CSI: MORE THAN JUST A BUNCH OF DEAD BODIES
July 20, 2005
by Matthew Jackson
What Makes TV’s Biggest Drama so Good
Few television dramas in recent memory have generated as much hype and enthusiastic response as CBS’s crime thriller hit: CSI. Only five seasons long so far, CSI has already generated two hit spin-offs (CSI Miami and CSI New York) and been one of the most profitable sellers on the DVD box set market. For those of you who aren’t familiar, CSI stands for Crime Scene Investigation, and the show chronicles the daily grind of several Crime Scene Investigators from the Las Vegas Police Department as they solve a variety of crimes using their brains, a variety of unique, quirky knowledge, and the latest scientific technology. Not a very complicated premise. In fact, when you get down to it, CSI is just another cop show, so what it is about this show that his made it such an unbelievable hit?
Well, for one thing, they never did these things on cop shows before. Cop shows have always been about detectives and patrolmen out on the streets pulling their guns and shouting away in interrogation rooms (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but CSI is all about what happens after those shows go home. While cop shows chronicle the cops shaking down the criminals, CSI chronicles the people who find out who the criminals are, and that concept alone is enough to intrigue viewers. After all, Dennis Franz never made a bullet out of meat in order to prove a man guilty. CSI is about the science and intrigue that leads to the arrest. And even if you don’t like cop shows, sometimes you can watch CSI just to see what new trick Gil Grissom and his crew will unveil this week. Recently, they pulled a sound recording off grooves in a clay pot using a laser reader. Now if that’s not fuel for science geeks everywhere, I don’t know what is. But whether its zooming in on a picture of a young girl to see what’s reflected in her eye or melting a giant pile of ice in order to find a tooth, CSI is always perfectly paced to deliver a thrill. Which brings about another wonderful point that makes the show so watchable: the storytelling. Every CSI episode has you guessing until the very end, because the writers never seem to fall into a pattern. On one episode, they build up the chase of one suspect, only to reveal it was the guy’s wife sitting in the corner in tears who did it all along, and in another they dismiss the most obvious suspect, only to find it was him after all. The dialogue is unbelievably natural, and creator Anthony E. Zuiker and his team of writers always avoid the melodrama. Very rarely does a member of the main cast burst into tears or start shouting at a suspect, therefore when they do, you know it means something.
So, the show has expert storytelling, but the thing that really makes CSI one of the most intriguing shows on TV is the characters. First, there’s Gil Grissom (William Petersen), night shift supervisor of the Las Vegas Crime Lab and brilliant forensics expert. Grissom is the team’s symbolic father, the wise man that hovers through the lab and points everyone in the right direction. He is also the most dedicated to his work. Grissom seems to always be the one to pull a doomed case out of its nosedive by getting a crazy idea or hunch (often spinning from his dark sense of humor) and following up on it. Of course, in direct contrast to his brilliance is his lack of understanding of anything but his work. Grissom is obviously not a people person. The only way he can truly function is when he’s working with his team. Because of that, he’s not good at relationships, but he is a great leader and a good friend to his CSIs. People can relate to Grissom because he is, in essence, a workaholic geek who struggles with people, which a lot of us out there have definitely experienced at some point. But despite his bad people skills, we want to be like Grissom because of his unbelievable intelligence. It would be neat to be a cool, calculating forensics expert for a while, and Grissom is the embodiment of that.
Then, there’s Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), Grissom’s right hand and new supervisor of the swing shift at the Crime Lab. Catherine is a sexy single mother who used to be an exotic dancer, and as a result she knows the streets and the rigors of a hard life. Catherine is a sensible, strong woman, but never hesitates to use her power over men if it helps to solve a case. While not quite as smart or calm as Grissom, she is infinitely more sensible about people and relationships, making her a brilliant interrogator and a good leader. And let’s face it, pretty much any male fan of the show has a crush on her. While us guys would like to be a cool genius like Grissom, girls would love to be the strong, independent Willows, making her yet another intriguing and relateable character. Grissom and Willows act as the pillars of strength and experience in the team, and around them are three younger CSIs, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, that add even more depth to the show.
Nick Stokes (George Eads), is a young man from Texas with a passion for his work and empathy for victims that act as both strength and a weakness. Nick loves his work, and is definitely the most upbeat and optimistic of the team, which makes him a well for unexpected bright spots in even the darkest episodes. Nick is often criticized for getting to close to victims and their families, but he considers it an advantage, believing that the closer you get to a victim, the more they’ll open up and the closer you’ll get to the killer. Even though he feels for the victims, Nick rarely gets too emotional to work, focusing instead on keeping in control of his feelings in spite of them, adding more dimension to his character. Nick is CSI’s golden boy, a dedicated worker with a heart, and one that we can all look up to.
Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) is nothing else if not a survivor. Once a compulsive gambler losing tons of money to the city in which he worked, Warrick is now back on the straight and narrow, and as a result he is by far the most stable of the team. While the others all seem to have emotional problems that run deep, Warrick is there to hold them up and keep the ball rolling. Being an extremely attractive man in a city full of desirable women, Warrick’s only vice seems to be the ladies, which makes him a hero of sorts to male fans. Even so, Warrick is a pillar of what a CSI should be; the perfect combination of street smarts and science.
Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) is arguably the most tempestuous of the group. Sara spent a lot of time in foster homes after her mother killed her father. After years of suffering, Sara has finally found something she can do, and she is determined to do it better than anyone else, but she is constantly hounded by frustration. Sara hates the cruelty of the world around her and sometimes cracks, knowing she can do little to change it. Her constant desire to bring down criminals sometimes drives her to the outer limits of fatigue and sanity, but she never stops working. It doesn’t help that she has bad luck with men, either. Still, despite all her troubles, Sara still perseveres, and that makes her an admirable character.
Added to the team are several supporting characters to flesh out the menu. Detective Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) is an ex alcoholic cop from Jersey with an offbeat sense of humor and an intimidating demeanor, making him feared amongst criminals. CSI Greg Stokes (Eric Szmanda) is the rookie of the group, still learning how to work a crime scene and keep his mouth shut at the right times. And Medical Examiner Doctor Albert Robbins (Robert David Hall) is Grissom’s partner in crime, an equally brilliant man with an equally dark sense of humor. These characters add even more humor and intrigue to a show that’s just about ready to burst with people we can relate to.
So, factor in all these elements, and you’ve got one of the most compelling TV shows ever made. CSI is a wonderful combo of fascinating science, masterful storytelling, and brilliant characterization, mixed together to make one of the most unique shows on television. So, if you’re not doing anything Thursdays at eight, turn it on, you might be surprised.