CSI's success goes beyond
ratings. It won a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV
Drama. Entertainment Weekly named it one of the 10 best
shows of 2000. CBS handed the program the cushy timeslot
behind Survivor, where it regularly trounces one-time
critical darling Will & Grace. And having watched
CSI, I believe I have a solid-enough foundation to make
one unassailable claim about the show's success -- there
is no earthly explanation for why CSI is this popular.
This is not the embittered
conclusion of someone who tuned in to one CSI episode,
saw the open-mouthed visage of Marg Helgenberger and
then retreated into his hole for six more weeks of winter.
No, I've seen every, single episode of CSI, from the
pilot in which William Petersen and company solved a
couple of three crimes to the Feb. 22 episode in which
crime-solving fun times were had by all. You see, my
wife writes for another Web site that pays her much,
much more than TeeVee (since most mathematicians consider
"a little bit" to be much, much more than
"nothing"). Part of my wife's duties for this
Web site require her to recap episodes of CSI. And since
my wife gets to watch every episode of the show, so
do I. Putting the "for better or for worse"
part of our marriage vows to the test early on, as it
were. So that explains why the two people in the Michaels
household never miss CSI. That leaves just 20,449,998
of you to account for yourselves. Unless there's been
a sudden boom in the number of TV show-recapping Web
sites that previously escaped my attention.
Look, it's not that CSI
is a bad show. On the whole, it's actually pretty good.
The writers spin a good yarn, the show moves along at
a crisp, engaging pace, and, most importantly, prolonged
exposure to CSI doesn't cause the gray matter between
my ears to throb in agony. There are plenty of shows
I'd rather watch than CSI, but there's a considerably
longer list of programs that make me relieved that it's
William Petersen on my TV screen and not, say, the cast
of Two Guys and a Girl. Still, the last time I checked,
"competent" and "workman-like" did
not translate to "commercial and critical smash."
Of course, that was before CSI came along, back in the
day when the universe still made sense to me. There
are plenty of reasons for me to hate CSI. Watching the
show requires a willing suspension of disbelief -- preferably
with reinforced cables and netting just in case the
rigging gives way. On CSI, for example, it's the forensics
team that usually collars and interrogates suspects.
Bet that's good for a chuckle or two around precinct
houses across the country.
Then there's the not inconsiderable
matter of Marg Helgenberger appearing on the show. We
all have actors and actresses who -- through no apparent
fault of their own -- set our teeth on edge. And Helgenberger
to me is like blood on the doorframe for the Angel of
Death in ancient Egypt. I see her name in the credits,
and I pass over. Finally, CSI suffers from what we'll
call, for lack of a better name, The Quincy Factor.
Namely, no crime is so complex, no mystery so vexing
and no malfeasance so cryptic and involved that it can't
be wrapped up by the final five minutes of the show.
The creative forces behind
CSI would like me to take that Quincy talk and stuff
it on the nearest morgue slab. "Quincy was a medical
examiner in a different time," Petersen explains
in an interview with the hard-hitting reporters of CBS.com.
"This is 2000. And it's much different in that
we have different equipment. Those labs working in America
and those coroners' offices are equipped with completely
different types of equipment." And yet, they still
solve crimes in just under an hour of TV time, like
they did back when Quincy and Lt. Monahan and Sam Fujiyama
were ferreting out evil-doers a generation ago.
All that aside, there's
also plenty to like about CSI. Sure, a show about solving
crimes is a twice-told tale, but at least the CSI crew
finds an interesting way to tell it. The show really
makes its bones dealing with how crimes get solved and
-- laughable portrayal of police interrogation procedures
aside -- it generally gets things right. An episode
a few weeks back centered on a serial bomber terrorizing
the Las Vegas metro area. Most crime programs would
have been content to show the detectives tapping a few
computer keys and stumbling upon the correct answer.
CSI showed the actual grunt work -- the forensics team
analyzing clues, testing materials, even constructing
their own pipe bombs to try and figure out what they
were dealing with. It's good storytelling, and in age
of ER histrionics and David E. Kelley absurdities, that
should count for something. It also helps that Petersen
does a superb job playing Gil Grissom, the bloodless,
focused head of the Crimes Scenes Investigation unit.
So good is Petersen playing a man extremely gifted at
his job and extremely awkward at the business of life
that I wish CSI would devote more screen time to him
and less to the band of ciphers under his supervision.
The exceptions: Gary Dourdan and Paul Guilfoyle turn
in fine performances as a skilled-but-troubled forensics
investigator and gruff police lieutenant, respectively.
Could CSI improve? Most
definitely. The better crime dramas on TV -- your Homicides,
your Hill Street Blueses, even your short-lived EZ Streets
-- were as much about character as they were about story.
That's not the case on CSI, where the producers' idea
of character development is to let it slip that Helgenberger's
Catherine Willows used to be a stripper. Maybe that
will change as the series progresses, and the writers
become a little more comfortable with their charges.
It would also be nice to see Grissom and the gang come
across the occasional stumper of a crime. But don't
hold your breath waiting for any of that to happen.
This is CBS, after all, where audiences do not deal
well with things like nuance and unresolved conflict.
CBS's core demographic likes its crimes solved, its
punks busted and its characters transparent. When was
the last time you heard someone say, "Boy, that
Nash Bridges is one complex dude" or "That
JAG is like an enigma to me?"
In the meantime, you could
do worse than to give CSI a look-see. It's not great
television, but it's better than most of what you'll
find on the networks these days. That's not exactly
a ringing endorsement, but there are a bunch of shows
over on UPN that would kill for press like that. And
if you can figure out why the show is so popular, let
us know. There's a spot waiting on the Crime Scene Investigations
unit for whoever unravels that mystery.