Television Review

The Crimes They Are a Changin’: For CSI, Forensics Are Out and Cyber Is In

Premiering 15 years ago, ‘CSI’ has garnered envious viewing figures and spawned three spin-offs. Soon, though, it will need to perform forensic research on itself.

CBS Entertainment

In 2009, at the height of its fame, the “CSI” family had a global audience of more than 73 million viewers; three years later, it was officially decreed television’s most-watched drama series. Commercially it is referred to as a “franchise,” as it features three distinct “outlets” that offer viewers slightly different versions of the same formula. I, however, prefer to write about it as a family of three siblings, with all the mixed feelings that that entails. Over the years, they have become a sort of distant family of second-cousins-thrice-removed to me. There is a reason to write about this particular family now, but you’ll have to read on to find out what it is.

The first born was “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” about a group of dedicated detectives harnessing science in the service of law enforcement. The basic premise stole a leaf from the Sherlock Holmes stories – namely, that (forensic) science will triumph over crime anytime and anyplace, and that physical facts gathered properly at the crime scene, analyzed ingeniously and quickly against a wide and deep-enough sea of data, tells all who did (in) whom and why, more than skillful interrogations of the usual and unusual suspects.

The original series premiered on CBS in 2000, and besides the intriguing premise, it had a series of well-defined and convincingly fleshed-out characters, all with their own quirks and foibles. For instance, the forensic entomologist Gil Grissom (played by William Petersen) is in charge of the unit (which is how we get to learn where a certain kind of larvae breeds, and what that tells us about where the cadaver of the John Doe on the dissecting table originated). He is a loner, prone to philosophizing and losing his hearing.

Grissom had retired by 2009 (but remained in the background as a recurring character) and was replaced two years later by the more sardonic D.B. Russell (portrayed by Ted Danson of “Cheers” fame), who is still holding the reins.

The locale was Sin City – Las Vegas – with its ample offerings of crimes both usual and unusual, premeditated and haphazard, perpetrated by hardened criminals or not-so-innocent bystanders. The life and soul of the story was provided by a lot of minutiae – ballistics, finger-, foot- and tire prints, specks of dirt, drops of saliva, blood and semen (DNA), and body parts in various stages of decomposition.

Nothing succeeds like success, and soon the proud parents – creator Anthony E. Zuiker and producer Jerry Bruckheimer – had spawned from their fertile minds two spin-offs: 2002’s “CSI: Miami,” which was basically more of the same but with different actors and a fresh locale (Florida, beaches, idle wealth, illegal immigrants, street gangs); and 2004’s “CSI: NY” (aka the Big Apple, with its constantly shifting international human cargo, here and there rotten to the core).

Each locale provided a regular set of characters, led by the head of the CSI lab (usually a white male, a loner with a troubled past); his second-in-command – usually female, with a back story that makes her vulnerable (there is an ever-present sexual tension between her and the various male members of the team); an array of specialists, of various skin hues; and a pathologist with a properly improper, macabre sense of humor (and troubled back story, naturally). Then there were the blood splatter patterns, mysterious chemicals or grains of sand in strategic places (in the deceased body), microscopes, lasers, computers, databases and details of all kinds, yielding a myriad of clues.

“CSI Miami” was eventually canceled after 10 seasons, and “CSI: NY” soon followed after nine. Here in Israel we can still watch reruns of “Miami” on HOT Action, and follow Lt. Horatio Caine (referred to by his people as “H.”) standing with his feet apart, hands on the buckle of his belt, his head tilted slightly to one side, fixing the suspect with a meaningful stare and uttering yet another platitude in an ominous-sounding voice.

As H, David Caruso raised pompousness to a whole new “campy” level. In contrast, his “NY” counterpart, Det. Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise), was pleasantly understated, more puzzled than anything else. By the way, in every series all the lab wizards carry guns and are willing to cut to the chase at any moment, ensuring that all episodes are action-packed to boot.

Timely demise?

Now, finally, comes the paragraph where I reveal why I’m writing about series that are either a thing of the past (“Miami,” “NY”) or a seeming fixture in the present (“CSI”). There are two, actually: One is the (timely?) demise of the original series itself. CBS decided recently to terminate the tenure of D.B. Russell as the head of the night shift unit in Las Vegas. The 18th episode of the 15th and final season, the 335th of the whole series, aired on February 15, 2015, to slightly more than seven million viewers in the United States – it had twice as many in 2009. The series will conclude with a two-hour special in September, reuniting original stars Petersen and Marg Helgenberger (who plays Catherine Willows in the original series).

We all now know how to live with characters that are killed off in an ongoing series (due to events in the plot or the real lives of the actors, or any combination of the two). Soon, we will see the shoe on the other foot: a character getting another lease of life after his series has been pronounced DOA by the producer: Ted Danson’s D.B. Russell will survive. The only thing that will change will be the locale: His character will have to move from Vegas to Quantico, VA.

There he will join the latest addition to the “CSI” family, which seems to prove that forensics in the nitty-gritty sense is out, and cyber is in. In “CSI: Cyber,” the person at the helm is, finally, a woman and not a law-enforcement functionary. Avery Ryan, PhD, is a former practising NYC psychologist whose patient database was hacked, which compromised her and led to a murder. Now she’s hunting the hackers from within a special FBI unit, using the talents of repentant hackers who chose to switch sides over serving jail sentences. She is portrayed by none other than 2015 Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette.

Arquette previously played a TV sleuth with psychic abilities in “The Medium” (2005-2011), and the first season of “CSI: Cyber” debuted in March with 15 million viewers. Although the 13-part season ended in the United States recently with slightly more than eight million, it still earned itself another season. It will run on HOT Zone and VOD from June 20.

The only thing that remains to be seen – apart from the quality of the new series itself – is whether a police procedural that uses cyber sleuthing by a security agency, of the kind that NSA rebel Edward Snowden had unmasked and which is frowned upon as a massive and all-encompassing invasion of privacy under the guise of providing security, will be to our liking as a TV series. Let’s wait and see, and hope no one is watching us when we watch it.