Test Pilot #42: CSI:
Debut date: October 6, 2000
Series legacy: One of the most popular, but not necessarily well-regarded series of the last decade-plus
Hey there, party people. Welcome back to the internet’s most popular discussion of television pilots, Test Pilot. We’re still early into our contemporary police drama theme. Before you groan or immediately think of David Caruso-delivered puns, I think it’s important to point out that not all “cop shows” are generic, lowest-common-denominator fare. The police procedural is one of, if not the, most dominant scripted format in the television industry. We like to think of the “cop show” with very specific terminology and iconography in mind, but countless series have attempted to mix up the general framework of the police drama. My hope is that this theme will explore five series that personify the innovative and complex ways to approach a cop show, especially in the contemporary era of television that is so-defined by basic procedurals (mostly on CBS).
Today, we move ahead with our exploration of the contemporary police drama with a look at the series that arguably has had the most impact on television in the 21st century. That might make some of you vomit, but it is likely true. I speak of course of CBS’ CSI:, the long-running science- and technology-heavy crime solving powerhouse that spawned two very popular spin-offs, helped CBS become an even more dominant force in the aughts and shaped the face of the modern procedural. But of course, it’s not cool to like CSI:, especially in 2012 and especially on the internet. Hopefully my guest and I can interrogate the series’ influence, but also its cultural cachet as we continue down this road of analysis.
Joining me today is my good friend Adam Lukach. Adam is a journalism major about to graduate from Indiana University. He is currently a job-seeking freelancer who has written as many as one articles for publications like the Quietus and VICE magazine. Adam is also my former co-editor at the WEEKEND desk of our school paper, the Indiana Daily Student. You can, and should, follow Adam on Twitter. Adam, take it away good sir:
I’ve probably watched more CSI: than a young man of 22 ever should. Growing up, I was confined by the shackles of antenna TV and dial-up Internet, which would explain why my two favorite series when I graduated high school were Grey’s Anatomy and Smallville. Yeah, you read that right. So there was a time when I would have called myself a “fan” of the CSI: franchise.
Cory hasn’t seen many episodes, but I might as well be collecting grey hair and my 401k I’ve seen so many of these. During my time as a watcher of such series, I’ve probably witnessed a couple dozen episodes each of these: CSI:, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, Without a Trace and Criminal Minds. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my favorites of these were Without a Trace and Criminal Minds, the latter of which I still watch on occasion (Shout out to Mandy Patinkin!).
Point is, the CSI: were always my least favorite in the wonderful world of procedural crime dramas. Maybe it’s because my mom likes Gary Sinise so much and I’m really sick of that guy. But it was very easy to notice the different elements of this pilot that have influenced later series, some of them good and some of them bad.
For instance, CSI:’s glossy animation sequences popularized their super-detailed, super-zoomed shots for the sake of the “science” of the show, so the viewer can “understand” what’s going on. Those are straight out of the House playbook, including its theme song, which would be terribly unfortunate to have lived without. It somehow made it hip, or at least allowable, to be ABOUT the violence on your TV show. CSI: touted its violence in a way that was cold and removed – strictly scientific, just like Gil Grissom. That’s how even a series like Dexter works it, from its intro to its human disassembly sequences. That Grissom-blood spatter with a golf club scene immediately conjured up memories of when Dexter used to pretend to do his job.
While Criminal Minds is pretty gratuitous on the violence front, it’s also heavy on the teamwork. Between that and Without a Trace, you could keep a pretty solid over/under of 2.5 life-threatening situations on the two teams each week. Death, or losing a member of the team became an easy way to raise the stakes. CSI:’s season 5 finale, the Quentin Tarantino-directed “Grave Danger” (puns!) did it best, burying George Eads alive in an epic two-parter. He lives to see 6+ more seasons. In this pilot, CSI: ups the ante quickly, predictably killing Gribbs by the end of the first episode, shaking up the team chemistry so that they much “pull together.”
People like to see challenges overcome, especially when it’s a team effort and they say cool stuff while they’re doing it. Playing out these relationships, both friendly and romantic, across the team became the show’s way of propping up its cold side, the one that emphasized science over emotion and weird deaths over watchability. While most of these relationships rarely went beyond will-they-won’t-they melodrama, like with Gary Sinise and the lady from Providence, they forged a simple emotional engine that helped relieve the perverse banality of weird, heinous crimes.
