. That makes “Heartless” a great time for Gary Cole, but Parker’s problems are also what holds the installment back.

NCIS Has Too Much Fun With Parker’s Neck Injury
Comedic Element Intrudes on the Rest of the Episode

NCIS Season 21, Episode 8, “Heartless” begins with Parker arriving at headquarters with a stiff neck, and this quickly begins a running bit in which the other characters all offer him different remedies to fix it… most of which don’t even come close to working. It’s not surprising that the one idea he avoids — Nick Torres giving him a very emphatic bear hug — is the one that does the trick, and that it doesn’t happen until the very last minutes of the episode. It’s also not surprising that Gary Cole is great with dry humor; anyone who’s heard Cole as Sergeant Bosco on Bob’s Burgers knows how funny he can be. But the biggest problem is that there’s too much joking in “Heartless” and it sometimes turns up in the wrong places.

Having opening and closing scenes about Parker’s neck injury would’ve been fine, with perhaps a well-placed joke or two in the middle to keep the gag going. However, comments about his neck happen in many scenes in which Parker appears, including a fair chunk of the first act, as if to hammer the situation home. It’s particularly glaring in the early going, because as NCIS is establishing the early details and ideas of the case, it also keeps circling back to Parker. This breaks up the dramatic flow of the episode, especially since every funny line is overly punctuated by a comedic underscore. The score in “Heartless” borders on Law & Order levels of obvious at times.

The jokes scale back as the episode progresses, but unfortunately the damage is done by then. “Heartless” doesn’t create enough momentum or dramatic tension in the early going for the audience to be suitably invested in the case of the week. The only stakes in the episode that the viewer is concerned with involve Parker’s fate, and given that he’s a main character, there’s only so much drama that can provide. NCIS has killed off main characters before, but “Heartless” never ramps up enough to feel like Parker’s facing a legitimate threat.

Heartless Misses a Chance for Great NCIS Guest Stars
Guest Characters Aren’t Quite Developed Enough

Another factor holding NCIS Season 21, Episode 8 back is what it does with its guest characters. Harper is portrayed by versatile Star Trek actor Tim Russ — for all of two scenes. Audiences may not immediately recognize Russ without the Vulcan ears that he sported as Star Trek: Voyager’s Tuvok, but he’s a solid performer and so it’s a shame that viewers don’t get to see him do more than give one speech to a group of medical residents and then get thrown into a van.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Christina Kirk from the cult hit DC superhero comedy Powerless portrays Harper’s colleague, Dr. Claire Logan. With Harper dead, the Colombians need another heart surgeon to operate on their boss, and so they abduct Logan while Parker is still in her office. Acting quickly — and somewhat impulsively — Parker claims that he’s also a doctor in order to get himself taken along with her. At this point in the narrative, there could be some interesting dialogue between Logan and Harper, but it’s mostly either jokes about Parker’s movie-watching taste (his fake name is taken from the John Landis comedy Spies Like Us) or snarky comments about how he doesn’t know what he’s in for. That adds to the tone problem, and it also doesn’t create any real rapport between the two. When Parker saves Logan’s life, it carries no emotional impact; it’s just done because it has to be done. Furthermore, there’s a cold quality to Logan that makes her sound short most of the time — except for the ending moments, in which it seems like Kirk is projecting her lines a little too much in a quiet hospital room.

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“Heartless” would have been a stronger episode if the characters had been reversed. Audiences would have gotten to see more of Russ, and there would be the concern of whether or not Harper could pull off the procedure at gunpoint with his hand tremors. Logan being the murder victim could be explained at first by her being not the most likable character, so perhaps she had some enemies that the NCIS team could then have investigated before stumbling onto the real plot. As it stands, the two key guest stars both seem out of place.

Is ‘Heartless’ An NCIS Episode To Watch or Skip?
The Episode Has Its Flaws, but Are They Enough To Avoid It?

“Heartless” is a disappointing outing for NCIS because of its underdeveloped characters and its inability to get its tonal balance right. Especially after the NCIS franchise’s milestone 1,000th episode, it feels flat — as if so much energy went into the previous episode that there wasn’t much left for this one. It’s also very self-contained, so there are no major plot or character reveals. That means the only people who absolutely need to watch the episode are NCIS die-hards who don’t want to miss any of Season 21, fans of Gary Cole, or people who have become fans of Gary Cole since he started playing Alden Parker on NCIS.

Cole is one of those actors whom it’s worth tuning into a project for; audiences know him from countless other roles, both dramatic and comedic, and Parker even evokes one of Cole’s best characters. “Heartless” not only gives the actor a lot of screen time, but it gives him some different things to do therein, from being handcuffed inside a van to making jokes about getting old. The moment between Parker and Director Leon Vance in which they talk about their injuries is one of the funny bits that the episode gets right. Yet he’s unquestionably front and center here; the other actors have their scenes, but all of them are playing supporting roles in Parker’s story arc, one way or another.

NCIS Season 21 has had a lot on its proverbial plate. The season not only included the franchise’s 1,000th hour, but the tribute episode for David McCallum. The show has done a lot recently — so it’s understandable if a few episodes are clunkers. “Heartless” is a clear miss for NCIS, but nothing that can’t be overcome.

NCIS airs Mondays at 9:00 p.m. on CBS.

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