Forensics Reunited

I’m a big fan of CSI. I’ve watched it, or rather the original show set in Las Vegas and it’s two spin-offs, for around a decade. I realise that it’s silly and throwaway and immediately forgettable but that is equivalent to complaining that a pizza has no nutritional value. That’s not the reason you eat it. Sometimes you are in the mood for a steak dinner and sometimes you’re in the mood for a dirty burger, no matter what Paul Newman says. The same can be said for television: sometimes you want an intellectual workout from a rigorous, dramatic show like The Wire and sometimes you want to loaf and let a programme dripfeed your brain with visual E numbers.

CSI lands square in the latter camp. Or at least it appears to. But the more of it you watch the more you realise what a clever, skilfully crafted little show it is. Cast members may have came and went and new stars may have arrived (hello, Laurence Fishburne) but the show retains its beguiling formula of gore and whimsy. It’s one of few shows that I could happily watch all day. A couple of years ago I was asked to write a feature on the programme’s appeal. Here it is…


Since it first launched in 2000, the Crime Scene Investigation behemoth has given birth to three separate series, been broadcast to nearly a third of the planet, and translated into most known languages. If internet speculation is to be trusted (and if it is, I sent you my credit card details six months ago, Mohammed Al-Jazarr, so your father must be out of prison by now), then the show’s popularity has exponentially multiplied the applications for university courses on forensic science. The greatest trick CSI ever pulled was convincing viewers to care less about the cool cops and manly firemen working the scene, and more about the smart but socially backwards eggheads spraying Luminol to determine blood spatter and poking a thermometer in a body’s liver. To be fair, this makes it seem that working with corpses is, well, dead boring, but every episode of CSI is rendered with the kind of crash bang wallop you would expect from loud and proud Hollywood movies about hijacked submarines and giant Komodo dragons terrorising Los Angeles. You wouldn’t get the same results with refrigerator salesmen or zoologists.

The catalyst for the amped-up dynamism of CSI is Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer mogul behind dumb-as-a-box-of-hair films like The Rock, Con Air, Pearl Harbour and, of course, that paean to male bonding, Top Gun. Each of these money-guzzling releases was based upon a basic equation: knowingly ludicrous plot + one-dimensional characters x big explosions = happy audience. It was only a matter of time before Bruckheimer turned his Rolex hand to television. The original incarnation of CSI was set in Las Vegas, a place as famous for its glitz, glamour and unending Barry Manilow residencies as it is for the desert which surrounds it: a vast, desolate landscape which is said to be filled with scores of victims, unseen reminders of an era when the city was run by the mob. The show immediately took advantage of Las Vegas’s dual nature – the self-billed “Entertainment Capital of the World” could equally be called “Murder Central”. The back alleys, parking lots, hotel suites and dressing rooms of this superficial fantasy world are rarely dry of blood and chalk outlines. The city never runs out of questionable characters soon to meet a sticky end: showgirls with skirts cut down to there and shady businessmen with bankrolls to stick into elasticated garters.

For a fledgling television programme, CSI leaped straight out the traps snarling and baring its teeth. Adhering to Bruckheimer’s applied his usual ramstam approach, the rollicking theme tune (‘Who Are You?’ by The Who) and glossy production values made this a scalpel cut above the rest of wordy but dull police procedural dramas. Three things made CSI a must watch. Firstly, it had a varied and likeable array of main and supporting characters working in the crime lab: stripper turned scientist Catherine Willows; gambling addict Warrick Brown; square-jawed Nick Stokes; damaged but tough Sara Sidle; and supervisor Gil Grissom, named for the astronaut Gus Grissom and described by actor William Petersen as “a guy who finds the world in little things”. “Gruesome” Grissom, an entomology nut for whom no situation is unworthy of a quizzical squint, is an odd kind of hero – reserved, saturnine, inclined to speak in literary quotations – but he is a hero nonetheless. The more CSI progressed, the more of Grissom’s back story was revealed, and the more likeable he became. The fact that he lacked the brawn and cocksure swagger of your average leading man made him all the more appealing.

Secondly, CSI was, believe it or not, educational. Yes, it’s mental chewing gum, but that does not mean that you can’t learn stuff at the same time. Every episode of CSI is like a barmy, hi-tech version of Cluedo – there’s a corpse or two, but the victims haven’t fallen off ladders or been beaned with a candlestick. No, nothing is ever that straightforward in Las Vegas. These poor souls have been mummified in an oil drum, turned to soup into a scalding hot shower, impaled on a hunting implement or torn apart by wolves. When the intrepid team stumble upon a body, or poke its guts about in the autopsy room, the viewer is treated to some Basil Exposition dialogue of exactly how it ended up in its current state: what exactly happens when a pea hammer impacts a cranium, or a dog’s teeth bite a shinbone, how a bullet’s path is affected by wind direction etc. This semi-scientific verbiage is complemented by fancy graphics illustrating Grissom’s explanation. It’s an arresting and economic way of explaining a lot of cumbersome detail without descending into blurbling techie jargon – and it gives you amazing facts to casually drop into conversation at parties.

