[6 July 2004]
American television audiences can’t get enough of workaholics. CSI Miami, along with the other series in the franchise (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, set in Vegas, and CSI: New York premiering in September), is all about the work. These series focus on the procedural aspects of crime scene investigation, forsaking sex, politics, and character development, providing viewers with a glammed-up, fictional version of Discovery Channel programs like FBI Files and New Detectives. Now available on DVD, CSI Miami: The Complete First Season contains 25 episodes and extras, all about grisly, ingenious, and bizarre crimes and all the ways forensic science can uncover the truth.
In “CSI Miami Uncovered,” David Caruso (who plays Horatio Caine) comments that forensic science is the real star of the show. The other actors must agree: when asked about their characters, they discuss their in-depth research or how much they’ve learned about guns/crime scenes/biology/blood spatters. As a result, the DVD extras, including episode commentaries and a series of informational segments with technical adviser John Haynes, are mirthless and less than riveting.
Not that the show is particularly mirthful. The characters laugh about as often as they fail to crack a case. Most episodes feature two crimes, one particularly grisly or mystifying. Each character’s expertise contributes to solving the cases and they rarely rejoice in their successes or dwell on their wrong turns. It is the process that is important, their ingenious leaps of logic and attention to details that unfailingly leads to correct answers. Even if the science seems daunting, their easy-to-follow procedures—carefully explained and illustrated—help viewers keep up.
If forensics is the show’s “real star,” then Horatio (“H”) plays second gun. Intense and always in control, he tends to whip off his sunglasses and remark, “Something isn’t right here” or “The story is all right here,” as he surveys a crime scene. He’s the “lone wolf,” motivated by his strong sense of right and wrong and a dedication to comforting grieving widows, once even offering to break the news of dad’s death to the kids (“I don’t want you worrying about that,” he monotones. “You leave that to me”). He and coroner Alexx (Khandi Alexander), Speed (Rory Cochrane), Calleigh (Emily Procter), Delko (Adam Rodriguez), and Megan (Kim Delaney, who disappears after 10 episodes) remain dispassionate in their pursuit of “justice.” They study crime scenes with busy, blank eyes, pointing here and there as they assert, “Process this whole area,” “Process that body,” or “We need to process this entire room immediately!” For crime scene investigators, the world is reduced to minutiae: debris removed from clothing with a piece of tape, blood patterns, the telltale positioning of a fallen body.
Unlike some other work-obsessed TV characters, the CSI Miami crew don’t have troubled personal lives; in fact, they have no personal lives that we see. Instead, they serve as vehicles for the crime-solving plots, the more convoluted the better, whether matching mold at a crime scene to the perpetrator’s bathroom or discovering spores in a victim’s nasal mucus that indicate where the crime took place.
Despite the show’s focus on forensics, its “science” can be problematic. Every line is presented as gospel truth and though the creators and writers maintain they are dedicated to authenticity, some episodes suggest otherwise. “Dead Woman Walking,” for instance, involves two victims killed by radioactive iodine and, according to the Society of Nuclear Medicine, contains gross inaccuracies about the effects of nuclear medicine.
Even so, most people understand (or should understand) the difference between documentary and crime drama, and even if the “facts” are sometimes questionable, the cases’ twists and turns keep viewers engaged.
Indeed, one of CSI Miami‘s main appeals may be that it feels “smarter” than other shows. At first glance, it offers a sometimes welcome counterbalance to other U.S. television trends, like reality TV. While the first engages deductive reasoning skills, the latter offers only the dubious pleasures of voyeurism and shock. But the two viewing experiences are not entirely dissimilar. CSI Miami presents cases so clinically that it can introduce issues as scandalous as anything on reality TV without appearing exploitative. In the pilot episode, “Cross Jurisdictions,” two characters compare “swinger” parties to frat parties and discuss the wild sexual practices that take place at both.
On the DVD’s commentary track, co-creator Ann Donahue reflects that other shows might not be allowed to include the same subject matter: “We discuss really, really weird things and we get away with it because the show’s about science.” She’s right: throughout the first season, the series takes up some very “adult” and heated subject matter, like pedophilia, sodomy, torture, drug abuse, and terrorism. Because these issues are discussed in a forensics lab and none of the central characters participates in the debauchery, the show isn’t labeled raunchy. As Donahue adds, CSI Miami enjoys a certain freedom because “censors are looking for sex.” Apparently, as long as the main characters aren’t getting any, anything goes.
And “anything” can include some pretty shocking stories. In “Slaughterhouse,” the team follows a toddler’s bloody footprints back to the house where her family lies gruesomely murdered. This episode, despite its unseemly premise, epitomizes what CSI Miami does best. As the crew meticulously sorts through the evidence, each family member, from the stressed-out stay-at-home mom to the overworked dad to the burdened teenaged son, falls under suspicion. The CSI crew, along with the audience, ponders various scenarios until they find one that fits just right. It doesn’t matter that in real life “the truth” can’t always be uncovered so precisely. When watching CSI Miami, you just enjoy the process.