Nov 29 2009 12:29pm

NCIS: LA and Steampunk; or, how not to capitalize on a popular emerging subculture

This week the television program NCIS: LA aired its most recent episode, entitled “Random On Purpose,” which had been touted as containing depictions of the steampunk subculture during the lead up to the show’s airing. Steampunk enthusiasts have been looking forward to this episode in the hopes that it would represent a positive, accurate and enjoyable example of the subculture on mainstream television. One assumes that the show’s producers had similar hopes: that their inclusion of steampunk would attract the viewership of steampunk fans and allow NCIS: LA to plant its flag as perhaps the first fictional depiction of the steampunk subculture on a mainstream TV show. Unfortunately, the steampunk community has been terribly disappointed.

At the outset it should be acknowledged that the steampunk subculture plays an extremely small, extraneous role in the show. It is practically a non-entity. The depiction of steampunk is unrelated to the major events of the episode and it is simply used as a backdrop for a bar scene which could have taken place anywhere. This is not a point that needs to be criticized: while steampunk fans would probably have enjoyed a positive, accurate depiction of their subculture as a major aspect of the episode, a positive, accurate depiction of it in a five to ten minute side scene would still be a welcome way to introduce steampunk to the public. However, the depiction was neither accurate nor positive, and it succeeded in offering an insult to the Goth subculture as well.

In the episode, the NCIS character Abby makes a crossover appearance to assist the NCIS: LA team with one of their investigations. Abby is a forensics specialist and is also a Goth. During a break in the episode’s investigation, Abby is invited on a date by the local tech expert, Eric, and they visit an exciting LA Goth bar named, inexplicably, “SteamPunk”. The bar itself looks like any generic upscale bar (fair is fair, it was a nice-looking place), but there is nothing even remotely “steampunk” about it; I’m actually surprised that show did not try to film at The Edison ( The background music is extremely generic, begging the question why they didn’t think to include something from Gilded Age Records ( Indeed the only clear “subculture” aspects of the scene are the extras, most of whom are dressed in Goth club clothes. There are also a smattering of steampunk accessories (top hats, aviator caps, etc), which supports the image of the bar as a Goth locale as it is not unusual to find people adding steampunk aspects to their outfits at Goth nights these days. However, tacking on the name “SteamPunk” to a Goth bar not only makes no sense (even Goth events and clubs that incorporate steampunk still have Goth names, and are proud of it) but it demonstrates an attempt on the part of the show’s writers to lump Goth and steampunk into one subject.

There are two problems here. First of all, this is simply wrong. Steampunk is fundamentally different from Goth. The two have entirely different aesthetics and backgrounds, and while many Goths are also fans of steampunk it is ridiculous to suggest that they are the same or even similar (the lesson to be learned from Goth steampunk enthusiasts is that people are, shockingly enough, capable of enjoying a variety of different things at one time). Second, it is insulting. By denying the distinction between Goth and steampunk, NCIS: LA is dismissively lumping them together presumably on the grounds that they’re both “alternative” and therefore are the same. One finds it difficult to imagine the show making the same sort of dismissive link between two mainstream subcultures such as football fans and golfers on the grounds that both “enjoy sports.” While a person can be a fan of both football and golf, I believe most people will agree that the two sports and the ways they are enjoyed are fundamentally different. This is a good thing: it’s called “variety” and it’s perfectly healthy.