Its worst influences though, were also on parade in this pilot. I could barely stand the way the show aggressively asserted each one of its characters’ shticks – Grissom is quirky and calculating, Brass is the old vet, Willows is the cop with a heart of gold who loves the job too much. I had always remembered this version as a little more subdued, but it was a lot like CSI: Miami, which has long been best hate-watched. Their zippy dialogue contributes to this more than anything else – it’s the House syndrome of everyone always have something elaborate, snappy prognosis of the world for everyone else. I lost my shit when Grissom said “Alcatraz!” while he was peering in that microscope.
Having said that, I did really appreciate the energy that this pilot brought to the table. I know this is a little like having your cake and then deciding it’s not the kind of cake you wanted exactly, but so many of those spinoffs and adaptations are so tired and boring. CSI: Miami might as well be a parody of itself, try watching it sometime (ed note: please don’t). Even my parents hate LL Cool J on NCIS: LA, and they don’t even know who he is. Here they were almost a little daring with their language, making on-the-nose jokes about anal swabs and even using some profanity at times. The acting allows them to pull some of this off, as most of the main cast handles their soap-opera-like lines rather gracefully.
This last thing falls in line with their earnest set-ups, but I remembered at the end of the episode how manipulative the series could be. As soon as Gribbs started spitting about “not being a cop,” I knew she wouldn’t be with us for long. Surrounding crimes with grimly unfortunate circumstances or threatening team members became emotional tests that were an easy way to bring the audience back every week. Instead of fostering a true kinship with the characters or the story, the series preyed on your basic humanity.
So in watching this pilot, I’m reminded of the many reasons I stopped watching these series, but also the many reasons I did for so long. I still love the crimes. The campy executions and ridiculous whodunit paths paved by science were always entertaining in a pure sense. But it is always ruined by the earnestly and seeming lack of self-awareness with which it presents its other elements that bothered me. The writing isn’t funny enough to be what it wants to be, and definitely isn’t clever enough to make up for any shortcomings.
Its influence is impossible to deny – it spans multiple genres and multiple decades. But I’d rather have the acting or depth of Criminal Minds (did I really just say that?) or the slightly more subdued Without a Trace. Even CSI: NY kept its dialogue away from Big Bang Theory territory. I recognize this wasn’t a comparison test. Having watched so many others, it was just hard to enjoy an example, and the root, of so many of the genre’s most loathsome tropes.
And now, my thoughts on the CSI: pilot episode:
You probably hate CSI:. I basically hate CSI:. The only people we know who do not hate CSI: are our parents, grandparents or that one uncle we actually talk to. You can see this coming, but, why? What makes it so easy to crack jokes about CSI:, or to automatically assume that the only people who watch it are old and out of touch? Twelve years into the series’ run, those jokes, assumptions and perceptions are ingrained, so why have they existed for so long?
These questions were important, albeit with sort of obvious answers, to me heading into my viewing of the CSI: pilot. I have been an active consumer of television for about a decade and producer of criticism for much shorter and I would like to think I have few blind-spots.* Yet, I have probably only watched a half-dozen full episodes of CSI:, and that includes all three projects in the franchise. By the time I made it into this game, the stories were already written about the franchise. Sometimes, it is too late or too hard to go back, and other times, there is just no reason to. CSI: certainly fits into the last category for me.
In any event, as I watched the first episode of CSI:, my prior assumptions about our larger perception of the series was more or less confirmed. Generally speaking, I think we ignore, mock, dislike and perhaps even hate CSI: more for what it spawned and what it represents than for anything that it is within the text itself. Every episode of CSI: that I have seen (and again, that is not many, but still), I have enjoyed. This pilot, frankly, is actually quite fun, and a does a fine job of setting up what was-then somewhat complicated forensic science and the series’ cast of characters. I was legitimately surprised at how well this effort created the world, developed relationships and somehow even introduced some moderate stakes.
Is some of the dialogue awkward and forced? Yep. Are the events of Gribbs’ shooting and death a little manipulative? Yes. Yet, the sense of odd, clinical and detached cynicism I have felt with other episodes was not found here and like I said, the integration of forensics into the typical rhythms of the police procedure is handled (mostly) well. It is somewhat challenging to look back on those elements with fresh eyes because of everything that has come to us since 2000 (more than in a little bit), but the opening acts of the pilot provide a handful clear, concise examples of the team doing their jobs. There is nothing about the then-new process to the procedure that feels cumbersome to the proceedings.
