"CSI," R.I.P.

Bloomberg View , May 13, 2015

A landmark television drama is headed toward its conclusion -- and I don’t mean “Mad Men.” CBS has just announced that “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” will end its 15-year run with a two-hour TV movie airing September 27. Original series stars William Petersen (Gil Grissom) and Marg Helgenberger (Catherine Willows) will return for the finale.

Set in the Las Vegas crime lab, “CSI” was such a successful mass-market show and spawned so many spin-offs that it’s easy to forget just how surprising and original the series was. Its look, setting, and central themes were all distinctive.

“I need that cinematic look in television,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer told the pilot’s director Danny Cannon. Cannon, who ultimately directed 25 episodes, shot on Super 35mm film stock and manipulated the color in post-production to heighten visual impact. One of his tricks was to adjust the blacks, creating what he described in a DVD extra as “a graduated filter that goes all the way around the lens and draws your eyes into the center of it.”

On “CSI,” the tedious job of processing evidence -- kept off-screen in most cop shows -- was glamorized in dramatically lit montages, as mysterious and alluring as studio-era Hollywood portraits. But here the work, not the actor, was the star. “While scenes about sifting evidence might be all ‘talk’ in other crime series, in CSI they are all about ‘show,’” observed media-studies scholar Sue Turnbull in a 2007 essay. (For better and worse, “CSI” also taught viewers that databases are omniscient and work like magic.)

Although “CSI” may now seem like a cosy retreat, in its early days the show’s graphic depiction of corpses also pushed the boundaries of prime-time gore. (Who could forget the bloated body rotting in a bath tub?) When a rookie investigator vomited in the pilot episode, she was standing in for an audience unaccustomed to seeing blue-veined bodies cut up on coroner’s slabs. And yes, the vomit was equally explicit.

And then there were the signature “CSI shots,” whizzing through blood vessels, tracking bullets as they burst through flesh or were fired in test tanks, magnifying hair follicles 1,000 times, penetrating the secrets of floorboards and walls. In the real Las Vegas, the spectacle is on a grand scale. On “CSI,” it was microscopic. “We took the camera where it had never been before,” said Cannon.

Las Vegas proved an ingenious venue, offering an unusual range of possible plots. While some episodes featured aspiring, current or washed-up entertainers, many depicted a mythic American city in a resolutely unmythic way -- as a place of suburban tract homes where ordinary people made middle-class lives dealing cards and waiting tables. When the real estate bust tanked the real-life Las Vegas economy, the show took up that theme as well.

Some of the most memorable episodes used Las Vegas as a gathering place where people who were in some way unusual sought fellowship. Plots brought viewers into conventions of furries and chess playersdwarfs and obese people, science-fiction fans and word-game contestants. However rare their enthusiasms or bodies might be, these individuals always turned out to share universal human emotions and motivations -- including, of course, potentially deadly ones.

A show that introduced its heroes with a beat cop’s dismissive “Here comes the nerd squad” was bound to take a tolerant, even celebratory, view of oddballs. Gil Grissom, the team’s leader for the first nine years and the show’s moral center long after his departure, was a stereotypical eccentric scientist -- with an important difference. Unlike the often-cruel Sherlock Holmes archetype, his strangeness made him not merely perceptive but kind. He developed a huge fan base, particularly among female viewers.

A recurring theme, I noted in a 2007 essay, was:

the contrast between Grissom’s humane, scientifically informed objectivity and the horror and hatred that less-rational people find in the “deviations from the accepted way of life,” whether transgendered people or Buddhist monks. “What people will endure to be normal,” Grissom sighs, as the medical examiner explains the painful bone-lengthening procedures evident in the legs of a murdered dwarf....To the scientist’s eye, cruelty, not deformity, defines the monsters among us.

By following the evidence, rather than prejudice and emotion, the forensics team defended the innocent, sometimes against their own police colleagues. (One of the show’s recurring tropes was that police Capt. Jim Brass, an otherwise sympathetic character, inevitably rushed to judgment about the perpetrator, only to be proven wrong.) Grissom’s insistence that “there is no room for subjectivity in this department” assured everyone of fair treatment -- and promised the audience that justice would be done.

It was all a fantasy, of course. No police department has the resources of the “CSI” crime lab, nor is real-world forensic analysis as quick, certain and without prejudice as the show’s glamorous version might have us believe. But building a hit TV show around that ideal, and giving it cinematic production values, was a culturally significant achievement.

  1. Officially, they weren’t “Star Trek” fans or Scrabble contestants, but the intention was obvious.