Soon after getting to the bar, Abby is kidnapped (a plot twist of sufficiently low secrecy that it can be found listed on the show’s website). When two of the investigators (Callen and Sam) show up to find out if anyone has seen anything, the locals are strangely silent, even hostile. While not a Goth myself I have friends who are Goth or have worked in the Goth scene. From them I have gained the distinct impression that most Goths are very polite, decent and respectful people who would be as likely or even more likely to assist in finding an abducted person than the average man or woman on the street; this is equally true about steampunk enthusiasts. Even more ridiculously, one of the bartenders (who, I would assume, has a vested interest in the bar staying on the good side of the Law so that he can keep his job) refuses to help and tells Callen and Sam “I don’t care.” I have yet to meet a bartender or any employee of a bar or club who would behave in this manner. Even more ludicrously, the other bartender confesses that she was asked by “a guy” to text him if a woman matching Abby’s description came to the bar, in exchange for some money; again, while I’m certain some people would be that irresponsible, it still does not mesh with my understanding of employees at nightclubs. Most unbelievable of all, the second bartender cannot remember any details about the man who paid her and tells Callen that he looked “like you” and “like the blond guy she was here with” (meaning the character Eric). In fact, while this might be a valid mistake for Callen and Eric, both of whom have fair hair, strong jaws and square faces, when the kidnapper is revealed he clearly looks nothing like them. The explanation for the bartender’s inability to give a description is that “all muggles look the same,” which implies that Goths, steampunk enthusiasts or perhaps bartenders are incapable of telling the difference between two people who are not Goths, steampunk enthusiasts or bartenders.

For those of you who are not aware, “muggle” is a word best known for its associations with the Harry Potter books (where it means a non-wizard). I have been led to understand that it predates Harry Potter and references anyone lacking a certain skill (such as non-hackers in computer culture); however, as neither I nor anyone I know uses this term, I cannot substantiate this. What is important here is that the term “muggle” is not some sort of in-scene slang used by the steampunk subculture, nor am I familiar with it being used by anyone in the Goth subculture. Clearly, the show’s writers decided to throw the word in just for the fun of it, even though it is not in any way an authentic depiction of the subcultures they are allegedly portraying. If NCIS: LA was intending to present an accurate (and therefore viewer-winning) picture of steampunk to keep its show trendy and edgy, it has clearly failed. This is the sort of thing that will inevitably alienate members of the subculture (who are already having a great time mocking and criticizing the episode) and will confuse the mainstream audience by a lack of any explanation as to what “steampunk” is and why a character would be interested in going to a bar of that name.

Now, it may be argued that mainstream television programs will inevitably get their depictions of subculture communities wrong (though how they confused steampunk and Goth is utterly beyond me). To this, I would like to reply by referencing a second season episode of the show Castle; an episode entitled “Vampire Weekend.” In this episode, the Castle writers successfully developed a plot that not only references but interacts with the vampire subculture in a respectful and complex manner. While I cannot speak to the accuracy of the material (I am not a member of that subculture myself), it seems realistic and the episode is filled with brief but succinct statements and conversations that help explain aspects of the subculture to a mainstream audience and draw parallels to things familiar to the viewers (vampire “covens” are explained as being like social clubs; an interest in vampires and the macabre may be inspired by childhood experiences, but this is no different than the experiences that might drive people to become cops or mystery writers). In short, it is possible to present subcultures in mainstream television in a respectful and accurate manner, and without reducing them to caricatures.

NCIS: LA’s depiction of steampunk displays a distinct lack of familiarity with the subject, which in turn implies that either no research was done on the steampunk subculture or it was simply dismissed in favor of a fabricated (and negative) image that the show wanted to present to its audience. Given that there is already a wealth of information about steampunk available to the public (including several fine examples of media coverage including articles in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle) the end result in NCIS: LA is mind-boggling. However, perhaps more than that, it is very disappointing. While I am not particularly concerned about how one television show decides to depict a subculture, there is a principle here: things like this can confuse people new to the subject, and that sort of confusion has been known to snowball into increasingly inaccurate, unrealistic and even hostile views of a distinctly benign genre and subculture. Besides which, NCIS: LA had a chance to make a mark as being the first show to include steampunk, which would keep it fresh and in touch with the youth; instead, it has displayed just how out of touch it is. It could have been really “cool”, for lack of a better word, but it dropped the ball. Clearly we are still waiting for steampunk’s first real portrayal in a mainstream television show. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to see it on Castle.

G. D. Falksen is an author and student of history who has written articles and given lectures on the steampunk genre and the related subculture. He is also recovering from a recent car accident. More information on him can be found at his website,, and on his Twitter,

Thomas Kerkeslin
1. Thomas Kerkeslin
Thank you for this. I walked away from the episode feeling disappointed and insulted.
Thomas Kerkeslin
2. Katabulous
Wow, that's terrible. I never really thought NCIS was very well written, though. The way they emphasize the fact that Abbie is goth annoys the crap out of me.

