‘NCIS’ Star Brian Dietzen Talks Jimmy-Centric Episode, New Showrunners

Halfway through its 14th season, “NCIS” has explored terror plots, assassinations, mistaken identities, and more murders than one can count. Yet there are still new stories waiting to be told, as in the episode airing Jan. 24, titled “Keep Going.” It features Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen), assistant to medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, at center stage. In the episode, Palmer breaks rank and, in an out-of-character move, climbs onto a building ledge in an attempt to stop the son of a murder victim from committing suicide. Variety sat down with Dietzen to talk about the episode, changes to the set with the absence of Michael Weatherly and showrunner Gary Glasberg, and some big news Jimmy reveals at episode’s end.

This was one of the first episodes for which showrunner Gary Glasberg wasn’t around, after his death. Has the direction of the show changed without him? 

The remainder of this season, after Gary’s sudden passing — it was sudden — is really meant as a testament to him, a guy who helped steer this ship towards a hell of a lot of success and another spinoff and all of that. If you look at happened what happened after Gary passed away, you saw all of these writers really pull together and decide what we were going do with the rest of this season. But they looked up at his big board and it was more filled than it has been for any of our previous seasons. I’m excited for what’s coming next and just as incredibly sad as we all are that we’re not going to have him there to lead us, it’s a testament to him as a showrunner that when he did pass, he didn’t leave us without a sense of direction. He really had a map going for this year.

How have the new showrunners stepped in?

Well, George Schenck and Frank Cardea have been writing for our TV show since the beginning, and I think if there’s anyone appropriate to just step in immediately, it would be those two. They know this show, its history and its DNA backwards and forwards. Gary had us really well prepared for any bump in the road, but we just didn’t know it would be this awful.

This is also the first season without Michael Weatherly on the show. How has it been to work without him on set? 

Well, there are more pants, ’cause he used to take off his pants a lot. With Michael leaving, the rest of the “NCIS” family is just so happy for his success on “Bull.” We want him to be successful ’cause he’s been our brother for the last 13 years. But it’s also bittersweet; as happy as we are for him, it’s sad we don’t get to hang out with him on a daily basis anymore. We see him at CBS events and that sort of thing. But everything changes at some point, whether it’s story-wise on the show or whether it’s in real life when it comes to actors or producers or writers leaving. You can either fight that, or you can try to embrace new storytelling or new character that’s come in.

There’s a sense of opportunity there. I think that when Michael left — a wonderful storyteller and performer with such a huge energetic presence — that naturally left a vacuum of some sort. It’s been great to see not a singular direct replacement for his character come in, which I think would have been such a misstep. Instead, they’ve brought in a few different characters to build the roles. Plus, with things like this happening, a Jimmy Palmer episode, we can say, “Look! We also have this guy in our stable. Lets concentrate on him for a week.”

Where did the idea for this episode come from?

Our writers had wanted to do a Jimmy Palmer episode at some point and Scott Williams, one of our executive producers, said it just kind of hit him when he was in the shower one day to get Jimmy into a kind of life-or-death situation that he’s frankly not trained for, which would be a vehicle for revealing a lot of great stuff about the character and seeing him go through some trials and tribulations.

For this episode, the writers pitched basically a one-act play with these two men out on a ledge talking about life, whether it’s living or dying. It’s that black and white. So you get to see Jimmy Palmer’s optimism shine through. That’s kind of his superpower on the team, if you will, and that is what ends up saving the day. It did feel like a play out there. We were on that ledge for five days straight. Spencer Clark, the other actor in those scenes, was just terrific. We got to just do scene after scene after scene. It was probably one of the most fun episodes of “NCIS” I’ve gotten to do.

You’ve mentioned that this episode was about overcoming adversity. How does that fit into Jimmy’s character and the show’s larger themes and messages?

What has made Jimmy Palmer a memorable character over this past decade is the fact that he is a guy who is looking for the positive and is always learning. Some people that I’ve spoken to have said, “Oh, he comes across as naive at times,” and I like to think, well, no, not really naive. He’s just always ready to learn and try to put the positive on something. Even in the darkest hours he’s trying to make something better for himself or for his team. I think that the message of this episode, specifically, just falls right in line with who Jimmy Palmer is and what he’s done for the team over the past 13 years. Which is to say, when you hit something that just seems it’s insurmountable, when you hit something that seems like there’s no path around it or through it, you just have to keep your head down and just keep going and do what you believe in. I think Jimmy Palmer was kind of the perfect vessel to send that message from our team.

There were also a lot of flashbacks included in this episode. What was the thinking on that?

Like with a lot of TV, those were budgetary concerns, actually. It normally takes us eight days to shoot an episode of our show, and we wanted to shoot this one in seven days. So it would save a production day and essentially all of those flashbacks, if you add up the page count, add up to about a day’s worth of work we’re not going to do because we’re just going to show flashbacks. We’ll save a bit of money there and we’ll save a bit of money by not having a huge guest cast, because the majority of the show was myself and Spencer out on a ledge. We actually ended up shooting nearly everything in about six and a half days instead of seven, so it accelerated the process and it worked out pretty well for us.

But I think also, those specific scenes that were shown really served to highlight that Jimmy Palmer’s not just up there saying whatever comes to mind, like, “You need to be positive, you need to look for the best in things, or you need to look for the best in people.” Those flashbacks served to show that this is how this guy has actually lived in the past. When he has been down, he has been able to find a way out. When he has felt sad, he’s found a way to find the best in a bad situation. I think Scott and Matt did a great job in picking out some of the best Jimmy Palmer stuff.

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