“The Original is Best”

America has an odd fascination with the macabre and loves its procedurals. Actually not just America: appearing in 177 countries, CSI is one of the most watched shows in the world. Let’s face it, we have a fascination with the grisly minutiae of forensic science, a fascination even we didn’t realize we had until it was presented in such a glossy fashion. We have a morbid fascination with the aesthetics of violence and death. And we love whodunits. So much so that both Law & Order and CSI each have three brands of shows. And each brand is specific, differentiated by their The Who theme songs: “Who are you?” (CSI), “Won’t get fooled again” (Miami), “Baba O’Riley” (New York) . The city that each brand takes place in is as much a character as any cast member. The neon glitziness of Las Vegas, the bright hues and sun-kissed skies of Miami, or the stark gray of New York.

And each show rises and falls on the strength of the personalities of its leads. If you buy David Caruso’s hands on hips, lowered head, gravelly-voice a la Clint Eastwood brand of acting, you like CSI: Miami. And note, he’s opted not to leave a hit show after the first season, learning the painful lessons of quitting NYPD Blue. CSI Miami is especially humorless as Lt. Horatio Caine (David Caruso) takes himself very seriously (the key to watching the show is to realize that every time Caine puts on his glasses or lets his black jacket flap in the wind, Caruso wants to say “I’m Batman”). The show has been marked by a few cast shake ups this season with the death of Tim Speedle (Rory Cochrane) and the addition of Ryan Wolfe (Jonathan Togo). Hopefully it will develop or at least differentiate its male leads now. The only two interesting characters on the show are the too-perky-for-words gun expert, Calleigh Duquesne (Emily Procter, formerly of The West Wing), and the near-creepy/speaker-to-the-dead medical examiner, Alex Woods (Khandi Alexander, News Radio and The Corner).

CSI New York has the stronger overall cast, though a lot of its characters are still blank slates. Det. Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise) possesses the gravitas that Caruso lacks. With roots in the 9/11 tragedy, his character’s wife was in the World Trade Center, he wanders through the show a haunted shell of a man. Two early stand outs are Dr. Sheldon Hawkes (Harper Hill, recently of The Handler) and Det. Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes a long way from Providence). The show is darker in tone than the other CSI’s (darker being relative when all the shows deal in death and crime scenes). Filmed in blue-gray hues, it has a gritty ambience reminiscent of film noir.

However, if you like the dedicated nerds with personality and style, then there’s nothing like the magic of the original CSI. This show features the best drawn characters of the brands and does the best job of humanizing this workaholic dysfunctional family. Gil Grissom (William Peterson) is the grumpy, all-knowing father; an entomologist (entomologist!) incapable of forming human attachments since he’s all about science. Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) is a former gambler and Nick Stokes (George Eads) is like his competitive, hot-headed brother. Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is the mom of the bunch, the former stripper and struggling single mom. And lastly there’s Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) young hotshot with the budding alcohol problem.

Each character comes with their share of baggage, emotional and familial. Sometimes it has trouble juggling what the viewers like (the procedural stuff) versus what the characters need (to grow and be explored). For example, the show veered dangerously close to over-the-top (a fine line that it often straddles) when it probed Catherine’s struggles with her wayward daughter.

“You may not believe in God, sir, but you certainly do His work.” -a murderer to Gil Grissom

This “nerd squad”is made up more of lab techs than cops, but they are equally missional. They seek truth. They speak for the dead, the victims. The show works because we enjoy the comfort of the familiar: the police forensic procedural and the mystery provided by the, often novel, deaths. Our love for it is partly fueled by our need for justice, but there are two things about the show that also drive us: death and modernity.

First there is the stark reminder of the reality of death. Death comes in all forms on the show, accidents, flukes of fate, the frailty of age or disease, and murder. By looking at death, we develop an understanding of life, especially how precious and fragile it is. Staring at the cold bodies in the morgue, we are reminded that for some it is too late. Their choices in this life have determined what they are to do in the next. If nothing else, this life is intended to teach us about preparing to meet God in the afterlife. Death is the door from one life, one reality, to the fuller life, the greater reality. We can’t keep putting off the work of becoming the people we are meant to be. At the same time, those broken bodies remind us that we are more similar than we care to admit and are in no position to judge others.

Secondly, and this may seem somewhat esoteric, but the show is the fruition of our modern age: it fits our paradigm and our cultural systemic belief system. the shows are a triumph of modern thought. The mantra of the all of the shows is “have faith in the evidence”. Vicariously, we need to know: we want to understand death. We need to know how and we need to know why, leaving no room for mystery. Our prophet in this endeavor, Gil Grissom, lacks one critical element. Sometimes he is so analytical, he misses the point of human existence, relationships. We are slaves to the technical jargon of death and in so becoming, we are losing the poetry of life.

“The shortest distance between two points is science.” Warrick.

The science geeks on the show are routinely awed by creation: the science, the body, even insects. And they have the modern age’s typical need to catalog it all and put it in categories or neat frameworks. This is all part and parcel of our modern age, modern faith, and our modern way of doing things.

“The key to being a lucid crime scene investigator was to reserve judgment until the evidence vindicates or eliminates assumption.” -original CSI investigator, Holly Griggs.

This mindset has infected the way that we practice spirituality. The Western mindset with its values of science, democr
acy, and emphasis on individualism–none of which are bad things in and of them selves–have the cumulative effect of reducing God and faith into easily understood preconceptions. God is a puzzle to be worked out. The Bible, or any religious book, is something that needs to be put into a framework of doctrines. We pigeonhole faith and drive out the mystery.

Concentrate on what cannot lie: the evidence. Go where the evidence takes you. These are typical of Grissom’s Zen-like pronouncements. Integral to crime scene investigator’s methodology is that you don’t want to force your pre-made ideas on the evidence, not forcing it to fit your theory. At the end of the day, you have a nice, tidy package, even if it isn’t always the truth you want. Life isn’t a matter of faith vs. scientific investigation because faith isn’t an anti-intellectual endeavor. The most unsettling cases are the times that their faith (in their evidence and method) is tested because something happens, some evil, that doesn’t fit into their orderly beliefs.

“No more speculation … facts from here on out.” -a CSI: New York coroner

CSI ultimately is about the quest for truth. The desire to search for truth is fueled by faith. Their faith is in the evidence. Too often we have a systematized faith, a modern way of looking at life. We like order. We like to make sense of the universe. This is fine, but we forget that we often learn more from the search for answers, without necessarily finding them, than we do by having answers given to us. Partly this is because we have made an idol of answers and partly this is because, frankly, being in a place without answers is a scary place to be and live.

We’ve gone from being faithful to being detectives, trying to prove something (God) by looking for evidence or simply putting our energies into proving that we’re right. Our modern faith ends up treating our “holy books” as history texts, encyclopedias, legal codes or philosophical/anthropological articles, missing the whole purpose of those books are about. We become married to terms like inerrancy and infallibility, even if those texts don’t use those words to describe themselves. We look for factual accuracy, corroborating evidence, try to maintain a stance of dispassionate objectivity, when the reality is 1) no one is ever truly objective and 2) truth is more than that.

In short, CSI is a graphically visceral show, with its close up of wound tracks, and has its share of macabre thrills, titillating adult themes, and crime recreations. They bring out the pulp “true crime” buffs in all of us.