How 'NCIS: Hawaii' Gained a Legion of Sapphic Fans
And What #Kacy Shippers Have to Say About It
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A note: this piece contains spoilers for Season 1 of NCIS: Hawaii.
Several months ago, I wrote a piece bemoaning the lack of lesbian “slow burns” on television. Where are our Mulder and Scully, our Booth and Bones, I asked? One of the shows I brought up in this conversation was NCIS: Hawaii, the most recent installment in the NCIS franchise. In the very first episode of the series, two female characters hook up, something they had presumably been doing since before the series even started. Initially, it seemed as if the relationship was moving too quickly for it to really be a long-standing affair.
Several things have happened since then. First, the pace of the relationship slowed down significantly (and in fact grounded to a halt halfway through the season). Second, an already passionate queer fan base became an even larger presence among the NCIS: Hawaii fandom. While the #Kacy relationship on NCIS: Hawaii may not fit the exact definition of a slow burn since they were technically together in the very first episode, the rest of the season was full of plenty of angst and unspoken feelings, two mainstays of the genre. For some fans of the couple, the relationship felt like something they hadn’t seen before – an enduring, central lesbian romance within the context of a crime procedural.
Let’s back up for a moment. NCIS: Hawaii first premiered in September of 2021, and it’s the fourth iteration of the wildly popular NCIS franchise. (The flagship show has consistently been the most-watched drama on television for years in a row.) While the original NCIS was a very straightforward show about solving crimes (though it has evolved over the years), NCIS: Hawaii makes self-conscious reference to ideas like diversity in the workplace. Viewers are told that the team’s leader, Jane Tennant (played by Vannesa Lachey), is the first female Special Agent in Charge at NCIS Pearl Harbor, and the team she leads is similarly diverse.
For many queer fans of the show, the relationship between Lucy Tara (Yasmine Al-Bustami) and Kate Whistler (Tori Anderson) is the series’ biggest draw. Lucy is a junior NCIS agent and Kate is (initially) a DIA officer, and the nature of their positions – a detective and an intelligence official, essentially – are reflected in their dynamic. Lucy is bubbly and energetic, while Kate is quite serious and buttoned-up, and even their physical characteristics – Lucy is short and brunette, while Kate is tall and blonde – reflect popular tropes among lesbian couples. Though the rough shape of their dynamic may be familiar, the characters, as well as the roles they play in the relationship, do become more nuanced as the series goes on.
Lucy and Kate were already hooking up in the pilot and started getting more serious about their relationship over the course of several episodes, only for a “secret” from Kate’s past to show up and ruin everything. The latter half of the season was filled with lots of anger, sadness, and miscommunications, as Lucy and Kate found themselves in a never-ending lesbian breakup. (And a workplace one, at that.) Fan reactions to this portion of the season were mixed, as some fans reveled in the angst, while others bemoaned how both characters seemed to entirely lack communication skills. The season ended with Kate performing a romantic “grand gesture” to win Lucy back, and many fans breathed a sigh of relief that #Kacy wouldn’t be stuck in lesbian breakup purgatory forever.
As you might have been able to guess, a large sapphic and queer NCIS: Hawaii fan base has emerged as the result of the #Kacy relationship. That these fans have congregated around #Kacy is not surprising – it doesn’t take much for queer fans to flock to a show with queer characters – but the fact that this couple exists within the NCIS franchise is rather unexpected. Certainly, there have been queer fans of crime shows and procedurals for as long as these genres have existed. In fact, some of the most popular non-canon lesbian couples have been on crime shows. I’m thinking of course, of the titular characters on Rizzoli & Isles (called Rizzles by shippers), but also of fans of Benson and Cabot on Law & Order: SVU, or Emily and JJ on Criminal Minds. There have been a few canon lesbian couples on these procedurals as well, but they don’t often last long. Gail and Holly from the Canadian series Rookie Blue were quite popular among fans for a time, but they broke up when actress Aliyah O'Brien left the show.
Lucy and Kate are not actually the first queer characters in the NCIS franchise, either. Tammy Gregorio (Vanessa Ferlito) came out as a lesbian on NCIS: New Orleans, though her relationship with her girlfriend is not featured much. Interestingly enough, the first-ever recurring lesbian character on American television was Kate McBride (Lindsey Crouse), on the 1980s police procedural Hill Street Blues. All of this is to say that there have been lesbian and queer law enforcement officials in television before – it’s become weirdly common, in fact – but few couples within this genre have been as central and as beloved as Lucy and Kate.