I'd also like to point out that the TV Show BONES had a pretty fantastically written about Black Metal, but then went on to write a pretty awkward episode that mashed Maid Cafes, Lolitas and Visual Kei all into 30 minutes. Subcultures on TV have been and will always be pretty hit or miss. :/
Michael Grosberg
3. Michael_GR
Whatever they do, it's still way better than what CSI did to furries (look up "Fur and loathing" if you haven't seen the episode). At least their Trekkie episode was somewhat respectful.
Anita Croft
4. AnitaCroft
"...they visit an exciting LA Goth bar named, inexplicably, “SteamPunk”"
Ahhahahahaaaaaa no. *snort*
Really guys? Nice. I wouldn't set foot in a bar called "SteamPunk". I would, however, make fun of it relentlessly.
As for "muggle", I have no words.

Thanks for stereotyping, NCIS! Now hand me my top hat, I'm leaving.
*turns into a cloud of bats and flies away in a puff of clove scented smoke*

Seriously though, this sort of thing always disappoints me. It's insulting and it seems as if they were making an effort to depict goth/steampunk in a negative manner.
Evan Langlinais
6. Skwid
I'm more than a bit baffled by this. Did you really expect anything else? NCIS is comfort food for grandmas who are afraid that no one is out there bringing criminals to justice, and has a very successful formula for that which generally can't depict any culture correctly, much less a subculture.

Why are you surprised? Why didn't this get just a "Haha, why can't these mainstream media types get anything even close to right" instead of this protracted analysis and complaining?
Anita Croft
7. AnitaCroft
@Skwid - I can't speak for anyone else, but personally I wasn't surprised by it. Perhaps if more people "analyzed and complained" about the mainstream media "not getting it right" and explained exactly how and why they are getting it wrong, they might try harder next time and thereby not insult and alienate potential viewers, or an entire subculture. Wishful thinking, I know.

That being said, I agree that NCIS and the other incarnations of CSI shows suck.
Evan Langlinais
8. Skwid
AnitaCroft @ 7, I'm not sure it's even in their best interest to do so. To solidify their audience it is best to portray outsiders as being unfriendly and unsympathetic precisely so that they can be reassured that their own vanilla interests and associations are the valid life choices to have made. "Getting it Right" to a subculture that is so small as to not make a blip in their weekly ratings is probably not worth the perceived effort.

Further, I don't think the show (Well, NCIS anyway...I haven't watched the spinoff at all) sucks, for what it is. It's written as pablum and functions very well as such. It's a great show to have on in the background while you're folding laundry or whatever; but you have to have realistic expectations of what it is and what it is and is not likely to do well.
Thomas Kerkeslin
9. SteampunkShadowLord
While I enjoyed the episode, I was a little annoyed (after some reflection) that this "SteamPunk" bar was really more of a Goth/Victorian Goth/SteamGoth hangout, and was amused but a little confused by the use of the term "muggle." While the LARP troupes I participate in use the term "muggle" for non-gamers and other mundanes/normals, I've not seen it used outside the group in any context not related to Harry Potter.

All in all, Belisarius Productions (the same company -- started by Donald P. Belisario -- that gave us Quantum Leap) disappoints with this one.
Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
Wow, a mainstream crime show pretends to feature a subculture and gets it completely, horribly, insultingly wrong?

That's never happened before.
Thomas Kerkeslin
11. Comtesse
I believe steampunk has finally gotten big enough you're going to start seeing it more and more in mainstream media, with all of the cluelessness three-second writer "research" involves.

Come join us old-school Goths at the Bar of Misappropriation and we'll pour you a glass and let you complain.

However, considering that Goth got the media shaft post-Columbine for a couple of assholes who happened to be wearing black, I have to say I'd be pretty happy if the worst thing that Goth was ever associated with was a crappy fictional bar with poor customer service.

