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Cynthia Fuchs

Ground Zero, the address -- spoken here as goal, location, memorial, toxic vapor -- is also necessarily disturbing as such.


Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Gary Sinise, Melina Kanakaredes, Hill Harper, Vanessa Ferlito, Carmine Giovinazzo
Subtitle: Ny
Network: CBS
Nobody saw it coming.
-- Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise), on 9/11

Detective Mack Taylor (Gary Sinise) worries. He likes to make things right, to impose order on the chaos that plagues the streets where he lives and works. At the same time, as team leader in CSI: NY, Mac does his best to keep up the requisite unflappable appearance. He maintains a grim, utterly Sinisean game face and even maintains rituals of faith, as indicated by the first scene in the premiere episode, where he sits alone in a Roman Catholic pew, gazing up at an imposing, dark, and sad Madonna. And yet this brief repose is instantly cut short, as Mac heads off to yet another grisly crime scene.

The series looks to be focused on this set of tensions, as Mac embodies them: a will to order, search for spiritual quiet, and reluctant immersion in violence and madness. The church scene is bookended in the premiere episode, titled "Blink," by a final scene that leaves Mac at another site of rituals, Ground Zero. His case solved after 40-some minutes of fretting and consternating, he goes to commune with the rubble that holds his dead wife, killed on 9/11.

While this loss colors everything about Mac -- indeed, it might explain the bluish hue that pervades the episode -- it also leaves him open to interpretation, sad and damaged and determined, fierce and attentive. That Sinise -- who also tours with his Lt. Dan Band -- is an actor of thrilling nuance certainly helps your reading process, bringing layers to silence that don't quite emerge in, say, David Caruso's signature eyes-low rectitude. In fact, Mac first appeared in Horatio's show, last season, when the Miami investigator came to NYC to solve a family's multiple-murder; their interactions highlighted differences expectations and approaches -- when you take prints off a corpse (at a scene or at the lab), how you deal with reporters; in this last, Mac appears an exhausted expert, handling the aggressive NY press corps with respectable aplomb.

Sinise's subtlety only makes Mac's puzzle more persuasive. He leads his team -- including Brooklyn-born investigator Danny (Carmine Giovinazzo), forensics doctor Sheldon Hawkes (Hill Harper), slang-talking investigator Aiden (Vanessa Ferlito, last scene manipulating Jack Bauer in 24), as well as NYPD detective Don Flack (Eddie Cahill) -- with the sort of distant cool of someone who's been around a few too many blocks, but at the same time, he carries his guilt, anger, and frustration with peculiar poignancy, not quite brittle, but hardly stoic. When he discovers the first body for this week's procedural -- a woman tossed outside -- he checks for obvious causes of death, then notes her wedding ring. "Someone out there is missing a wife," he says, the camera following his look off screen, toward the haunting city skyline. (Okay, so the series' makers aren't quite so understated as its star.)

Even Mac's partner of eight years, Detective Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes, whose incredible mass of hair seems a likely evidence-corruption-hazard on a crime scene), is troubled by his slippage between absorption and distraction. "Can't sleep?" she asks him, as they begin their work. "What's sleep?" he answers, in a weak yet painful attempt at humor. She worries that he's working too hard, he puts her off brusquely, "Don't be an angel of mercy."

Mac's sleeplessness is of a piece with the week's case, in which women are turning up dead, following a date-rape drug dosage ("fry sticks") and no rape. The team finds this proto-answer by typical forensics show methods: investigators scour a crime scene with peering flashlights and sultry dancetrack music, then take teeny bits of evidence to the lab, where they're shot through with colored lights and microscopic zappers; whatever instruments they use, the labs are expensively equipped, which simply can't be the case for all big city centers.

Whenever a discovery is made -- or the mortician describes a possible death scenario, which Hawkes does precisely and repeatedly -- the show lapses into the CSI franchise's standard flashback mode, victims and violence transformed into blurry-edged memories that belong to no one in particular. Yet here they come, displayed for viewers, artful reconstructions of cruelty and horror, not exactly repulsive, but gruesome enough to refer to the brutality that lurks at the edges of everyday television viewing in the U.S., where war -- on terror or drugs, against Iraq or Al-Qaeda -- is increasingly less cogent and more traumatic.

For Mac, the very idea of lurking horror is devastating. When he accompanies one victim's husband to view his wife's corpse, Mac says, "I know this is difficult." Presumably he doesn't actually know, at least not by his own experience, as he has, of course, been consigned to an acute terminal limbo, prying into bodies' secrets each day, but never seeing, much less probing or explaining, the body that matters most. The obliteration of WTC corpses famously left relatives (as well as an anxious media audience) with more questions than any forensics techniques could begin to answer. Death and absence pervade every aspect of survivors' lives. For a CSI hero, the metaphor is at once too trenchant and too resonant.

Strikingly, "Blink"'s foremost victim is not dead at all, but in a deep coma, another sort of limbo. Still, Mac asks her permission to conduct his examination, to document the undead body: "First I'd like to photograph any signs of trauma you might have suffered," he says. His photo-taking and clues-scraping appear in close-ups and dissolves, as Mac's mind goes into that sort of overdrive that such shows turn into montages. Following his work, about which he is all efficient business, Mac again turns solicitous. "Ma'am," he murmurs, achingly polite. "I apologize if I've done anything to make you feel uncomfortable."

It's not long before Mac learns the woman's condition, what her doctor calls "locked in syndrome," allows her to answer questions by blinking her eyes. While it's a clunky jump to note that, since 9/11, Mac is also "locked in," unable to communicate with his friends and colleagues except in the most perfunctory way, the series is using this touchstone to define Mac's peculiar New Yorkness and particular demons, potentially more complex than the usual tv-series-cop-stuff, odiously embedded in current emotions and politics.

When at last Mac tracks down the murderer (and yes, as on the other CSI shows, the NY forensics team is way too involved in pursuing and confronting suspects -- where are the homicide detectives?), he engages in an overstated moralizing. The villain -- a Russian former doctor who has murdered (and "locked in") a Russian girl he has sponsored in the U.S., as well as the other victims -- insists that he has done so out of a "pact" with the girl, bestowing on her "the gift of freedom." Again, any sort of politics -- national, moral, identificatory -- looks ungainly here, as abstractions of freedom and dominion are turned inside out and atrociously material. "This wasn't about freedom," hisses Mac, "or [the girl] Zoya, or some gift from God. This was about control. The minute we darkened your door, you lost control." Such righteous darkening surely has thematic limits. On cop shows, even the slick-looking ones, good guys and bad guys tend to be reductive notions.

Mac's own story may become more complicated and weirder than this corny wrap-up suggests. For his episode-ending visit to his wife's non-resting place, he gets in a cab and says only "Ground Zero." (For what it's worth, the Russian doctor worked as a cabbie in the city, a means to pick up his victims.) An ordinary utterance in NYC, the address -- spoken here as goal, location, memorial, toxic vapor -- is also necessarily disturbing as such. So well-known and so overloaded with meaning, it is also inexpressible.

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