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For nearly two decades, NCIS has been one of primetime TV’s most popular police procedural series. The show started out on a backdoor pilot episode of JAG and premiered in 2003.

Since then, fans have been enthralled by the ups and downs of Washington D.C.’s major case squad under the leadership of Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (portrayed by Mark Harmon). In fact, the series has been so popular that it even produced some spinoff series of its own

Now that Harmon’s departure from the long-running show has been confirmed, what’s next for the series? Can it possibly survive without its lead? The outlook isn’t very good. 

The trope of following a police force through its dramatic day-to-day investigations and cases is nothing new. In fact, police procedural series make up some of TV’s longest-running and most-viewed entertainment options. From Dragnet to Law & Orderthe concept has been a staple for television. 

One thing that has made NCIS stand apart from the crowd is its clear target audience. The series has long been more popular in conservative circles as the show has a distinctly conservative-leaning ethos. This, of course, made it all the more a target during the recent pushback on television shows that glorify police work in the midst of real-life criticism of police power. NCIS is among the series deemed “copaganda” by activists looking for police reform, and Agent Gibbs’ particular brand of justice has not done much to dissuade the pointed commentary. 

Still, the series has managed to hold on through this wave of criticism and remains a popular show even into its 19th season. 

Mark Harmon’s Agent Gibbs shines as a fan favorite 

A lot of the success of NCIS can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Agent Gibbs and the way that actor Mark Harmon portrays him. Gibbs has been in the middle of plenty of heated (and sometimes controversial) moments on the show. 

When rumors started swirling that Harmon would be taking on a more minor role for Season 19, fans worried that the series was nearing an end. After all, the crew revolves around Gibbs’ leadership, and Harmon’s face has become synonymous with the series itself. When Harmon appeared in the Season 19 premiere, it seemed to ward off some of the worst fears, but after just four episodes, Harmon exited the series, taking the lead character with him. 

As TV Insider reports, Harmon’s co-stars have stepped forward to sing his praises and recognize the contributions he gave to the series. David McCallum explained that Harmon was a stabilizing force both on and off the screen: “Mark was instrumental in putting our house in order—I really thank him for that.” 

Could ‘NCIS’ survive the loss of its lead like other shows?

Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon, in 'NCIS' Season 19. Mark Harmon leaves 'NCIS' in season 19
Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon, in ‘NCIS’ Season 19 | Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

12 TV Shows That Survived After Losing a Lead Star

Now that Harmon’s departure is official, some fans are wondering what will happen to NCIS. Optimists claim that the series will have no problem trucking on without Agent Gibbs. Plenty of other primetime shows have survived the loss of their lead. Grey’s Anatomy saw none other than Dr. McDreamy himself killed off. Law & Order: SVU weathered the loss of Detective Stabler for years. Surely NCIS can do the same, right? 

Notably, these other examples all had a powerful co-lead to step into the vacancy left behind. Meredith Grey was able to flourish as the primary lead on Grey’s Anatomy without her counterpart. Detective Benson’s powerful independence managed to fill in the gap that Stabler had left on SVU

There is no such character waiting in the wings for NCIS. Harmon’s part as Agent Gibbs was so big and foundational to the dynamics between the rest of the characters that they’ll likely all fall flatter and less capable without him around to anchor their parts. As sad as it is for longtime fans, NCIS is likely circling the drain now that its star has departed.