JAG (the American Military acronym for Judge Advocate General) is an American adventure/legal drama television show that was produced by Belisarius Productions, in association with Paramount Network Television and, for the first season only, NBC Productions. Originally conceived as Top Gun meets A Few Good Men, JAG was first aired on NBC on September 23, 1995, but was later cancelled on May 22, 1996 after finishing 77th in the ratings. With a network change, rival network CBS picked up the series for a midseason replacement, beginning on January 3, 1997. CBS's decision to give JAG another chance would prove very profitable, as they aired it for nine additional seasons until April 29, 2005, for a total of ten seasons. In total, 227 episodes were produced and the show was also seen in over 100 countries. Due to the show's popularity, the show entered syndication early in 1999 and it is still regularly repeated around the world, mostly on the USA Network.
The series depicts JAG officers, though heavily romanticized, applying the stipulations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and international law as well as providing conventional television melodrama. In its initial phase, the show relied much on Hollywood military-prop suppliers and existing stock footage from other well-known naval and military films, including Top Gun, The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger. The Department of Defense later recognized the series as positive for its public image and therefore granted official support, providing the producers access to military installations and equipment. It is so far the only television show to have been officially endorsed by both the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps. From the beginning, the show regularly incorporated elements of real-life military actions into its storylines, e.g. the aftermath of the Bosnian War, the attack on the USS Cole, the events of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent War on Terrorism. In the wake of the above attacks the show experienced a boost in ratings and became a fixture on Nielsen's top 10.
The final ensemble cast centers on Captain Harmon "Harm" Rabb, Jr., USN (David James Elliott), and Lieutenant Colonel Sarah "Mac" MacKenzie, USMC (Catherine Bell). Bell had guest-starred on the final episode of season one, entitled "Skeleton Crew" as a Naval Officer that Rabb was supposed to have met for dinner; she was murdered and Rabb was arrested for her murder. This plotline was left open until a later season, when Bell was a regular character, and the loose ends of a doppleganger were revealed. Rabb was promoted to Captain in the second-to-last episode of the series. Harm and Mac's obvious love for each other, which must not be allowed to interfere with their professional relationship, is a long-running thematic element.
Elliott played Harmon Rabb from the start of the series in 1995. Rabb's original partner in the pilot was Navy Lieutenant Caitlin Pike, played by Andrea Parker. She in turn left the series to star in The Pretender (she later returned as a guest star in three episodes), and was replaced by Tracey Needham as Lieutenant JG Meg Austin. Needham left the series in 1996 and was replaced by Catherine Bell from season 2 on (though Needham did return as a guest star in a season 3 episode).
Other members of the cast included Lieutenant Commander Bud Roberts, (played by Patrick Labyorteaux), first a PAO on the aircraft carrier USS Seahawk, then later a junior Judge Advocate at JAG. While on an assignment to the Seahawk, he met his future wife, Lieutenant Harriett Sims, played by Karri Turner, who would eventually come to be the administrative aide (from the Inspector General's Office (IG)), who held the office together. Bud's clumsiness, both physical and verbal, and geeky interests (he's a Trekkie, fascinated by the paranormal, and a computer nerd), together with his wife's maternal nature, were a frequent source of comic relief. His clumsiness was played down as the series went on. Bud lost the lower half of his right leg in Afghanistan in the last episode of season 7, while attempting the heroic rescue of an Afghan boy playing in a mine field. For his actions, he received the Purple Heart and later was able to return to partial active duty with a prosthetic leg.
The actress Nanci Chambers, wife of David James Elliott, played Lieutenant Loren Singer. She portrayed this character as a loathsome villainess to great acclaim. Singer was consumed by her continual want to further her career at the expense of those around her. She often clashed with the other characters. Especially praised was an episode in which Singer hurt fan-loved Harriet by using the death of her baby Sarah to discredit her testimony in court. In a later episode, however, Harriet got a measure of revenge by punching out Singer (7.23 "In Country"). Singer was murdered, with suspicion falling on Harm, who was eventually cleared (the two part story detailing the investigation into Singer's murder was used as the pilot for the spin off NCIS).
Almost all episodes of the series feature scenes filmed aboard real United States Navy ships. The ship most widely used was the USS Forrestal (CV 59), commissioned by the U.S. Navy as a training carrier at the time. Most of the Nimitz class carriers also appear in one or several episodes. The USS Saratoga (CV 60), USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) were also used in the series.