P.S. As a Goth since the mid-90s and regular watcher of the fun fluff that is NCIS, I love Abby and think she's a great and positive example of a Goth. She's intelligent, friendly and quirky while still being respected by her peers and coworkers... I'm not sure where the venom regarding her comes from.
John Skotnik
12. ShooneSprings
I was excited about this ep when I first read about it on here, but was a bit dismayed when I heard the bartender start referring to people as "muggles".
Yeah... wow.
I totally buy that the patrons would refer to Eric as "creepy looking guy in flip-flops", but the bartender should and would have noticed someone at the bar, especially if they looked different.

All in all a good ep, but I can understand why some people were disappointed with the inaccurate portrayal.
Thomas Kerkeslin
13. Ben Malisow
Oh, for fuck's sake-- this is what you have to worry about?

Quick: raise your hand if you can explain the difference between Suni and Shi'a.

I can't. But I also don't give a fuck about whether the pretentious affectations of a subset of spoiled American youth are being accurately portrayed within the pop culture...much less by a NETWORK TELEVISION SHOW.

I mean, fuck-- they can't even get the NEWS want them to cater to your particular bent in their entertainment fora?

You're like the ghost-worshippers telling other ghost-worshippers they're doing it wrong. "Oh, you can't eat that food: my imaginary friend said so." "Oh, if you are pro-abortion, you can't call yourself part of the same sect I call myself." "You celebrate the holiday of us being fucked over by our deity on the wrong day."

Hey-- I've got an idea: stop worrying about how the rest of the world defines you as a group, and try being an individual, with your own taste, your own choices, and your own persona. That way, when the Tee-Vee makes fun o' that-there them Tooples, you can always say, "Well, hyuck-- I ain't no Toople! I's my own person!"
Thomas Kerkeslin
14. joejoe
You know what? Real steampunks (or any sub-culture) wouldn't give a rats ass about this portrayal because they are happy living their lives as they are and don't care what anyone thinks. If you spending your day running around calling yourself a steampunk and talk about how awesome it is, you're lame. Just wait for the next cool thing to hit and maybe you can hop on that bus too.
Thomas Kerkeslin
15. Kutulu
I have to say, anyone who was "looking forward to" this depiction of their favorite subculture group on NCIS: LA clearly doesn't watch NCIS or NCIS:LA.

With the re-runs showing on the USA network 6 times a day or so, I think I've seen every episode of that show at least twice in the past year. And I am confident in my assertion that they've *never once* managed an accurate depiction of a subculture, even when it's a crucial and fundamental part of their plot. The early season 2(?) episode about MMOs made me want to put my head through a nearby drywall, and I don't even play MMOs.

I will say, they are a significant improvement over CSI, which usually manages to make every subculture they depict not only completely wrong, but usually completely *evil* and likely to blame for every bad thing that happened in the episode. NCIS's mistakes are usually harmless -- if you silently replace "steampunk" and "goth" with "fictional wierdo" and "spooky fictional wierdo" every time you hear it, the show becomes much easier to take. Similar to how any time Abby/McGee pretend to speak technical jargon, you just can replace every word with "blah" without losing an ounce of content.
Thomas Kerkeslin
16. The Mule
The problem is not just one show.

Cop Worship Shows, as I call them, do not care about subcultures. In fact, they strongly dislike subcultures. All the cop methodology shows uphold only one culture: that of the mainstream. Anything diverging from the mainstream is obviously a springboard to crime, in the writers' minds. The only things these shows' writers research is police methods, period. And the main thing the average viewer wants is for these dirty subculture types to get what's coming to them, directly from the mainstream cops.

CIS, Law & Order; all rotten cop worship does is alienate those not in the white middle-class mainstream.
Eric Powell
17. eriji
GD Falksen: Thumbs UP!

NCIS: Thumbs DOWN! Boo, Hiss!

*switches viewing device to another show*
Thomas Kerkeslin
18. quantumcat
Trust me.

Altman got EVERYthing wrong about Music City and that period's country music scene when he made 'Nashville'.

He had a dang good story.

The acting and songs weren't half-bad.

But,elements such as costumes,musical style and the type of celebrity in vogue were either twenty years behind the times or a decade or so premature.

(Think of doing a Middle East era battle pic and offering credible depictions of doughboys in Europe or sailors in 1940's Manila.)

One reason this movie is a classic is that it isn't about one time,place or people any more than 'State Fair.'

