Blinded By Science
When CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted on CBS in the fall of 2000, it arrived with more of a whisper than a scream. Despite the fact that it was being executive produced by action film guru Jerry Bruckheimer, it received little advance buzz and critics gave it a slim chance at success as it squared off on Thursday evenings against NBC powerhouse Will & Grace. But with its skillful blend of drama, suspense, humor and realistic storylines, CSI quickly became the most watched drama in the country, knocking ER from its perch.
The show’s first season introduced the team of forensic scientists who work the graveyard shift for the Las Vegas Police Department Crime Lab, while setting up the show’s basic formula: a death occurs in the opening minutes and it’s up to the team to piece together how the crime was committed. Using the latest in equipment and technology, they gather the tiniest bits of evidence left behind at a crime scene to help nab the bad guys. Or not. A show that asks us to “assume nothing” very often lets the perps go free when the evidence doesn’t prove substantial enough to secure arrests.
The CSI team, which rarely sleeps or engages in any extracurricular activity, is led by the enigmatic Gil Grissom (series co-producer William Petersen) and includes former stripper Catherine Willows (Marg Hellgenberger); recovering gambling addict Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan); green but eager Nick Stokes (lantern-jawed George Eads); self-described “science nerd” Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox); and police captain Jim Brass (Paul Gilfoyle).
The show expertly ties together intelligent writing, an excellent ensemble cast, and a Rashomon-style storytelling always rooted in reality. Though it looks new and high tech, series creator Anthony Zuiker has crafted an old-fashioned whodunit. Toss in some gross-out special effects and dashes of dark humor, and you’ve got an hour of sharp, addictive entertainment.
Season two, now available in a nifty six-disc collection from Paramount Home Video, finds the show veering little from the formula that worked so well in season one. This time around the team seems cockier, more self-assured than they did in the first season. “I can get [finger]prints out of air,” Warrick tells Brass in “Burked,” the season opener, boasting later, “We do magic.” Indeed, the team seems addicted to the adrenalin rush of cracking a case with brains rather than brawn.
And while the show is all about the science, it never buries us under scientific mumbo-jumbo. CSI makes science user-friendly. When Grissom and coroner Dr. David Robbins (Robert David Hall) perform an autopsy, explanations of what they’re doing are cleverly written into the dialogue. Icky special effects give a firsthand view of the devastating effects a bullet or thousands of volts of electricity has on the human body.
Fascinating lead characters are key to CSI‘s appeal. And, unlike the first season, when backstories were rarely indulged, season two subtly reveals the scientists’ personal lives. Here, Grissom becomes aware of his deteriorating hearing and Willows continues her deepening friendship with casino boss Sam Braun (Scott Wilson), a strange relationship that would be resolved in season three’s shocking finale. During this season, Nick reveals a deep secret from his past in “The Overload,” while “Ellie” features a heartbreaking performance by the usually gruff Guilfoyle, when Brass learns that his estranged daughter is being implicated in the murder of a conman. Even offbeat lab technician Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda) gets into the act when he sets his romantic sights on Sara. In this sometimes somber show, Szmanda acts as comic relief, as the bemused team questions his “extreme” lifestyle of snowboarding, surfing, and punk rock.
But the show always remembers that it is about the science of crime solving, never delving too deeply into characters’ private lives. While some fans have criticized this aspect of the show, saying it makes the characters impersonal and distant, the lack of backstory actually makes CSI all the more accessible, particularly for new viewers. Without having to hack through a couple of seasons’ worth of story arcs, it’s easy to jump into the world of CSI without missing a beat.
Still the show continues to revolve around Grissom, equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock, and Zen philosopher. “If a tree falls in the woods, even if no one is around to hear it, it does make a sound,” he observes calmly, as if he’s on a one-way trip to Valhalla. Acting as mentor to the rest of the team, he conducts his scientific business like a religion. Intensely dedicated and occasionally demanding, he never quite shows what makes him tick. This may be a good thing, as there’s something essentially unlikable about him. A smart-aleck brainiac who wears his intelligence like a badge, Grissom is not above condescending to his colleagues, and he can be as clinical and cold as his lab instruments.
Petersen smartly plays Grissom with just enough vulnerability that we glimpse the lonely man lurking below the surface. Grissom’s dedication to science has come with a heavy cost to his personal life, and season two probes into some of the dark corners of the Grissom psyche, exposing some cracks in his armor. He’s best when pitted against a worthy foe, and season two features opponents who force him to confront issues in his own life, most notably his sex life. “Identity Crises” marks the return of Paul Millander (Matt O’Toole), the crafty serial killer who escaped Grissom’s grasp in the finale of season one, and whose eventual demise forces Grissom to ask some questions about sexual norms.
Sex again proves a challenging proposition for Grissom in “The Slaves of Las Vegas,” when he and Catherine investigate a death in a leather fetish club. Under suspicion is the club’s owner, sophisticated dominatrix Lady Heather (Melinda Carter), who makes Grissom uncomfortably aware that he has no romantic life. The hunter becomes the hunted as Lady Heather sees through Grissom’s thorny façade. “I know what you fear more than anything is being known… For whatever reason, you spend your entire life making sure no one else does.” Naming Grissom’s mysterious allure, Lady Heather makes him squirm.
But Grissom’s sharpest antagonist proves to be a Catholic priest in “Altar Boys,” arguably one of season two’s best episodes, when we learn that Grissom is a “lapsed Catholic.” When a man successfully frames his brother for a double homicide, Grissom is forced to work with a priest (the always reliable Dylan Baker). A friendly exchange at the show’s conclusion has the two men narrowing the gap between science and religion into a concise 30-second debate in which Grissom surprisingly admits his is “a career in futility.” The fact that the real murderer eludes justice underlines that CSI rarely settles for pat solutions, forcing Grissom to admit, “Sometimes the science is not enough.” Recognizing that we live in an imperfect world and that bad guys sometimes go free is typical of the show’s insistence on “keeping it real.”
When the first season was released on DVD earlier this year, fans griped about its full screen video, chintzy Dolby 2 audio, and shocking lack of extras. Someone at Paramount must have been listening, as the season two set boasts a gorgeous anamorphic widescreen video and Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, making the CSI DVD experience a striking improvement over watching it on TV.
An absorbing collection of featurettes explains the making of the show, from special effects to shooting locations. Best of all is a segment titled “Tools Of the Trade,” where technical advisor Elizabeth Devine describes the tools used on the show. Divided into “DNA,” “Ballistics,” and “Trace Fingerprint” labs, the DVD allows you to click your way through the various machines used in each. Such extras bolster an already superb collection.