USS Enterprise was used as the fictional USS Seahawk in many episodes. USS Forrestal was used in many episodes, most prominently one in which she portrayed the fictional USS Reprisal. In this episode, all crew members wore caps with the CV 35 pennant number. This number was totally out of sequence with the pennant numbers of active USN carriers at the time the series was filmed, but was intentional. In fact CV 35 would have been the real pennant number of an Essex class carrier actually called Reprisal, which was cancelled during construction in 1945 when WW2 ended and broken up in 1949 after consideration had been given to completing her to a revised design roughly similar to that of USS Oriskany (CVA 34).
Only three carriers featured in the series were called by their real name : USS Hornet (CV12), USS Coral Sea (CV 43) and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
Real shots of the Roosevelt in harbor are used in one episode of Season One.
Season Three opener Ghost ship was filmed entirely aboard the Hornet while she was laid up at Alameda Naval Air Station before being preserved as a museum ship. Part of the storyline in Ghost Ship deals with the final fate of Hornet. It implies (though not explicitely stating it) that she was eventually scrapped due to severe fire damage sustained during the course of the episode, contrary to her real-life fate as a National Landmark. The sub-plot in Ghost Ship indicating that the ship's double hull had to be cut open from the inside to repair torpedo damage during WW2 is apocryphal (though it does serve the main plot well).
Hornet never suffered any torpedo damage during her active service with the USN. The only carriers that did were USS Lexington (CV 2), USS Yorktown (CV 5), USS Wasp (CV 7) and USS Saratoga (CV 3). Lexington, Wasp and Yorktown were sunk by the torpedo hits (plus bomb hits in the two first cases). Saratoga was the only one to survive torpedo hits, but her hull structure was totally different from the Essex clas carriers, including bulges and not a double hull. So the kind of procedure described in the episode never actually happened, though it would have been technicallly feasible on an Essex class carrier.
The Coral Sea is also featured on Season Three. But she had already been scrapped by the time the episode supposedly taking place aboard her was filmed. So part of the episode uses archive footage of the Coral Sea dating back from the early 90's just before her decommissionning, and other parts use shots of the Forrestal.
The series also includes appearances by Tarawa class amphibious ships,Ticonderoga class cruisers, Arleigh Burke class destroyers and Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates. In one of the episodes, the Spanish frigate Santa Maria is used to depict a fictional USN Perry class ship (denoted by her NATO pennant number "F 81" painted under the bridge, instead of the US practice of having a "number only" ID painted on the bow).
For naval enthusiasts, it's funny to trace the inconstencies between the real ships and the ones supposed to be part of the series. Some include Tomcats landing on a Tarawa class ship, Mk 26 *and* Mk 13 missile launchers on the fictional Daniel Boone (actually DDG 51 Arleigh Burke, which was never equipped with either of those systems, but with the Mk 41 VLS instead), or the firing of a bow-mounted 127mm gun from a Perry class frigate. Blame that on artistic license (or the shots made available by the USN....).
In 2005, David James Elliott announced he would leave the show to pursue other projects after not being offered a renewal from the producers. The show introduced new younger characters (including former As the World Turns star Chris Beetem). Producers also thought about relocating the setting of the show to the Naval Base in San Diego, and even set a season ten episode there. Nevertheless, CBS announced the cancellation of the show after ten seasons on April 4, 2005. The final episode, "Fair Winds and Following Seas", which aired April 29, 2005, saw Harm and Mac assigned different stations: Harm in London, Mac in San Diego, California. They finally confront their feelings and decide to get married. The episode ends with them tossing a JAG challenge coin to decide who will give up their career to be with the other. However (in keeping with JAG tradition), we never see the outcome, as the screen fades to black the face of the coin is showing, which says: "Judge Advocate General JAG 1995–2005".
To date, two characters from JAG have appeared on NCIS: Patrick Labyorteaux reprised his role of Bud Roberts in the episode "Hung Out to Dry", while recurring guest star Alicia Coppola appeared in her JAG role of Lt. Cmdr. Faith Coleman in several episodes.
The two-part JAG episode in which the NCIS cast were introduced was later rebroadcast as a regular episode of NCIS, although it was not included in the subsequent Season 1 DVD box set release.