Thirdly, CSI, while hokey and contrived, is fabulously gripping. Each episode crams a lot of plot into forty-five minutes – with two or three murders, you can play at guessing the killer’s identity, but most solutions are so wacky that you have more chance of netting the moon’s reflection in a puddle. As the show has accumulated higher ratings with each season, the writers have grown more daring. For evidence, check out the episode ‘Fur And Loathing’, in which a “Furries” convention is curtailed by the death of a man in a racoon suit; or ‘Who Shot Sherlock?’, structured like a classic Conan Doyle mystery; or ‘Toe Tags’, in which dead bodies try to figure out the circumstances of their own deaths.

With multiple in-jokes and references to Kurosawa, Lumet, Bowie, Hitchcock, it’s witty, self-effacing and smarter than the winner at a Mensa spelling bee. The highpoint of the ambitious “Miniature Killer” story arc from Season Seven remains a masterpiece in sustained plotting.

That said, CSI is not without its detractors. It may have come under attack for not providing a wholly accurate representation of actual forensic science work, but this is the same as complaining that Dan Brown is a fairly unreliable historian, or that Heroes gives the impression that people start spontaneous fires by frowning and wriggling their fingers mysteriously. Of greater concern for many is the show’s dependence on violent themes, which are blacker than an asphalt freeway and touch upon issues rarely mentioned in the polite company of mainstream television. There are cases involving child abuse, date rape, cannibalism, Grissom’s fascination with sadomasochism (hello, Lady Heather), snuff films, vampirism, mental disability… namely, more hot potatoes than a high street chip shop. But this accusation, when you think about it, is pretty silly. Murder is a horrible and messy business, and CSI never allows the viewer to forget that. Every victim, no matter how fanciful their death, is treated with the reverence and diligent fieldwork it deserves. And when the crime is solved and the body is tagged and bagged, it leaves you feeling with equal amounts satisfaction and sadness for the lonely cadaver sliding into the morgue.

CSI: Las Vegas was so successful that a spin-off was inevitable – and for once welcome. It’s sibling, CSI: Miami, introduced in a crossover episode with Team Grissom at the end of Season Two, initially appeared to be a lighter affair. Taking full advantage of the sky-burnt sunshine of South Florida and Bruckheimer’s trademark screen filters, the new show had a visual style which was as bright and artificial as candyfloss. If Las Vegas was whiskey and downers, Miami was amphetamines and rum. There could well be hyperbolic stories about snipers, lynching, tidal waves and shark attacks, but there could equally be sombre affairs about illegal immigration and paedophilia. Miami was daft and it knew it. Horatio Caine (David Caruso, returning to television with his tail between his legs), a forensics expert and former bomb squad officer didn’t do Grissom’s squint – he had a tic all of his own: remove sunglasses, say the feed line, put on sunglasses, say the punchline. This normally happens pre-credits, followed by another song by The Who, the yowling ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.

However, Miami soon settled down and stopped jumping about like a child after a birthday party buffet. Horatio, at first portrayed as part saint-like White Knight in an Armani suit, part Doctor Barnardo to traumatised children, was given meatier storylines which required him to do more than intoning wisdom in a hushed voice. Hispanic gangsters, drug runners and the Russian mob figure heavily, and more is disclosed about Horatio’s own chequered past – thankfully, he may not be the goody-Gucci-shoes he appears.

The torch – standard issue for all forensic scientists – was handed on to CSI: New York in another crossover episode, this time at the end of Season Two of Miami. Bleaker and more serious than its predecessor, the first instalment of New York addressed the looming issue of the Twin Tower attacks, and then grew progressively darker. The Big Apple is rotten to the core with bent cops, serial killers, suicide jumpers, sex offenders… it’s not a glowing endorsement for the city, and the good guys don’t always win, but it is entertaining.

The CSI franchise has now been running for a whisker short of a decade. In its run it has arguably become the most lucrative programme on television, though I wouldn’t like to see its budget for prosthetic corpses and syrup blood. Its reputation is such that it is able to draw renowned actors like Gary Sinise, who plays lead character Detective Mac Taylor in New York, and Laurence Fishburne, who has recently joined the cast of Las Vegas. Unusual for a business where scriptwriters desperately shoehorn in ridiculous concepts about time travel, collective amnesia and the end of the world, the thinking behind CSI remains refreshingly simple: find the evidence, convict the killer, give the family – and the audience – closure. Job done. Until next week.


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