In order to get a better sense of how this fandom emerged and what #Kacy shippers think of the show, I decided to talk with some fans about their relationship to the series and what the couple means to them. I asked fans why they started watching the series to begin with, and got a few different responses. Many of the fans I talked to said they started watching the show after seeing videos or gifs of #Kacy on YouTube or other social media sites. Several others were fans of the NCIS franchise prior to watching Hawaii and were simply excited to watch another installment of the series. In both cases, these fans were surprised to find such compelling queer characters in a procedural of this kind.
One fan, who goes by Whistler Fanatic on Twitter, told me she and her wife had been a fan of the franchise for years. “We were just innocently watching the pilot last September when the show threw this passionate w/w kiss in and we about fell out of our chairs!” she told me. For those viewers who weren’t previously a fan of NCIS or of crime shows in general, they were pleasantly surprised to find they actually enjoyed the show itself and decided to start watching it in full rather than simply watching the #Kacy snippets on YouTube.
Many fans noted that what they love about the relationship is that it feels like a natural part of the series. A fan named Fin, who makes fan edits, told me she loved that their storyline did not involve a coming-out story “or other recycled storylines” you often see with queer characters. One fan, María, said she loved how the “entire team shows so much support and respect for their relationship,” something that is comforting to see. Another fan, who goes by sammyspaige on Twitter, told me she appreciated the fact that “their romance is seamlessly integrated into the storylines and showing development instead of being a side plot.” Indeed, Lucy and Kate’s relationship was the central romantic narrative of Season 1, something that is rarely the case in procedurals of any genre. Because of this, TV Insider’s Meredith Jacobs has called the series the “most romantic NCIS of the franchise so far.”
Out of all the signposts about diversity in the series, the relationship between Lucy and Kate feels by far the most natural, and it doesn’t feel as if it is meant to represent queer people writ large. (In fact, one fan, sapphicshaw, told me she really appreciates how neither character has ever “explicitly stated their sexuality.”) It clearly wasn’t a case of a relationship “just happening” because of natural chemistry between actors as they were already together in the pilot, but it does feel like an organic part of the world the series has created.
The structure of their romance aside, many fans also gravitated toward the nuance of Lucy and Kate’s dynamic. Several fans told me they appreciated that both women were strong, capable individuals outside of the relationship, which makes them even more exciting to root for. A fan who goes by the moniker Whistler’s Army and is a prolific fanfiction writer told me that as a queer woman of color, queer representation on television is very important to her. One of the reasons she appreciates #Kacy so much is because of the message they send, which is that “We don't have to suffer to be in love. We can be in love and be strong and powerful and get things done.”
Fans’ interpretation of Lucy and Kate’s relationship seems to align with what the creators of the show intended. As co-creator and writer Jan Nash told TV Insider, “Our goal for this relationship was always that it feel like it was just an organic part of the show and of these characters’ lives.” Moreover, the relationship doesn’t feel like an excuse to fish for a queer audience, though Nash is certainly familiar with what a dedicated queer fan base can bring to a show.
Nash is a veteran TV writer, having cut her teeth in the industry working on the famous coming-out episode of Ellen. Fans of NCIS: Hawaii may know her from her work on Rizzoli & Isles, which she became the showrunner of in Season 5. Though Rizzoli & Isles was beloved by lesbian and sapphic fans because of the (presumably romantic) relationship between its two leads, it’s also one of the shows that is most frequently brought up in conversations about queerbaiting. All of this is to say that Nash, as both a TV producer and a gay woman herself, could hardly be called unaware of the power of queer fandom and the significance of queer representation.
Indeed, though many queer fans have felt scorned by disingenuous TV producers in the past, the feeling amongst #Kacy fans and the show’s creative team is one of mutual respect. Several writers from the show, including co-creator Matt Bosack, frequently interact with fans on Twitter and seem to enjoy fans’ passion for the series. Tori Anderson, who plays Kate, often live-tweets the show and responds to comments and fan videos. Vanessa Lachey, who plays Tennant, also interacts with the fandom and shows her support for #Kacy on social media. Jason Antoon, who plays tech master Ernie, has appointed himself captain of the #Kacy ship and frequently posts behind-the-scenes content of Anderson and Al-Bustami to satiate fans’ appetites. (Yasmine Al-Bustami, who plays Lucy, doesn’t use social media much and is only seen in glimpses on other cast members’ accounts.)
