The series follows the exploits of the Washington metropolitan area–based "judge advocates" (i.e. uniformed lawyers) in the Department of the Navy’s Office of the Judge Advocate General, who in the line of duty can prosecute and defend criminal cases under the jurisdiction of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (arising from the global presence of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps), conducting informal and formal investigations, advising on military operational law and other associated duties.
Akin to Law & Order, the plots from many episodes were often "ripped from the headlines" with portions of the plot either resembling or referencing recognizable aspects of actual cases or incidents; such as the USS Cole bombing ("Act of Terror" and "Valor"), the rescue of downed pilot Scott O'Grady ("Defensive Action"), the Cavalese cable car disaster ("Clipped Wings"), the USS Iowa turret explosion ("Into the Breech"), and the Kelly Flinn incident ("The Court-Martial of Sandra Gilbert").
While not part of the mission of its real-world counterpart, some of the main characters are at times also involved, directly and indirectly, in various CIA intelligence operations; often revolving around the recurring character, CIA officer Clayton Webb (played by Steven Culp).David James Elliott as Lieutenant / Lt. Commander / Commander / Captain Harmon Rabb, Jr., USN
Catherine Bell as Major / Lt. Colonel Sarah MacKenzie, USMC
Tracey Needham as Lt. JG Meg Austin, USN
Patrick Labyorteaux as Ensign / Lt. JG / Lieutenant / Lt. Commander / Captain Bud Roberts, USN
John M. Jackson as Rear Admiral A.J. Chegwidden, USN
Scott Lawrence as Commander Sturgis Turner, USN
Zoe McLellan as Petty Officer Jennifer Coates, USN
Andrea Parker as Lt. JG / Lieutenant / Commander Caitlin Pike, USN
Trevor Goddard as Lt. Commander Mic Brumby, RAN
Karri Turner as Ensign / Lt. JG / Lieutenant Harriet Sims, USN
Nanci Chambers as Lieutenant Loren Singer, USN
Randy Vasquez as Gunnery Sergeant Victor Galindez, USMC
Chuck Carrington as Petty Officer Jason Tiner, USN
Terry O'Quinn as Captain / Rear Admiral Thomas Boone, USN
Steven Culp as CIA Officer Clayton Webb
Andrea Thompson as Commander / Captain Alison Krennick, USN
Chris Beetem as Lieutenant Gregory Vukovic, USN
Meta Golding as Lieutenant Tali Mayfield, USN
Jordana Spiro as Lieutenant Catherine Graves, USN
David Andrews as Major General Gordon Cresswell, USMC
Rif Hutton as Lt. Commander Alan Mattoni, USN
The creator of JAG, Donald P. Bellisario, served for four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and after having worked his way up through advertising jobs, he landed his first network television job as a story editor for the World War II-era series Baa Baa Black Sheep, where he got a habit of promoting a consistent promilitary stance in a business where he got the perception that "antiwar" and "antisoldier" mentality were the commonplace. The stereotype in the post-Vietnam war era of "crazed Vietnam veterans" was notably subverted, by not just one, but three of the main characters, in Magnum P.I., of which Bellisario was the co-creator. Following the cancellation of his series Quantum Leap, Bellisario began working on a one-shot screenplay of a murder mystery aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, where the victim was a female aviator.
The issue of whether or not to expand the options for women serving in the U.S. armed forces as fighter pilots and in other frontline assignments was a contentious social issue of the day. In 1991, a famous incident had occurred at the Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, where male naval aviators had behaved in manners inappropriate, if not criminal, and where the follow-up criminal and other investigations by the then-named NIS, the Naval Inspector General, and the Judge Advocate General of the Navy, were later heavily criticized by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, with the concurrence to Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean O'Keefe, to whom the report was delivered and who began to take corrective action with respect to both the perceived attitude problems towards women and the functions of the investigative arms of the Department of the Navy. The fallout from the incident resulted in a hard blow to the naval aviation community, where the promotions of many naval aviators were put on hold. The common counterclaim from the other side of the aisle, as articulated by former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and naval flight officer John F. Lehman, was that the naval aviation community had been unfairly subjected to a witch-hunt motivated by political correctness, in effect killing its esprit de corps, and by extension damaging its combat effectiveness. During the Clinton administration in April 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced a new policy, which in effect made it possible to have female fighter pilots serving on aircraft carriers at sea and in other new positions (but still prohibited from serving in infantry etc.) Thus, the stage was set for the reality-based fictional drama, when Bellisario read in a newspaper about the forthcoming introduction of female fighter pilots on aircraft carriers.
