If it’s Thursday, this must be Vegas. Or is it Miami? I can’t keep my CSIs straight. But when it comes down to it, there’s really no need to. CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Thursdays at 9 p.m.), the most popular drama on TV, and its first-year clone, CSI: Miami (Monday nights at 10), are the shiniest examples yet of the programs-as-name-brands theory of TV programming. The CSI products are instantly identifiable, down to their Who theme songs. Why risk trying to sell viewers something new?
NBC pioneered the idea of name-branded programming blocks back in the ’80s with " Must See TV " ; the concept has been perfected lately with Law & Order, which has become the 7-11 of television, open 24 hours a day. At its most interesting (and upscale), this marketing formula has yielded " HBO Sunday. " As for CSI and CSI: Miami, they’re the TV equivalent of a shopping spree at Target. They’re serviceable howdunits and nothing more, but all the cool gadgetry, Fantastic Voyage camerawork, and hard-boiled attitude make them attractive enough to fool you into thinking they’re top-of-the-line goods.
Don’t get me wrong — Tar-jay can be an awful lot of fun, and even if the Mossimo and Michael Graves merch doesn’t hold up after you’ve lived with it a while, at least it provides a few moments of consumer pleasure. And it’s like that with the original CSI. Now in its third season, CSI was an instant hit for then-struggling CBS. It currently resides at the top of the Nielsen ratings. An ensemble drama about Las Vegas crime-scene investigators, CSI crossed two of TV’s weariest genres — medical dramas and cop shows — and came up with something we’d never quite seen before. CSI gives long-overdue recognition to the science sleuths who use high-tech toys to coax the truth out of blood and bone, hair and DNA.
We live in anxious and uncertain times. The guilty get away with murder, heinous crimes go unsolved. There’s much talk of " closure " and " justice, " but those are slippery concepts. In the CSI universe, though, evil can’t hide from the relentless crime-lab investigators. Gil Grissom (William Petersen), the amusingly hyper-dedicated leader of the Vegas CSI’s night shift, is fond of saying that he puts his trust in " that which does not lie — the facts. " And yes, he’s a morbid, pompous, obsessed blowhard. But he’s also a rare TV hero nowadays — he’s steadfast and true and not painted in shades of gray. He’s as self-righteous as Sergeant Joe Friday, and he (almost) always gets his perp. And that’s the key to the appeal of both flavors of CSI: they’re without ambiguity. Cases are solved. Closure is achieved. Science doesn’t lie — defense lawyers do.
Petersen plays Grissom with a gleam in his eye. He’s aware that Gil is a know-it-all who sends co-workers clawing for the nearest exit when he launches into explanation mode. But Grissom’s zest for immersing himself (and us) in the messy stuff of life in order to solve the mysteries of death (he pounces on blood, tissue, guts, and bodily discharges like a kid in a candy store) gives CSI a glimmer of cracked wit and a springy energy that almost makes up for the show’s more-pedestrian qualities. Almost.
Despite what you may have heard, the signature elements of CSI are not its inside-the-body extreme close-ups and color-saturated crime re-enactments. No, they’re its cardboard characters and the so-lame-it’s-funny dialogue (traits shared by CSI: Miami). Character evolution hasn’t exactly been a priority on CSI. Each member of Grissom’s team gets one trait to mine. Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) has a gambling problem. Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is tough. Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) works too hard. Nick Stokes (George Eads) is a horndog. But then, maybe the CSI writers just work slowly. It’s taken all this time for the infallible Grissom to develop a flaw — he’s going deaf. And there has also been an attempt of late to suggest an attraction between Grissom and his protégée Sara, who’s young enough to be his daughter. This could be good. Or embarrassing. Or both.