This type of climate has created a friendly and supportive environment among fans, though no fandom is entirely without controversy. Many of the debates within the fandom have revolved around the virtue of certain storylines. For example, when a sneak peek of the Season 1 finale that featured Kate singing to Lucy in order to win her back was released, fans were divided in their reactions. Some fans thought it was too cringey or out of character for Kate, while others thought it was sweet. (By the time the actual episode aired, most fans were just happy to see Lucy and Kate back together again.) As is true with many fandoms of this nature, there have also been debates about whether fans should be watching the show live to give it better ratings, or through YouTube clips uploaded by international fans.
But, despite these minor disagreements within the fandom, the fact that this is a show where fans can debate the merit of various storylines regarding a sapphic couple is a blessing in and of itself. Not because the writers choose storylines based on fans’ opinions, but rather because having a lesbian couple that lasts this long and is central to a procedural like this is still a rarity. As Whistler Fanatic put it, “we are also grateful that we have the luxury of doing so [questioning certain storylines] and that we're not willing to accept just being given crumbs of a lesbian relationship.” While some fans have their own critiques about the storylines in Season 1, there’s a marked lack of fear among fans that the relationship will end badly or that the writers will throw the series’ passionate queer fans under the bus. (Though, considering the history of queer representation on screen, it can be difficult to rid oneself entirely of such fears.) As I mentioned above, several of the show's writers have communicated warmly with fans on Twitter, and as sapphicshaw noted, “they seem to genuinely care about telling a good and authentic story.”
The content of the show and the fan conversations on social media has created a notably tight-knit fan group of fans. The general community of NCIS: Hawaii fans are called the #PearlOhana, and several of the fans I spoke to mentioned that this moniker (“Ohana” means family in Hawaiian) reflects the nature of the fandom. For one thing, the fandom is remarkably international in nature. Fans hail from places such as China, Australia, the U.A.E. Germany, Taiwan, Fiji, the Philippines, and Malaysia, in addition to the series’ native United States. The idea of the team being a “found family” is something many #Kacy fans appreciate, as this concept has long been appealing to queer people in particular. One fan, Jo, told me that this “sense of family,” as well as all the “kickass” women on the show, is what she loves most about the series.
This geographical stratification means that some fans have found ways to get creative in making the series accessible to everyone. Some fans upload #Kacy videos to YouTube with subtitles for non-English speaking fans or for those who can’t access the show in their country. (One viewer in Indonesia actually claimed they cut all the #Kacy scenes on their local AXN channel, making videos like these even more important.) Additionally, there are a number of dedicated “vidders” (video-makers) within the fandom who make short “fan edits” to post on Twitter or longer #Kacy fan videos to post on YouTube. Fanfiction, too, has become a place where fans can share their ideas about the couple and expand the story beyond the necessarily limited structure of a television procedural. All of these fan works and archival efforts only strengthen the sense of community fans feel, as it gives fans the ability to consume even more content beyond the one hour a week when the show airs. For the creators of these fan works, it's a chance to use their creativity and a space for them to express all of their thoughts and feelings about the show in a way that enriches the lives of other fans.
As a result of this fandom, real friendships have developed within this community. Group chats comprised of fans from around the world were created in the wake of the series, as fans found support and camaraderie among those with similar interests. (Whistler Fanatic told me there is even a group chat called “Kacy OWLS” that is composed of “older” members of the fandom. On Twitter, of course, “old” is a relative term, she rightly noted.) For these fans, there is something edifying about being able to think and speak about these characters all week long, and these group chats allow fans to do just that. There’s no judgment for this type of devotion here, only support and mutual understanding.
What’s surprising in all of this is not that NCIS: Hawaii is a popular show. NCIS has long been one of the most-watched series on television, but it’s not known for having a fanbase as passionate, as online, and as queer as this one. The popularity of NCIS: Hawaii among these fans is certainly a counterpoint to the argument that network television is no longer relevant (which, if you look at the numbers, doesn’t hold up anyway), as #Kacy fans are not shy about making sure their voices are heard. For these fans, they are happy to take compelling queer representation wherever they can find it. In this case, it just happens to be located on a small island in the pacific.