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Abby Sciuto's Entire NCIS Backstory Explained

You don't become a network television powerhouse without creating some likeable characters. The minds behind NCIS know this well, having created an absolute plethora of lovable detectives, agents, and scientists. While many fans will point to Scott Bakula's mysteriously accented Dwayne Pride or Lucas Black's truck-driving, crime-stopping Christopher LaSalle as their favorite part of the NCIS world, many others find their favorite in the series' flagship show. 

As your grandparents' only reference point for what goth is, Pauley Perrette's Abby Sciuto has been a fan favorite since the days when NCIS was just an idea to make more television, pitched by the JAG writers' room. Across 15 seasons and change, the black-clad, industrial music-obsessed Sciuto lends her expertise on blood splatter, bullet holes, and all other manner of viscera as the head of NCIS' forensics team. She's become one of the most well-known characters in television history by sheer consistency, but that's not the only reason fans adore her. We're to explore the past, present, and future of the perkiest goth you'll ever meet.

Stars align

While Abby might be well known for her anachronistically cheery disposition, she's also a serious-minded, forensics-loving crime solver. This balance feels very natural, and it's no mystery as to why: Her actress, Pauley Perrette, came to the show with a degree in criminal justice. She had planned to go into law enforcement before she got bit by the acting bug. Early roles on shows like The Drew Carey Show, Jesse, and Dawson's Creek finally culminated in 2003, when she landed the role of Abby. 

Following her success on the show, Perrette has created a scholarship at her alma mater for women seeking criminal justice degrees. "[Abby] has inspired young women around the world," Perrette said while announcing the scholarship back in 2018. "For 16 years, Abby has raised these young girls, and now they have fully completed their degrees in forensic science ...  and they're working in the field because of the inspiration of a fictional television character. That is just outstanding."

Launching point

Abby's first appearance comes in a two-part story in JAG's eighth season. After a body is found in a tree, the JAG team calls in the investigative unit at NCIS to help them uncover the truth of this suspicious death. Our introduction to Abby is remarkable to revisit: The character debuts nearly fully-formed. While we learn more about her as the show's many seasons wind on, Abby's most distinctive tics and trademarks are all on display in her very first outing. 

The first scene featuring Abby shows her taking a sip of her favorite (and slightly terrifying) energy drink, Caf-Pow, while she tries to work out the logistics of this particularly grisly murder. Later, when she's detailing some pretty gruesome x-rays, she shares the particulars of the damage in a detached, almost bored-sounding deadpan. Right from the beginning, she's unlike any other character on television.

A study in contradictions

Though Abby's aesthetic affectations might lead a viewer to assume she's gloomy and brooding, Abby is actually incredibly upbeat and happy. Though she drives an Addams Family-esque Ford Model A (and used to roll around in a hearse), the death investigator is an unusually bubbly type.

Perrette has said that this perkiness was very much a choice, and actually modeled after a dog. "I patterned everything [Abby] does physically after this rescue dog that I had named CiCi," the actress remarked, "So, the way Abby stands — she stands very upright — and the way she cocks her head, and the way she turns, and the way she walks — everything is done exactly like this dog. I'm not like that. I have terrible posture and I'm nowhere near as alert as Abby is."

Abby's energy is all natural, too: Perrette got no caffeine boost herself from the constant Caf-Pow quaffing. "For the first six years it was Hawaiian Punch," Perrette has shared, "but then I quit eating and drinking refined sugar, so now I have unsweetened cranberry juice." This is, apparently, an intense flavor, which she described as tasting "like five billion percent raw cranberries."

Commitment to the bit

There's no half-stepping in Abby's commitment to goth living. She loves extreme music, all-black outfits, and spooky dolls. But there is one thing she regrets about her deathly lifestyle: A prominent spiderweb tattoo on her neck.

Perette doesn't have to reach too deep to find that feeling in herself. The actress has been open about how much she hates having the tattoo applied before filming every day. "Every day that I come to work, every day since probably the first week, I have to prepare myself for the dreaded putting on of the neck tattoo. I absolutely hate it ... Later on in the day it gets all gummy and sticky depending on the weather or depending on what I'm doing, or depending on how many people try to touch it. And sometimes we have to take the whole thing off and put it back on again." Perrette added that she tried to get the writers to add a tattoo removal arc to Abby's story, but they wouldn't budge.