Change the setting and the meta-themes remain the same.

Perhaps,we need to write our own scripts,make our own productions,etc. where we can show the truth about our sub-culture while making it a little less alien and outre' and more interesting.

It seems to me we do a better job of revealing people or mindsets when we just show individuals being their own person who just happens to be ____.

(That's how Emma Peel became the quintessential role model for a generation of Silver Age little girls.

Diana Rigg and her predecessor (Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale) used scripts written for a man.

Mayberry's Andy Taylor struck a chord with Dixie denizens when Andy Griffith used Aaron Rubin's memories of his grandfather.)

I'll be glad if any show (cop worshipping or not) would show this niche interest as just another part of a normal,intriguing life led by people as varied in their levels of virtue and intellect as anyone else.

But,we'll probably see politicians,businessfolk,activists of any stripe and people of faith being seen as human before that happens.

"Hollywood" seldom tells about its own without the producers,directors,starlets,stuntmen,etc. becoming parodies and negative stereotypes.

The gypsies on Broadway,the fashion industry and every level of the arts are equally dissimilar to their real world analogs.

If the creative community can't describe its own environment and those who inhabit it,how can it be accurate
about a setting it only knows second hand?

(Maybe,they could channel Stephen Crane.)
j p
19. sps49
Please. Hollywood got something wrong? When do they get it right? outside of depictions of Hollywood itself.

I used to roll my eyes when newpaper reviews would complain that a movie got the operations of a newspaper wrong, since they never picked up on that in any other genre. Same with depictions of TV when reviewed by TV reviewers.

I would've been shocked if it had been correct, whether NCIS or any other show of movie.
Thomas Kerkeslin
20. JohnstonMR
I know how the nerd rage boils when things like this happen, but damn, is there nothing else to worry about? Really? Just roll your eyes and move the hell on, yeah?
Thomas Kerkeslin
21. Azaroth
Oh come on now, you want accuracy on a Fictional show made by Hollywood?




You win the "I cry cause they pooped in my cornflakes" award for being upset at something that, at the end of the day, has no relevance whatsoever. To argue over this really shows you take the whole idea of a cultural tribal identity to heart so deep there isnt room to have fun anymore.
Janet Martin
22. janmaus
Thanks for the link to the Edison--how perfect a setting that would have been!
Seamus Cooper
23. Seamuscooper
When I was but a young lad, there was a show called Quincy, M.E., about a gruff but lovable coroner and his sidekick, played by Robert "Professor Hikita" Ito.

Quincy showed an episode about how the evil punk rock subculture in LA led to some kid's death. Punks complained about this well into the late '80's, though it had no effect on those of us who enjoyed punk rock. If anything, this misunderstanding by uncool mainstream culture made us feel even cooler.

It was only mainstream popularity that killed punk rock. So, I guess be careful what you wish for.
Thomas Kerkeslin
24. Lady Amelia
Yeah, I figured they'd screw something up. :P Mean goths is rather unfair, but the writers don't get paid to be considerate, I suppose. :D although seeing this come up in Castle should be fun!
Thomas Kerkeslin
26. KC34
RE: difference between Shia and Sunni.

It's a political, not spiritual difference originally. Some Muslims believed after Muhammad's death leadership should have stayed in his family and passed to his cousin Ali. Others preferred electing a new leader from those capable. The former are now Shia, the latter Sunni.

Blanket generalizations about people's knowledge on the internet are nothing new, but that doesn't make them right.

You can probably get the above summary of the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims in about the time it would take you to research the difference between Goth and Steampunk.

The information is out there and writers should take advantage of it.
Wesley Osam
27. Wesley
JohnstonMR @ #20, Azaroth @ #21: If the fact that these people are bothered about this television program means they're oversensitive, what does it say about you that you were sufficiently bothered by their being bothered to take the time to complain about it?
28. gallantrose
Just finished watching the episode and, yeah, the "muggle" thing was really stupid. But there wasn't anything about the general characterization that was different from any other nightclub scene in a procedural. Surly/apathetic bartenders or clubgoers are relics of punk prime--you could have put the guy Spock nerve pinches on the bus in The Voyage Home in w/out much trouble.

