CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

by Erik Arneson

  • William L. Petersen as Gil Grissom
  • Marg Helgenberger as Catherine Willows
  • Gary Dourdan as Warrick Brown
  • Jorja Fox as Sara Sidel
  • George Eads as Nick Stokes
  • Paul Guilfoyle as Captain Jim Brass
  • Eric Szmanda as Greg Sanders
  • Robert David Hall as Dr. David Robbins
  • Creator: Anthony Zuiker
  • Executive Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer

Calling CSI: Crime Scene Investigation a slick, modern version of Quincy, M.D., may be the best one-line summary available, but it doesn’t do the show justice. Still, CSI and Quincy share characteristics that make both unlike most crime dramas — they don’t focus on detectives.

Instead, CSI shines a spotlight on the work of a team of crime scene investigators, placing a strong emphasis on the science used to solve crimes. Phrases like “petecchial hemorrhaging” and “perimortem bruising” are common on the show, giving viewers the uncommon opportunity to see a dramatization of what goes on behind the scenes in crime labs around the world every day. We’ve had plenty of opportunity to see the police gather clues, interrogate suspects, and interview witnesses. Private detectives have been regular small-screen stars. And there’s never been a shortage of courtroom dramas.

CSI highlights the people who typically play only minor roles in shows like Law and Order, Homicide, and Perry Mason – the technicians responsible for the low-glamour work of forensic investigation: dusting for fingerprints, analyzing blood spatter patterns, and handling the many other tasks necessary to allow detectives and district attorneys to be effective in their jobs. Filmed on Super 35mm film, CSI has a more cinematic feel than many television shows, and the use of “in-wound” special effects is one of the things that makes it truly stand out.

On this television show, the Las Vegas CSI team is led by Gil Grissom (actor William Peterson), a work-obsessed biologist who cares for his team as though they were his own children. But saying he cares that much implies developed interpersonal skills, and having relationships with living humans is not a particular strong suit for Grissom. His office shelves are lined with preserved body parts.

Other crime scene investigation team members include Catherine Willows, a single mother and former exotic dancer who’s also the second-most senior investigator; Warrick Brown, an audio-visual specialist with a weakness for gambling; Nick Stokes, who works best with hair and fibers and once was a suspect in the murder of a prostitute; and Sara Sidle, a Harvard graduate who is the most emotional member of the team.

Being located in Las Vegas means that Grissom and the others are likely to have plenty of work for as long as they want it – the mix of quirky locals, desperate visitors and high-stakes gambling almost guarantees a steady stream of work for the criminalists. Only occasionally is the crime scene actually in a casino, but the things that Sin City is known for – gambling, sex, boxing – permeate the series.

Series creator Anthony E. Zuiker, a native of Las Vegas, has said that the idea for CSI came from his wife’s interest in The Discovery Channel’s The New Detectives, which tracks real-life forensic scientists as they work to solve crimes. The CSI TV show originally was pitched to ABC, which turned it down, but CBS took it on and hasn’t looked back since.

Although its only Emmy victory to date was in 2002 for Outstanding Makeup in a Series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has won where it really matters – the ratings. It was the top-rated show of the 2001-2002 season and continues to be a top performer.

Most episodes have two storylines, one of which generally is given more focus. In one first-season episode, part of the team investigated the scene when a married con team is suspected of killing a well-known showgirl while other crime scene investigators examined a gambler found shot in a hotel’s glass elevator. The series premier saw Grissom and his team looking into cases involving an apparent suicide, a prostitute who drugged and robbed her customers, and a killing that was possibly self-defense.

The show’s writers do a fantastic job of bringing variety to the small screen. Other crime scenes have included apartments, parks, area roads and highways, an ice rink, the desert, a monastery, an airplane, suburban homes, an amusement park, a horse trailer, and more.

In order to make the show as realistic as possible – although any network drama is going to take creative license with the facts – CSI has a real-life criminalist on the payroll. Elizabeth Devine, a veteran with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, serves as technical advisor, looking over scripts and making suggestions on how to make the show more accurate.

One of the biggest gaps between the show and the real world is the interaction that Grissom, and occasionally other members of his crime scene team, has with suspects. Real evidence technicians don’t interrogate witnesses – the detectives do that work. But blending the two jobs, however inaccurate, certainly makes for more dramatic television.

Zuiker’s stated philosophy that “the story is the backbone of your script” shows itself in two ways: CSI rarely, if ever, lacks a compelling plot. But the flip side is that sometimes the dialogue suffers, missing – if only slightly – the natural flow that seemed to come so easily to the writers of Homicide.

With a successful spinoff already in place (CSI: Miami), a CSI PC game, Max Allan Collins CSI mystery books, continued ratings strength, and a bottomless pit of storyline possibilities, fans of the television drama CSI: Crime Scene Invetigation don’t have to worry about losing their favorite show anytime soon.


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