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Jeff Simon: On departure of Pauley Perrette, Meghan Markle from prime time

Jeff Simon

Pauley Perrette is a mature woman.

She has been on "NCIS" -- the most popular show on network television for years -- playing Abby Sciuto since before it officially began in 2003. In other words, both she and star Mark Harmon were featured on the two pilot episodes of the show that spun off from "JAG."

It is to Perrette's eternal credit as an actress and personality she has successfully carried off what is essentially an ingenue's role for the full 354 episodes of the show's existence on the air.

Perrette is the reason I started watching "NCIS" in the first place. David McCallum as "Ducky" the coroner was an added bonus on the military forensic show. Harmon mattered not a whit to me at the beginning. He still doesn't -- not really. As the handsome stiff in the middle, he's perfectly pleasant on the show but I've never been sure if, tomorrow, his role were taken over by the newest incarnation of David James Elliott, anyone would notice all that much.

Nevertheless, the Harmon/Perrette relationship -- that is, the fictional relationship of Abby Sciuto and her handsome saturnine boss, Jethro Gibbs -- is absolutely crucial to what has made the series so lovable for more than a decade.

All successful TV network shows present families to those of us on this side of the screen -- real families, makeshift families ready to implode (reality TV, sitcoms) and fictional work families. Those last are the ones with longevity going back before "Gunsmoke."

The key moments on "NCIS" are variations on this primal scene: Abby, the family prodigy performs wonders in her crime lab as the smartest investigative researcher in all of Washington, D.C., as well as the most eccentric and adorable. One of those wonders will be some prodigious feat of research. She will call her boss, Gibbs, to tell him about it, whereupon he will gaze upon it with paternal pride and give her a chaste fatherly kiss on her cheek. It will break the case, whatever it is.

That, in a nutshell, is the whole show. Everyone else functions smoothly inside the show's essential forensic investigation, but the heart of the show is that father/daughter adoration within the Abby/Gibbs relationship.

That is set to end in the May Sweeps to come shortly -- with a two-part episode May 1 and May 8. That is when Pauley Perrette removes her foolproof lovability from the show.

She has long been -- absolutely -- one of my favorite TV characters in current prime time. She's the unlikely double-ponytailed woman with a Goth look and honeybutter voice who is TV's most prominent forensic genius. (Her ever-present reliance on caffeine is sweetly symbolized by about 20 ounces of a fictional drink called "Caf-Pow" she has been supposedly quaffing on camera since the show was in larval form on "JAG.")

There is nothing inherently faulty about a juggernaut TV series basing itself on the pseudo-paternal (not patriarchal) relationship of a grown man and a brilliant young woman. What has become a wee bit inconsiderate to Perrette's talent -- which succeeded so brilliantly in doing the improbable -- is asking a middle-aged actress to continue in perpetuity in what is one of TV's most cherishable ingenue roles.

We love Abby out here on the potato's couch. She is the heart and soul of the show's indomitable minesweeping demographics (which begin by skewing old and successfully radiate downward). We watch her really because, in my generation, we all want to give her a kiss of approval on the cheek for her smarts. Among younger viewers, they want to give her a sisterly and brotherly hug of understanding and sympathy.

Just as "NCIS" finally bit the bullet and allowed Michael Weatherly to stop jabbering immaturely on the show and turn into the high-minded "Bull" on Tuesday after "NCIS," they are now, finally ready to say goodbye to Perrette in "NCIS" so that she can take her formidable talent for ingratiation to a role with more appropriate maturity.

Perrette indirectly discussed some of this on last Sunday's "CBS Sunday Morning" and coyly admitted that there are "a lot of discussions going on" about what she ought to do next. You can certainly bet on that.

This much I know: If they allow her to disappear they will have wasted one of the most likable actresses ever to have a regular role on network television. Some smart rethinking is an absolute imperative. Letting her disappear from television would be truly felonious contempt from television's creative classes.


On the other hand, the USA legal series "Suits" returns Wednesday to say what seems goodbye forever to Meghan Markle who will, on May 11, legally and otherwise be occupied as the newest princess in Britain's royal family.

She is, as everyone knows, about to marry ginger-haired, good old boy Prince Harry, the lucky, low-pressure younger son of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, the one no one expects to have to be king -- ever.

Markle, as some seem to be in a hurry to point out, is a regular 21st century princess of mixed race. None of this lilywhite Grace Kelly patrician stuff.

The British Royals, if we are to believe their press, can barely wait to hit the 21st century in a dead run toward post-Diana democracy and racial diversity.

I  must confess I have never watched "Suits." Nor have I ever been one of those who pays a lot of attention to royal weddings (other than that great Fred Astaire movie of the same name showing us Astaire dancing on the "ceiling" of what was, in truth, a revolving room).

It's hard, though, not to find the upcoming Harry/Meghan ceremonial pleasant in its largely meaningless way. The British Royal family has been nothing but symbolic anyway in modern times and there's definitely something symbolically democratic about a coupling that so eschews that Windsor tendency to propagate "the whitest women you ever saw" (to quote Hawaiian-raised Bette Midler's memorable description of Queen Elizabeth on being introduced to her after a command performance).

It seems to me, in fact, you could make a pretty good weekly TV show out of it. You could even star an apparently mature Pauley Perrette in it as the couple's chief of staff, the omni-capable genius who secretly runs their lives behind the scenes, thereby continuing the Royal Family as an object of veneration and fascination for some people.

They'll just have to allow some of us to chortle privately and leave our all-American amusement safely locked up in our desire to continue being polite and mannerly.

After all, former Brits invented this country. If we had to learn some basic things from them, we could have done a lot worse than learning good manners.

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