C.S.I.: Miami

Regular airtime: Thursdays 9pm ET (CBS)
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Ann Donahue, Carol Mendelsohn, Anthony Zuiker
Cast: William L. Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, George Eads, Jorja Fox, Paul Guilfoyle, Robert David Hall

by Cynthia Fuchs
PopMatters Film and TV Editor

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The Trouble With the Obvious

A plane crashes in the Florida Everglades, a thick black plume of smoke trailing its speedy descent. It’s daytime: the light is orange, a strangely lush backdrop for the only witnesses to the accident, a couple of alligator poachers who peer up at the sky and squint.

Within seconds, cops are on the scene. Or rather, the Miami-based crime scene investigators, led by Horatio Caine (David Caruso). He cruises into the area on an airboat, aided by pretty underling and so-far, token Hispanic character, Eric (Adam Rodriguez), who eagerly leaps into the water when they come across a body, not breathing. Horatio is philosophical (“He’s gone. It happens”) and explains to Eric that they actually don’t need the victim’s report on what happened: “We’ve got the whole story right here.”

“Right here” would be the crime scene to be investigated, of course, even if it’s highly unlikely that the National Transportation Safety Board would not be all over this one within minutes. Claiming the scene as his, C.S.I.: Miami‘s Horatio is an efficient, occasionally ferocious investigator and leader, insisting that his team wear protective clothing, keep the site as clean as possible, and bag every little item they find, no matter how insignificant it might seem. That is, while this damp, swamp-grassed terrain couldn’t be more different from the urban-desert combo of the first C.S.I., famously set in Las Vegas, the procedures and gimmicks are much the same, including multiple reenactments of crimes and lots of arty lab shots, on down to the Who song over the credits, this time, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Much as these first moments suggest, C.S.I.: Miami is very slick, very clever (one cut to commercial comes just as the team discovers a survivor: “Stay with us!”), and very eager to please. Plainly, its creative team imagines that the best way to do so is to repeat what they’ve done already in the original series, now only two years old — the Who song, the saturated colors, the low-key leads, and the zippy-zappy zooms on bluish corpses and raw red wounds. These are not quite so elaborate in the Miami version, which is too bad, as such graphic, videogamey imagery can be counted on to enliven dull plotlines and sagging dialogue. In Miami, you just have to wait out the sticky pauses and dramatic glances between Horatio and his former boss/now team member Megan Donner (Kim Delaney).

Aside from setting, the tweaks in the new show mostly have to do with casting. And these lead directly to its first flushes, of success (nearly 23 million viewers for the premiere episode, the most-watched September drama debut since ER in 1994) and commotion. For the first, Caruso seems an inspired choice, his notoriously low affect making him at once like and unlike C.S.I. star William Petersen, and, of course, enabling all the media fluff about Caruso’s return to series tv after notoriously leaving NYPD Blue so many years ago. That the producers also snagged Delaney, following the not-soon-enough demise of Philly, has mixed results: Megan is effectively prickly (even in her tight white tops), but her insertion into the team has pushed aside the more intriguing Calleigh Duquesne (Emily Procter, who left The West Wing for this), weapons expert and original girl-lead (when asked if she can find a bullet hole in the plane, she comes right back — “Does Elvis wear a white jumpsuit?” — it’s instantly hard not to like her.).

As for the commotion, Petersen has already popped off about the spin-off, calling it “NYPDCSI” (for the Caruso-Delaney teaming) and noting that at least the Dick Wolf Empire had the class to wait a few years for Law & Order to “gestate” before franchising. While it’s understandable that Petersen (who also produces his show) is feeling territorial, it’s also unfortunate: he can’t win this one, no matter how trendy he’s become recently (and some of us liked him way back in his youthful Michael Mann movie days, in Thief and especially, Manhunter).

Besides, Petersen’s Gil Grissom has a lock on the wry-aloof affect, not to mention all the help he gets from Marg Helgenberger’s terrific Catherine Willow. She’s one of the few characters on tv who has become better with time, increasingly unpredictable, mordant, and droll. She’s totally on target in this season’s premiere episode: when informed that a street-racing car has a “centrifugal supercharger,” thus “more power, no extra weight,” she doesn’t miss a damn beat: “Every girl’s dream.” Catherine’s cool. You can’t touch it.

By contrast, Miami‘s Megan is a bit overwrought. Granted, she has her reasons: the (vaguely noted) backstory is that she was once head of Miami’s C.S.I. unit, took time off to mourn a dead husband, and was replaced by Horatio, who once worked for her. Tensions exist between them, mainly conveyed during pauses in their conversations, when Horatio puts on or removes his very dark sunglasses. He oversees the operations and assigns her to tasks now, and she tends to get a little twitchy. Both make mention of their different approaches to the job: he goes by his “hunches” and she’s into evidence (how Mulder and Scully).

