‘NCIS: LA’ Showrunner on Giving the Team a “Happily Ever After” in Series Finale (2023)

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[This story contains spoilers for “New Beginnings, Part 2,” the series finale of NCIS: Los Angeles.]

The Office of Special Projects wrapped up one final case in Sunday’s series finale of NCIS: Los Angeles —but that was really not the core of the episode.

In fact, showrunner R. Scott Gemmill said, the final case —in which the team helps a deep-cover ATF agent break up an arms-dealing ring —“was secondary to what we wanted to do,” which was put the characters viewers spent 14 seasons and 323 episodes watching in a good place as the series wrapped. Thus Callen (Chris O’Donnell) and Anna (Bar Paly) ditch their stressful plans for a big wedding and opt for a small courthouse ceremony. Kensi (Daniela Ruah) and Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen) find out they’re having a baby, Rountree (Caleb Castille) gets a life-changing settlement in his case against the LAPD, and Sam (LL Cool J) gets promising news about a medical trial for his dad (Richard Gant).

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“It was just about going character by character and figuring out what they’ve been through, what they deserve and what we’d like to see for the future,” Gemmill, who wrote the series finale with Kyle Harimoto, told The Hollywood Reporter. “And what is the hopeful version of that, and I think we did our best doing that for every one of the characters.”

The series ends not at the wedding, however, but with Callen and Hanna traveling to Morocco to search for Hetty (Linda Hunt) —and reuniting with old colleagues Nell (Renee Felice Smith), Nate (Peter Cambor) and Sabatino (Erik Palladino). “What do you say, gentlemen? Are you ready for your next adventure?” Nell asks.

“Yeah,” Callen replies. “This is gonna be fun.”

Gemmill spoke with THR about why he likes a happy ending, putting together the reunion scene —and how one character got a “stay of execution” when COVID shut down production three years ago.

How much ahead of the public announcement that the show was ending did you find out about it?

We didn’t have a whole lot of time. And also, we didn’t know if we were going to have one or two episodes. We originally planned it as one finale episode, and then CBS was nice enough to give us two episodes. So then we had to rethink, again, in terms of what it means to have a two-parter. It was a little bit pressed for time, but this is what we do. We did the best job we could.

Since this is a show designed around weekly stories, along with ongoing character arcs, did you have to shift your thinking some as you brought the series to an end?

Writing a pilot is very difficult, and I think the next hardest thing is writing the finale of a series. Especially a show that’s been on for 14 seasons, there’s so much story that you’ve done, characters that have gone through life-changing events, and now you have to bring it all to a close. For us, it was really about trying to leave the fans in a really good place and not trying to be splashy or fancy or clever, but really leaving the characters knowing that they’re going to be OK — that they’re happy going forward. As a fan myself, when a series ends that I really enjoyed, I really prefer that it ends in a “happily ever after” sort of way. Cheesy as it might be, I just feel like if you’ve invested that much time in watching a show, you want leave in a satisfied state. That’s what we tried to do, was just bring every character’s story to some sort of conclusion that still offers hope for the future. I think “hope” is the key word.

What was breaking the final episodes like for the writers room?

It was just about going character by character and figuring out what they’ve been through, what they deserve and what we’d like to see for the future. And what is the hopeful version of that, and I think we did our best doing that for every one of the characters.

Did you build the case around the character beats or vice versa?

The story was secondary to what we wanted to do. We basically knew we want Callen to get married. We want Kensi and Deeks to find out they’re going to have a baby. We want Sam’s father to be accepted to a promising medical trial. We want it to wrap up Rountree’s case with law enforcement. And we wanted to send some hope that we’re gonna go save Hetty —we wanted to address that. Linda [Hunt] wasn’t available — had she been available, it might have been a little different, but we sort of gave it that service. We also wanted to revisit some characters that we’ve seen in the past, either through the wedding or through what we had in mind for the last scene, which was our guys in Morocco, on their way to try and rescue Hetty.

Were there other combinations of characters for that final scene that you had on the board?

It comes down to time, money and availability. I would have everybody and his brother there that I could have [laughs]. We wanted Arkady (Vyto Ruginis), we put him in the show. We wanted to see Deeks’ mother (Pamela Reed) again, she was at the wedding. Sabatino made an appearance, Nate made an appearance, and Nell. I would have had everybody if I could have, but it just isn’t feasible. We tried to give a nod to the past and to the future.

If you were to think about going past this episode, now that G is married, do you think that would change anything about the way he works?

Possibly. There was a script that was supposed to be the finale three years ago, where Anna got shot and killed. That was the year of COVID, and we didn’t shoot our finale. So she got a stay of execution and they ended up getting married [laughs]. So you never know what’s going to happen. With Callen, had we had another season coming, I’m not sure they would have gotten married in the finale, but I’m sure we would have gotten them married at some point. Knowing that there was the end of this series, we certainly put things into play that we may not have if we knew we were going to have to pick them up and carry them into the next season.

It was also fun to see Kensi and Deeks, in the scenes where they’re on overwatch, just get to talk and make cracks at each other.

The case was very secondary to really spending time with our characters, which is what the audience tunes in for. I’m sure they don’t remember the cases, but they do remember the interactions between the characters.

What was the last thing that you shot?

The last scene we filmed was on our stages. The last scene [of the episode] was shot prior to that out in the desert, although it was very, very green.

What was the atmosphere on set like on the last day?

It was very bittersweet. It was tough. It was a lot of tears, but that is also a sign of how much fun we’ve had and how lucky we’ve been. If a show goes down after one year, you don’t have the same level of attachment to those people that you do after 14. We saw people get married, have kids, so it was very emotional because ultimately it’s about the people that you work with. It was one thing to not do the show — we would have been OK if we could have just done a new show, you know? Everyone would have been a lot less upset because they would get to work together [again]. We have a really great family that works together and plays together. To know that now we’re all going to go to the four corners of the earth is, or at least four corners of Hollywood [laughs], is a little tough to face.

While there’s been some cast turnover, to have a show go this long and have your four leads there essentially the entire time, and you were there the whole time. I would imagine you had long-time crew as well —that’s a lot of history.

That’s a testimony to how well everyone gets along and how much we enjoy working together. That’s what makes it so difficult [to end it]. It’s not so much about the show itself. It’s really about the people.

On a more serious note, with the writers strike ongoing, what would you say are the most pressing issues that you want the guild to work out with the studios?

I think the AI thing is what scares me the most. That’s really come to be a real issue. And it’s not just for writers, it’s for studio execs, it’s for graphic artists, it’s for animators, it’s for just about everyone. If we were on the forefront of finding a way to come up with some laws for that. I mean, there are other issues too, with, you know, the mini-rooms and trying to establish day rates for writers and other silliness. When we go on strike, it’s never for the people who are sort of in the business at the moment, it’s more about for the future of the business and the future writers, and I think nothing speaks to that as an issue more than AI.

Did you take anything home with you after filming wrapped?

The guys gave me a sign from Surfside Sully’s. I don’t even remember what season it was [Ed. note: season two], but we built a beach bar in Santa Monica where we did a full burn and had a neon sign. So they gave me that, which was nice. But I didn’t personally take anything, just a lot of memories. I would have liked that golden shark from Squid and Dagger, but it was gone already.

Any last thoughts about having been with this series for so long?

It was a great, great run. I’m sad it’s over. I think we all are. You know, when you see grown men, tough, tough men coming up to you crying, you’ve done something right. We were blessed that CBS kept us on as long as they did. It will be a while before any of us to do that again, if we ever do.

Interview edited and condensed.

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