Moreover, the introduction of the lead characters is strong. I have always admired William Petersen’s work as Gil Grissom and he is already locked in to the character’s low-fi quirk here. However, I was shocked to find how much I cared about the possible promotions of Brown and Stokes, which must be due to the work of Gary Dourdan and George Eads, two performers I did not think much of before this pilot. Their respective stories were straightforward, but the actors did a nice job of embodying the basics of their characters with ease.
Finally, that aforementioned lack of cynicism really caught me off guard. The episodes of the series I have seen were much grimmer, and yet, the actors seemed stuck between delivering heaps of exposition and oddly-timed jokes. That combination never set well with me, and is one of the (admittedly many) reasons why I have stayed away from CSI: over the years. In this opening salvo, though, the characters seem like regular people interested in the processes of their job, but not entirely consumed by it. There is a humanity to Gil, Catherine, Warrick and Nick that I honestly did not expect.
Thus, while I do not want to go as far as to say that folks have misjudged CSI:, I will say that I recognize why people fell so deeply in love when it began, and might even be willing to understand why the series garnered a few Outstanding Drama Series Emmy nominations. Of course, both the series and perceptions of it have changed over time. Like many long-running series, CSI: has fallen victim to all sorts of pressures and problems that altered what was a very appealing pilot formula. Obviously, the popularity of the series and certain elements (the science, and perhaps the violence) brought forth the disease of more – more (and less believable) science, more violence, etc. The CSI: just watched in the pilot is not the same CSI: that made waves for doing an episode about Furries or the CSI: that made even bigger waves for letting Justin Bieber “act,” multiple times.
Plus, we cannot discount the slew of actor departures (way to stick it out, George Eads), the expansion of the franchise and simple aging as major influences on why CSI: is not an especially enjoyable series in 2012. I watched an episode this season because I wanted to see how Ted Danson would do in the starring role and it was boring and kind of miserable. That episode certainly was not like the pilot episode I just watched.
So, returning to my primary point: CSI: is one of, if not the, most influential television series of the last 12 years, and it is that influence that makes it easy to get frustrated about. Snobbier critics and commenters mock the series, the franchise and CBS as a whole for popularizing and formalizing a handful of important markers of contemporary television: the use of forensic science, the glossy style and visual pallet and the importance of teams working together, intellectually solving problems. The forensic science element has been discussed to death, and criticized by a slew of real law enforcement agencies, but the visual style and team style of case solving have been similarly prevalent and important. To this day, many series evoke the clinical gloss popularized by CSI: and even more still feature people standing around, bouncing ideas off one another until one of them figures out a solution. These two elements of course work well together, as the former helps the latter seem less visually “boring.” In short, CSI: substantially changed the shape of the television procedural, updating it for a faster-paced, shortened-attention environment.
Most of the dramas that have populated the broadcast network’s schedules over the past decade likely owed a portion of their lives to CSI:. Without CSI:, we would obviously not have the glorious CSI: Miami, the less glorious CSI: New York, fellow CBS juggernauts like NCIS, its spin-off NCIS: LA and Criminal Minds. But we also would not have had now-cancelled CBS programs like Without a Trace, Cold Case and Numb3rs or popular series on non-CBS networks like Bones, Crossing Jordan, House and even Fringe.
Ultimately then, CSI:’s shadow is much bigger than most of us who talk about television online were probably like. It is one thing for there to be one, kind of okay version of this series to be kicking around television. It is something else entirely for the entire landscape of the medium to be altered by it. As an individual series, CSI: is fine. But as a quasi-pioneer that reshaped contemporary television? Ugh.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the influence of CSI: is not all bad. Sure, it feels suffocating at times to look at CBS’ schedule or the slew of team-based problem solving elsewhere, but later series like House, Fringe and even NCIS have managed to integrate those elements into the fold without letting them run roughshod all over the narrative, the characters or the visual style. When managed accordingly (i.e. combined with good, appealing characters), the tenants of CSI: work quite well, even today.
So, yeah, you might hate CSI:. But there is probably something you watch that would not exist without it.
Series legacy: So influential. Problematic, but just so influential.