While doing research on which organizational entities would partake in investigative efforts of crimes committed aboard Naval vessels, Bellisario found the special agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service filled the police role, and the uniformed lawyers, in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, could alternate between the role of defense attorney, prosecutor, and field investigator. Bellisario chose to go ahead with the lawyers and remarked season six about the unique advantages it brought from a story-telling point of view: "Unlike most law shows, I've got a detective, a prosecutor, and a defender."
Initially, the producers of JAG did not receive any co-operation from the Department of the Navy, due to sensitivity in light of all the accumulative negative publicity that had been generated from the Tailhook scandal and its aftermath. However, the lack of co-operation from the military was not a show-stopper, as the JAG production team, by virtue of being a Paramount Pictures production, had access to the stock footage of the motion pictures owned by the studio, which included many films with military content, such as Top Gun, The Final Countdown, and The Hunt for Red October.
In 1997, though, the naval services had begun to change their minds, and began to render support to the production team on a script-by-script basis. A primetime network series about Navy lawyers bringing out controversial subjects in a very public arena was apparently no longer an issue in itself, but as noted by Commander Bob Anderson of the Navy's entertainment media liaison office in Los Angeles in a TV Guide interview: "We're fine with that as long as the bad guys are caught and punished, and the institution of the Navy is not the bad guy".
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), in commission as a training carrier at the time. Most of the Nimitz-class carriers also appear in one or several episodes. 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 and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) were also used as the fictional Seahawk, both in season four and for one episode each. For scenes filmed aboard Enterprise, the whole crew wore caps reading USS Seahawk – CVN 65 so they matched the ship's real hull number.
USS Forrestal was featured in many episodes, most prominently two in which she portrayed the fictional USS Reprisal. In these episodes, all crew members wore caps with the CV-35 pennant number. This number was intentionally out of sequence with the pennant numbers of active USN carriers at the time the series was filmed. CV-35 would have been the real pennant number of an Essex-class carrier actually called Reprisal, which was canceled during construction in 1945 when WWII 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 (CV-34).
Only six USN ships featured in the series were called by their real names: USS Hornet (CV-12), USS Coral Sea (CV-43), USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), USS America (CV-66), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), and USS Belknap (CG-26). The Kitty Hawk is mentioned in one of the season-three episodes, but never seen on screen. The America is the murder scene in a season-three episode, but shots supposedly depicting her are in fact shots of the Forrestal. 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 explicitly stating it) 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 subplot in "Ghost Ship" indicating that the ship's double hull had to be cut open from the inside to repair supposed damage to her bow during Vietnam was not at all correct with her service record.
Coral Sea is also featured in the season-three episode "Vanished" and season-four episodes "Angels 30" and "Shakedown". As she had already been scrapped at the time the episodes supposedly took place, archival footage of Coral Sea was used, with other footage shot aboard Forrestal. The majority of the exterior scenes from "Angels 30" were filmed aboard Forrestal and a few aboard Enterprise.
Belknap is mentioned in the season-four episode "Going after Francesca" as the Sixth Fleet flagship, a role she actually fulfilled in real life from 1986 until her decommissioning in 1994. Belknap had already been decommissioned and was laid up awaiting scrapping when the episode was filmed, allowing for actual exterior shots of the ship to be featured in the episode.
The series also includes appearances by Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (in particular the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) itself during the opening credit montage), and Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. In one of the episodes, the Spanish frigate SPS Santa María (F81) 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 U.S. practice of having a "number only" ID painted on the bow).
While most sea episodes are focused on aviation missions, several are based around submarine warfare: namely episodes 1:3, 2:6, 4:16, 5:22, 6:15, 7:14, 7:24, 8:7, 8:17, and 9:7.
In February 2005, David James Elliott announced he would leave the show at the end of the 10th season to pursue other projects after not being offered a renewal for an 11th season from the producers. The show also introduced new younger characters, including former As the World Turns star Chris Beetem, and Jordana Spiro from The Huntress.
The producers also considered relocating the fictional setting of the show, from Falls Church to Naval Base San Diego. An episode of the final season, "JAG: San Diego" had the main cast, excluding Harm, going to the San Diego naval base and working with the local JAG office there. Though it was reportedly considered as a pilot episode, as a reformat of the show aiming for a younger audience, CBS ultimately decided not to pursue a new series.
Nevertheless, CBS announced the cancellation of the show on April 4, 2005, after 10 seasons. The final episode, "Fair Winds and Following Seas", aired on April 29, 2005, and in which Harm and Mac are assigned different stations: Harm in London, Mac in San Diego. They finally confront their feelings and decide to get married. The episode ends with Bud tossing a challenge coin to decide which one would give up his or her military career to be with the other. However, in keeping with JAG tradition, the outcome of the toss is never seen, as the screen fades to black, showing only the coin, which bears the inscription "1995 – 2005", the years the series spanned.