NCIS:LA isn't as good as the original, imo, but I keep watching because I am a lady, and thus love cool James.

eta: Wesley @ 27, nice.
Thomas Kerkeslin
29. Luke Reynolds
Well said Wesley.
Thomas Kerkeslin
30. Kara Noir
Now, I haven't seen this episode, but whenever someone say's "Muggles" I think of Harry Potter, so wouldn't it have made more sense to make the plot feature Witches and Wizards instead of Steam Punk?
I mean, "Muggle" means a "None Magical Person" - as Hagrid told Harry in the first book, what the heck does that have to do with Steam Punk, and how can SP be a sub-culture anyway? We don't use steam for things any longer, that last thing I can think of is the steam train which was first pattoned in Engalnd and then in America. Though, I could be wrong about that, it's been a long time since I read about it.

The least they could have done was use it in the correct text.

That reminds me of a part in Metamor City, by whoever does it....I think someone here knows what I mean....but there's this story where they use a term to describe the difference between the people/demons/whatever they are and he people who are entirely human, I think they used "Norms/normies" or something.
Thomas Kerkeslin
31. maedimaio
i love NCIS LA but this narrating is annoying had to change the channel. cut it out what's it for please stop it
Thomas Kerkeslin
32. synthbot
@Comtesse i agree that Abby is awesome on the show and has been a great positive goth icon for television... i did see this episode and along with everyone else was shocked to hear the bartender say first of all "i don't care" and secondly to refer to the norms as "muggles". i know for a fact that at the clubs i frequented in the past, the bartenders and the doorman/woman would have noticed anyone not dressed in the usual decorum or someone who is not a regular (as a lot of times, they stand out as well). i was disappointed a bit, but i've learned to live with TV disappointing me when it comes to my subculture. we can't ever expect much respect from the media, sadly. all in all, great article GD.
Thomas Kerkeslin
33. DrCuriosity
You'll be happy to know that I'm watching this episode now, and upon searching for "ncis la steampunk" this was the first link that came up.
Thomas Kerkeslin
34. Joanne k
haha, I found out about this episode after looking up the new Castle steampunk episode that's airing this coming week.
So I guess your prediction was true and we are lucky! xD
Thomas Kerkeslin
35. RagDoll
As a fan of the original ncis, trust me it used to be better.

and you will be pleased to know that castle has got our subcultured backs: season 3 episode 4; Punked. I think you will find it does not disapoint
Thomas Kerkeslin
36. An0n
I'm no expert, but wouldn't steampunks WANT to help the police? I thought that a lot of them like detective stories and such. It'd be like the most intense LARP ever.
Thomas Kerkeslin
38. Elizabeth Whistler
The episode of Castle that had Steampunk in it wasn't that bad, they even had people in full clothes and even in a Steampunk club!
Thomas Kerkeslin
40. jessica muller
Love NCIS but that damn narrating has got to go. So wen it comes on now I change the channel
Thomas Kerkeslin
41. T. J. Edison.
G. D. Falksen is obviously one of those "nit-picker" critiques who believes that everything he writes is the gospel truth.
How wrong can a person be; TV or literature, he obviously has no idea what goes on in the mind of a writer.
As an author, I write, amongst other things, Steampunk Crime, and my main character, a female detective, is a Goth, and she flies an aerostat. She is the assistant of a 'Sherlock Holmes' type detective and her adventures include time travel into the future, and in the following novella's, her daughter, in the same Goth tradition, travels into the past and the future in search of a serial killer.
As an author, I can write whatever I wish and how I wish. My stories are inter-connected, to a parallel world where vampires and werewolves lead normal lives, one of them is an assistant district attorney, a legalised killer.
Wow, what a mix-up, so Mr Falksen, what do you think of them' apples?
Thomas Kerkeslin
42. Gothicos Christos
Watching the show on Channel 5 in the UK, as a goth, I find the scenes in the club totally unlike any goth club, punk club, or even any of the other alt clubs I've been too, that I've ever been in. What? No Type O Negative, Epica, Within Temptation, Moonspell, Rammstein or anything similar. Shame the researchers for the show didn't actually research the subject fully.

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