“NCIS” starring Mark Harmon and an ensemble cast, is the second longest running scripted drama on television at 15 full seasons (trailing only “Law and Order: SVU,” which will apparently continue until Mariska Hargitay drops dead of old age) and the seventh longest running such show since television began. A breezy procedural that records the adventures of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, it depicts a diverse team that demonstrably idolize its leader, the enigmatic and tragic Jethro Gibbs, and support each other like a family.
As with all series that run this long and go into syndication while the show is still being produced ( “Criminal Minds,” “The Simpsons,” “NCIS LA,” and “Blue Bloods” is getting there), I eventually got sick of “NCIS” and hadn’t watched it for several seasons. However, last night’s Red Sox game was so dispiriting that I gave up for an inning or so, and peeked in to see how Gibbs and the gang were doing in Season 16. Almost immediately, I witnessed Harmon’s character planting a kiss on the face of the team’s new forensic specialist, Kasie Hines (Diona Reasonover, who appears to be about 18) just as he had often kissed Hines’s predecessor, Abby Sciuto (now departed Pauley Perrette), as you can see in the clip above. I gathered from Kasie’s reaction that this was the “new kid’s” first kiss from Gibbs, and she behaved as if it was both a surprise and the thrill of a lifetime.
For God’s sake.
A leader, manager, or supervisor should not, cannot, and must not kiss (or hug, or in my view, even touch) subordinates, particularly when the supervisor is male and the subordinate is female. This conduct was never appropriate, but beginning around 1980 the law began flagging it as potentially discriminatory, and once sexual harassment law crystallized—and Joe Biden’s memory to the contrary, that was a long time ago—such kisses, touches and hugs could be actionable.
The Gibbs kiss I saw last night was technically assault and battery—an unconsented to touching–though it was not unequivocally sexual harassment, as the object of his kiss clearly welcomed it. However, a workplace where females are expected to allow their supervisor to kiss them on whim is a potentially hostile work environment, and Gibbs’ bad habit, which has been going on for 15 years, should have been flagged and stopped, both in Gibbs’ fictional workplace and in Harmon’s real one. How can CBS and the producers of the show (Harmon is the executive producer) be unaware of the developments in this area? They can’t be. There have been organizational earthquakes from employees who complained about the conduct Harmon is modeling as harmless, affectionate and innocent. It may be innocent at the imaginary NCIS, but too often such kisses are not.
Yet here is a top rated family TV show that teaches kids as well and men and women who haven’t been paying attention (like Harmon, apparently) that spontaneously kissing a subordinate at work is cute and harmless. (Spontaneously kissing a colleague in the work place is also unethical, bit at least there isn’t the power and position inequality that can make “welcomeness” feel mandatory by the kissee.)
Later in the same episode, Harmon placed his hand on the shoulder of another young woman in an elevator as a gesture of caring and support. Men have been sued, successfully, for this too. Not only is it assault, it can be regarded as a demonstration of dominance, even intimidation.
It is irresponsible for the show and CBS to endorse conduct that is not appropriate for any workplace and that can get naive and trusting audience members in serious trouble.
Harmon is a long-time romantic lead and heart-throb, but he is pushing 70, and looks it. His kissing young ladies in the office is creepily Biden-like. It also demonstrates the valid point that got me canned as an ethics commentator on NPR when I dared to make it . (It could be applied benevolently to Donald Trump, and NPR can’t have that.) Men who are attractive, wealthy, powerful and young often find that their otherwise risky demonstrations of spontaneous affection are appreciated, but they don’t realize, over time, when they are not so attractive as they used to be. Then their innocent (or not so innocent) touches and flirtations may not be as welcomed as they seem.
If Gibbs runs for public office as a Republican, Kasie may suddenly decide that his kiss was offensive, and made her feel “unsafe,” though she didn’t feel free to object at the time.
TV shows both reflect the culture and create it. Harmon is a smart and sensitive man, from what I’ve been able to discern from interviews. He needs to stop kissing the women on his show; he never should have kissed them in the first place. Men are willfully obtuse about this issue, and he’s just setting them up for disaster.