Seasonal rankings (based on average total viewers per episode) of JAG on NBC (first season) and CBS (other seasons).
Note: U.S. network television seasons generally start in late September and end in late May, which coincides with the completion of the May sweeps.
In January 2003, CBS announced that Donald P. Bellisario was developing a JAG spin-off, around the work of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. It was aired in April 2003 in a two-part backdoor pilot in which Commander Rabb is arrested, but later vindicated as innocent, for the murder of Lieutenant Singer. The two episodes, titled "Ice Queen" and "Meltdown", focused on the NCIS team, with most of the JAG regulars as supporting characters. Whereas the episodes of JAG are primarily oriented on a mixture of courtroom drama and military activities in the field, NCIS episodes are more focused, as the meaning of the acronym suggests, on criminal investigations. NCIS also follows a different storytelling format from JAG, emphasizing character humor to a larger extent than its parent program. NCIS later produced its own spin-offs, NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans, which shows a further departure from the styles and themes of JAG.
The two episodes "Ice Queen" and "Meltdown" were edited down to a one-hour pilot film, which was then used to sell the idea of NCIS as a new series to CBS; the pilot used the title, "NCIS – The Beginning". It was later also used to introduce the show to CBS affiliates and advertisers. It was only broadcast once and is not available on home video.
Excluding the backdoor pilot, only two major characters from JAG have appeared in the NCIS series. Patrick Labyorteaux appeared briefly as Lieutenant Bud Roberts in the NCIS first-season episode "Hung Out to Dry", and again in the season fourteen episode "Rogue," advising the NCIS team on a legal issue. John M. Jackson returned in May 2013 as retired Rear Admiral A.J. Chegwidden, now a civilian attorney in the private sector hired by Director Vance to provide legal representation for Special Agent Gibbs, in the season ten NCIS finale, "Damned If You Do". John M. Jackson also appeared in a February 2017 episode of NCIS: Los Angeles as A.J. Chegwidden.
While several other actors who played major roles on JAG have also appeared on NCIS, such as Scott Lawrence (Sturgis Turner on JAG), Steven Culp (Clayton Webb on JAG), Randy Vazquez (Victor Galindez on JAG), and Michael Bellisario (Mikey Roberts on JAG); they played completely different characters when appearing on NCIS.
First introduced in the NCIS back-door pilot, Alicia Coppola appeared as Navy judge advocate Lieutenant Commander Faith Coleman in several episodes of NCIS. Adam Baldwin played the same guest role, Navy SEAL Commander Michael Rainer, in one episode of each show.
NCIS has since spawned two spin-offs of its own: one set in Los Angeles and the other set in New Orleans.
First Monday was a short-lived series co-created by Bellisario and Paul Levine about fictional U.S. Supreme Court justices and their clerks, which aired in 2002 and starred James Garner and Joe Mantegna. The character of U.S. Senator Edward Sheffield (Dean Stockwell), who appeared in three episodes of that show, later became a recurring character on JAG as the new Secretary of the Navy, starting in season eight.
The sitcom Yes, Dear did an episode called "Let's Get Jaggy With It" where Greg's father Tom (Tim Conway) wins a walk-on role on JAG. Catherine Bell guest-starred as herself while David James Elliott, Patrick Labyorteaux, and Scott Lawrence guest-starred as their respective JAG characters.
On September 1, 1998, the pilot episode of JAG was released on VHS cassette in the U.S. by Paramount Home Entertainment. However, no further episodes of the series proper were released on any home entertainment media while the show was still in production, allegedly due to syndication deals made with several broadcasters.
Beginning in 2006, CBS Home Entertainment (distributed by Paramount) has released all 10 seasons on DVD in regions 1, 2 and 4. Seasons 1 to 4 are released with a 4:3 aspect ratio, while seasons 5 to 10 have a 16:9 aspect ratio. The region-2 and -4 editions do not have the bonus features (audio commentaries and retrospective interviews) included on the region-1 editions of seasons one and two.
On December 11, 2012, CBS released JAG: The Complete Series – Collector's Edition on DVD in region 1. This collection contains, other than all 227 episodes of the series and the bonus features of the previously released individual season packs, one disc with new bonus features and a booklet with production notes.
On April 14, 2015, CBS Home Entertainment released a repackaged version of the complete series set, at a lower price, in Region 1. It does not include the bonus disc that was part of the original complete series set.
On April 26, 2010, Intrada released an album of music from the series, featuring Bruce Broughton's theme and his pilot score (tracks 1–15) and weekly composer Steven Bramson's score, including Broughton's format music (the main and end title theme and commercial bumper), for the season-two episode "Cowboys and Cossacks" (tracks 16–28).