This is far from the only physical irritation that Perette went through to play the character: Dying her hair black once led to a disastrous allergic reaction. "I dyed my hair on Wednesday, and I went to work at five in the morning on a Thursday," she recalled in 2015. "I worked all day long, went home, and woke up the next morning and my head was getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger."

All-American childhood

It would be a real shame if Perrette was putting all her actorly effort into a half-formed character. Luckily, the writers of NCIS have been able to give Abby quite a full life over 15 seasons of asides and flashbacks. As fans learn, Abby is the adopted child of deaf parents. Though she was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the frequent moves her parents made have given her a wide breadth of knowledge about the southern United States. She is also proficient in sign language.

Though her childhood was admittedly unconventional in many ways, the show gives no indication that she was not happy. She returned to Louisiana for college, getting her bachelor's at Louisiana State University before going for a master's in Georgia, a detail that may well be modeled on Perrette's actual life. She is also implied to have a PhD in chemistry. Abby's parents are deceased, though the manner in which they passed is never discussed.

Becoming an expert

Abby reveals that her interest in forensics came from one of the places she lived as a young girl. The Sciutos lived next door to a wrecking yard, and a young Abby became obsessed with the ruined cars that were brought in daily. She found herself wondering how the cars arriving at the yard in such a twisted state became so mangled, and eventually learned about the field of forensics. This provided a pathway to understanding those heaps of mashed-up metal — and a whole lot more.

Abby threw herself into her studies, graduating from LSU with full honors and a bachelor's degree in sociology, criminology, and psychology. That's right: She triple-majored. Abby then earned her master's from Georgia State in criminology and forensic science. While it's never revealed where or how she earned her final degree, Abby has implied that she also has a PhD in chemistry at several points throughout the series. She was quickly snatched up by the NCIS team after graduating, becoming an integral part of nearly all their investigations.

A brief and troubled partnership

Abby tends to work alone, in spite of her friendly disposition. She has good reason to be wary of partners, though. At one point in the series, the NCIS team takes on another forensics expert named Chip Sterling. He works as Abby's assistant, though she grumbles about the intrusion and frequently bristles at his mistakes.

The team's senior field agent, Tony DiNozzo, jokes about Sterling's relatively minor screw-ups, clearly agitating Chip. In time, Chip launches a plot to frame Tony for murder, apparently holding a grudge against him from a time before he was on the NCIS team. After this plot is revealed, Chip tries to kill Abby to avoid being captured. He lunges at her with a knife, but is overpowered by the NCIS' resident lab rat: Abby disarms Chip and hogties him using some nearby duct tape. When the other members of the team arrive at the scene, Abby coyly asks her director if she can work alone from this point forward. He has no choice but to accept.

A failed hit and a resignation

Chip Sterling's attack wasn't the last time someone would make an attempt on Abby Sciuto's life. A hitman comes after Abby in the 15th season of NCIS. Her life is only saved by the intervention of an MI6 agent named Clayton Reeves, who dies in the effort. This long-time liaison between NCIS and the British intelligence agency had been a close friend of many of the NCIS team members, and his death hits hard. Abby is particularly shaken, as she had come remarkably close to death. After tricking the man who wanted her dead into revealing his identity, Abby opts to retire from the NCIS. She flies back to England with Reeves' body and seems ready to start a new life there, running a charity in his name.

Though Abby spent 15 seasons with the team, she says her goodbye off screen. She leaves her bosses a note to let them know she's gone, and heads to the UK. That's where the series claims Abby is to this day.

Life after NCIS

In the real world, Perrette's departure from the show was a little more complicated than Abby's. Abby's goodbye was written as a way around having to put actor Mark Harmon and Perrette on set at the same time — that's how deep the schism that led to Perrette's leaving the show went. 

Perrette claims that Harmon was physically abusive to his costars and that he is the reason she will never reprise her role on the series. In a revealing post on Twitter, Perrette made it clear that she's afraid of Harmon. "NO I AM NOT COMING BACK! EVER! (Please stop asking?) I am terrified of Harmon and him attacking me. I have nightmares about it. I have a new show that is SAFE AND HAPPY!" A few hours later, she followed up: "You think I didn't expect blow back? You got me wrong. THIS happened [to] my crew member and I fought like hell to keep it from happening again! To protect my crew! And then I was physically assaulted for saying NO!? and I lost my job."