Arriving on the scene after Horatio and the rest of the team, Megan initially assumes a sort-of authority, with insights concerning contamination and jurisdiction; but she backs off quietly once she and Horatio exchange meaningful glances and he essentially blows off the NTSD. She notices that Tim Speedle (Rory Cochrane), once her employee and now her team equal, is acting like Horatio (or H, as they sometimes call him), that is, trusting his “gut,” especially when what he’s looking at seems obvious (in this case, he’s profiling the witnesses, assuming they’re poachers and liars; they also happen to be Native). Megan reminds him of what might be the C.S.I. mantra: “The trouble with the obvious, Tim, is that it can make you overlook the evidence.”

In fact, the episode goes on to prove and disprove both sets of assumptions (this is a familiar strategy from the first series: it doesn’t take sides, undermining everyone’s conjectures at some point). The witnesses are liars and thieves (so in this case, profiling is apparently okay), and the evidence will lead the team in moderately, though not very, surprising directions.

By beginning with the crash, this first episode, “Golden Parachute,” underlines its interest in being “topical,” invoking plane crashes in general and “ValuJet ’96” in particular (Horatio intones, “I remember it well”), and piling on corporate scandals, to boot. The plane belongs to a rich white guy, whose company is under investigation for cooking the books; indeed, H notes, “That whole planeload was on their way to Washington to be grilled by the SEC.” The C.S.I. team deduces that one passenger was a likely whistleblower, partly because they find her body some distance from the plane: she jumped or was pushed before the crash.

While all C.S.I. characters — on both series — like to harvest truths from corpses, Miami‘s coroner is especially chatty with hers. Alexx Woods (Khandi Alexander, who blew everyone and their mothers away with her work on The Corner) is both tough (when asked how many bodies so far, she offers, “Four or five depending on which pieces match”) and tender (to a body: “You didn’t get up this morning thinking it would be your last, did you, honey?”). Television coroners have become all too common these days (and none yet compares with the most wonderful Michael Boatman on China Beach), and truth be told, the perky-sentimental Jordan (Jill Hennessey) has thrown a large wrench into their campaign to be taken seriously. Alexx comes with a refreshing light touch, less crusty than inquisitive, and we’ll all be happy if she has more than four lines per future episode.

Alexx serves a different function than the field investigators, spending most of her time with tissue samples and bloody scalpels. Miami sets up her distinction, visible on a few levels, right away — through her sense of the poetic. In an early morgue scene, Alexx converses with the whistleblower-body, hypothesizing, “Only woman on board: that couldn’t have been easy.” And then, with a sigh and her voice lilting, “You were with them, but you weren’t one of them.” Megan, off to the side, chimes in, “All-boys express, I’ve been on that flight.” But before the girl talk can get too serious, H speaks from on high (he’s on the observation balcony, looking down on them): “Ladies! We may have an identity on the flight plan: Christina Calucci.” And so, the girl has a name, and the show has a standard gendered dynamic.

While the relationship between Megan and Horatio will probably become more complicated (why else introduce the question of authority in such a noticeable way?), Miami‘s basic structure is, perhaps by definition, exceedingly retread. The original series’ season premiere reinforced this by adhering strictly to its own formula: two cases whose solutions are not immediately apparent in the first scenes. The first involves the unexpected death — seemingly by lead poisoning — of the “world’s greatest” (and crankiest) poker player, known as the Candyman because he eats M&Ms nonstop (he happens to die at the Palms Hotel, where this season’s Real World is set: word to the wise). Grissom and Warrick (Gary Dourdan) bond over more discussions of gambling, Warrick now being cured and Grissom finally admitting that he used to play cards, to finance college. Warrick wonders, after all their conversations about his own addiction, why Grissom never mentioned this before. “Same reason a good player hides his tells.” Grissom, still cryptic. My boy Warrick, still working to keep up.

C.S.I.‘s second case, Catherine’s, is the “torn from the headlines” one, beginning with the body of a young street-racer, alone on an abandoned airstrip, with no car in sight: Nick (George Eads): “There’s a reason it’s illegal.” Catherine: “Yeah, kids end up dead.” The carefully colorful lab work includes the usual tests on cut-up corpses and on the firing range, as well as the customary “possible-flashbacks” that show how a head might have exploded or a torso might have sustained perimortem bruising. Catherine and Nick head on down to “pre-game,” where the kids gather to find out where races will be, nicely scored by the eardrum-blowing stereo system of one scruffy driver named Thumpy G. It’s no surprise that he’s playing the hip track of the moment, the Neptunes’ “Lapdance.”

And yet, in spite of everything, Catherine remains too hip for the room. When she and Nick go racing on the airstrip, she’s armed with a fancy laser-tag-alarm-triggering gun, to assess whether the shot might have been made while racing cars with extra-super-duper-boosted engines. Nick makes a crack about her driving, she makes the shot, and the alarm goes off. Catherine takes a bow, arms raised in rock-star triumph against by the huge desert sky: “Thank you! Good night!” As overworked as the cases can get on C.S.I., and as overkilled as forensics tv most certainly is, Catherine maintains a dark sense of humor, gritty sensibility, and admirable skepticism, born of her knowledge of what human beings can do to each other.