October 16, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Rehearsing a scene for an upcoming episode of CBS’ new hit spin-off, NCIS: Los Angeles, Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J enter an opulent Hollywood Hills mansion to extract information from a very shady Russian. LL is supposed to move to the far side of the room, but he doesn’t like it. No, he says, his savvy ex — Navy Seal investigator Sam Hanna would never position himself in a spot where he can’t see any dangers that might come through the door. Before anyone can object, the actor plants himself near the room’s center so he has a better view of O’Donnell (who plays his partner, G. Callen), the Russian, and a very tall bodyguard now blocking the entrance. ”This is it,” LL announces confidently, smacking his fist against his palm. ”Oh, yeah…this is a safe spot.” O’Donnell nods in approval.

If anyone should know the value of a safe spot, it’s these two. Their new drama airs on Tuesdays right after its patriarch, NCIS, also known as the No. 1 show on TV. And in that plum berth, NCIS: LA immediately became the most-watched new show of the season, averaging 17 million viewers. ”We both have been in this business long enough to know that nothing’s a sure thing,” says O’Donnell. (Take his 2005 Fox dramedy Head Cases, for example, which aired only two episodes.) ”We’ve been given a very fortunate time slot.” And, more crucially, a very fortunate name: NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) — which stars Mark Harmon as Jethro Gibbs, leader of a D.C.-based team of investigators solving crimes in the military — is a juggernaut for CBS. It’s defying all laws of TV physics by attracting its largest audience yet, 21.5 million viewers, in its seventh season, a time when most dramas are losing viewers amid cast departures and plot retreads. But not only is the NCIS team still relatively intact, the show is serving as the cornerstone of another surefire franchise for CBS, which has had enormous success with its three CSIs. ”Every community needs a hero,” says executive producer Shane Brennan, who runs both the original NCIS and the spin-off. ”Gibbs is one of those great heroes of modern television…. [But] it doesn’t really matter what show you’re watching, you really want a hero.” And, as it turns out, it doesn’t really matter whether those heroes work in the nation’s capital or the City of Angels.

Part drama, pat comedy, and part modern-day Western, the smash hit NCIS continues to confound the uninitiated, who assume it’s as patriotically stiff as its military-law predecessor, JAG. They’re dead wrong, says fan favorite Michael Weatherly, who plays slaphappy Special Agent Tony DiNozzo. ”I sometimes say that our show is a little bit like Huey Lewis and the News. We’re popular with people who believe the heart of rock & roll is still beating, but we’re still singing, ‘I want a new drug.’ We’re clean-cut, but it’s still hip to be square!”

It’s even hipper to attract the young adults; NCIS is currently earning its best-ever ratings among adults 18-49, winning its time slot with 6.4 million viewers in that demo. It was no surprise, then, that the president of CBS Television Studios, which produces NCIS, asked Brennan last winter if he could come up with a spin-off. The Australian-born Brennan ”always thought there was a good show in doing undercover work,” so he created LL and O’Donnell’s Navy gumshoes and introduced them in an April NCIS two-parter, where they teamed with Gibbs’ crew to track down a terrorist cell. While LL has a we-are-family take on the crossover — ”Mark Harmon and his team were nice enough to allow us to have those episodes. They could have balked…. But they were gracious enough to say, ‘Yes, we wanna embrace this”’ — Weatherly remembers it a little differently. ”When Shane told us about the spin-off as a collective group, David McCallum [who plays the brainy Dr. ”Ducky” Mallard] had the best line, which was ‘Oh, yes, I know about this. It was called The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.,”’ referring to Stefanie Powers’ failed spin-off of 1964’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Adds Weatherly, ”We all kind of wandered around going, ‘How’s that going to work?”’ Harmon certainly wasn’t convinced. While promoting a film during Sundance last January, the actor told EW that he wasn’t ”a huge fan of the idea” — especially since it meant that Brennan’s attention would be divided between both shows. (Harmon declined to comment for this article.) Those types of concerns among stars aren’t new — CSI star William Petersen had the same worries when CBS launched CSI: Miami and CSI: NY, though they ended up not hurting his show. ”It’s all about reassuring everyone that it’s going to be fine,” says Brennan, who’ll rely on coexecutive producer Gary Glasberg to manage NCIS when he’s working on the spin-off. ”I think everyone is delighted with the numbers we’ve got, and it’s very clear that NCIS hasn’t suffered in any way.” Adds CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, ”These two shows can coexist. We just have to make sure those loyal viewers of NCIS are as satisfied and excited by the stories on NCIS: LA. It has to stay as true to the original brand as possible.”

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