As for the dialogue, both CSI and CSI: Miami are works of bad-writing beauty. These are the sort of shows where characters quote Cliffs Notes Shakespeare ( " What fools these mortals be, " " Therein lies the rub " ) and their colleagues nod gravely at such depth and wisdom. And then there are Gil’s wretched puns. When a hockey player is killed on the ice, someone says, " Rough game, " and Gil deadpans, " Yes. It’s murder. " When a man is found hanged in a hotel ballroom during a " Little People " convention, Grissom cracks, " Looks like we have a little murder. "
When Gil isn’t compulsively punning, he’s expounding on the human condition in unsentimental ramblings that imply too many grande espressos and an unhealthy fixation on Law & Order. " We’re all carrying around prehistoric genes in a postmodern world, " he snaps in the hockey-death episode. " We get our meat from the grocery store. We have to work off our testosterone somewhere. " But at least he’s never been called upon to deliver an analogy like the one spoken by CSI: Miami tech Eric Delko (Adam Rodriguez) to describe the difficulty of removing all traces of cocaine from a crime scene: " It’s like going to the bathroom. You can never wipe enough. " Give CSI: Miami an Emmy!
The quality of the writing isn’t the only area where CSI has the edge over its spawn. CSI takes its likably geekish tone from Grissom’s joy in all things puzzling. CSI: Miami is enveloped in the brooding of star David Caruso. His Horatio Caine is toting more baggage than a Skycap. His mysterious pain is expressed in a tightly controlled voice — which is never raised above a purr — and a sad half-smile. About a million years ago, on NYPD Blue, Caruso played a cop torn apart by guilt, and as far as TV sleuths go, he’s still America’s most haunted. Every corpse becomes Caine’s personal crusade.
There’s a weird, almost Catholic, air of suffering and penance to Caruso’s performance, and to CSI: Miami as a whole. He’s been paired with fellow NYPD Blue refugee Kim Delaney as intense, widowed Megan Donner, who used to head the crime lab but now takes orders from Caine. And the combination of Delaney’s frozen grief and Caruso’s suffocating misery was one heavy burden to bear. But last week, CBS announced that Delaney is leaving the show, by " mutual agreement, " after just 10 episodes (her last appearance will be on November 25). Delaney’s departure is surprising given that she was a last-minute addition to the cast, brought in to remedy what the producers felt was the lack of a strong female lead. The casting change may result in beefed-up roles for the fine actress Khandi Alexander (ER, The Corner), who has been averaging a couple of lines a week as a coroner who talks tenderly to the dead, and for Emily Procter (The West Wing) as a girly ballistics expert who really, really likes her guns. Until now, both women have played quirks, not characters.
But CSI: Miami has a more serious problem, one that casting changes may only half fix. The show is grim and humorless. The autopsy scenes are grosser than the ones on CSI, with charred bodies, severed limbs and open chest cavities rendered in gory close-up. The stories — about Cuban boat people, drug smuggling, the murder of a priest, rape at a famous political clan’s beach house — feel simultaneously " ripped from the headlines " and left over from Miami Vice. (Speaking of " ripped from the headlines " : CBS will air the show’s briefly shelved sniper episode on Tuesday, November 18.) And CSI: Miami has a disturbing fixation on dead children. In one episode, Caine taunts a suspect with an age-progressed photo of what the month-old fetus his murdered girlfriend was carrying would look like at age two. In another, a little girl is abducted and killed in the bathroom of an arcade, and Caine immediately goes before a media throng to declare that his unit has a " mountain of evidence " against the still-unknown perp and that " beneath that mountain of evidence lies his grave. "
Granted, the original CSI has its own ripsnorting reactionary moments. The unforgettable episode where a cheerleader gets high on PCP and kills a football player by gnawing a hole through his stomach was a " this is your brain on drugs " classic. But CSI: Miami is a contender for the John Ashcroft seal of approval in its over-the-top dedication to closure at any price. In the child-murder episode, the CSI unit puts the arcade in lockdown and begins fingerprinting the patrons. When a law student in the crowd challenges this action, a tech unironically suggests that any decent person would gladly give up some civil rights to catch a kid’s killer.
This was a prime example of the show’s no-mercy attitude toward bad people. But the writers seem oddly unaware of what the good guys look like as they saddle up for the crusade. In the last scene of the child-murder episode, Caine, clad in a black suit with a little smile on his face, sits alone on a park bench watching children play. He looks for all the world like a pedophile. Is CSI: Miami more complex than I’ve given it credit for? Is it really the story of an unlikely hero wrestling with dark impulses he can’t control? Nah — that would be a show for a whole ’nother franchise. That would be HBO Sunday.