‘NCIS: Hawaii’: Meet Vanessa Lachey’s ‘Badass With a Warm Heart’ Jane Tennant

'NCIS: Hawai'i' Star Vanessa Lachey
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Karen Neal/CBS

Soccer moms drive minivans, right? It’s a cliché because it’s true? Jane Tennant (Vanessa Lachey) is on the field coaching 10-year-old daughter Julie (Mahina Anne Marie Napoleon) when her ride arrives: a Black Hawk helicopter. The special agent in charge of NCIS Pearl Harbor is needed on site where an experimental aircraft has crashed into a cliff, perhaps due to foul play. And just like that, she’s off into the indelibly blue skies over Oahu.

For the actress (and self-described Air Force brat), shooting in the military transport was quite a welcome to NCIS: Hawai’i, the job of a lifetime. “Day 1, Hour 1, I’m in a Black Hawk. I’m going up, I’m landing, I’m walking off, standing tall and proud, [heading] toward a crime scene,” Lachey excitedly tells TV Guide Magazine. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

The CBS franchise is certainly a dream team: The original NCIS has been TV’s most popular drama for 11 of the last 12 years (NBC’s This Is Us snuck in there once). Hawai’i now partners with NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles in solving Navy crimes—so has Tennant ever picked up a rule or two from Gibbs? Is she another Hetty protégée? “We live in the same universe, but every one of them were spin-offs,” says executive producer Christopher Silber. “We don’t make any connection to the other shows.” (That said, producers are open to crossovers!)

The firsts don’t stop there. It’s been a long time coming for a woman (of Asian American Pacific Islander descent, no less) to be the face of an NCIS series. “We never really talked about anything other than a female lead,” says executive producer Jan Nash (who, like Silber, comes from NCIS: New Orleans, which signed off in May). Hawai’i found its magical pairing of confidence and compassion in Lachey, who translates that as: “She’s a badass with a warm heart.”

Tennant herself is the first female boss at NCIS Pearl Harbor, overseeing 40 agents, as well as a divorced mom, overseeing two kids. Says Lachey: “She’s making it work in a man’s world, and she doesn’t take no for an answer. She finds her way into every opportunity she gets and comes out on the other end unscathed. At the same time, she’s human and she’s learning how to juggle her emotions and being a mother.” Whether Julie and 16-year-old son Alex (Kian Talan) provide the bigger challenge is up for debate.

'NCIS: Hawai'i' Star Vanessa Lachey

Karen Neal/CBS

On the job, cases include the murder of a Navy recruiter and a sophisticated heist crew stealing from the government. Another crime involves NCIS with cowboys—which adds weapons training on horseback to Lachey’s to-do list. She’s already done big fight scenes and dodged bullets underwater in the ocean at night. Jane “doesn’t bark orders and sit at her desk,” Lachey notes. “She gets her hands dirty.”

Any sort of love life appears to be on hold—for now. But we’d keep an eye on Capt. Joe Milius (Agent Carter’s Enver Gjokaj, recurring), the Navy man Tennant butts heads with in the first episode. “Jane is not dating at the moment, but she’s not closed off,” Lachey hints. Viewers can scrutinize the relationships among her team instead because, Silber says, “we might find some romantic entanglements.”

And then there’s the romance of Hawaii itself. The production is hopscotching all over, from famed Waikiki Beach and Duke’s to the homestead community of Waimanalo. “Every part of Oahu has its own identity, its own culture,” says exec producer Matt Bosack, and NCIS: Hawai’i aims to show the real island, not the postcard. Lachey is doing her part by indulging in manapua, delicious local meat buns. “I’m going to turn into a manapua,” she quips. Make that special manapua in charge!

NCIS: Hawai’i, Series Premiere, Monday, September 20, 10/9c, CBS

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s latest issue. For more of the Fall Sneak Peek, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, August 12.