Murder in Six Easy Steps

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Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. That may come as a surprise if you watch CSI (CBS, Thursdays, 9 p.m. E.T.), which kills off a few Sin City denizens each week in a fashion bizarre enough to interest America's newest favorite geeks: Gil Grissom (William Petersen), Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) and their fellow crime-scene investigators--forensics wizards who can see a culprit in a speck of blood. Despite having a high-profile godfather in movie blockbuster-maker Jerry Bruckheimer, CSI made its debut in fall 2000 with little notice. In some recent weeks, though, the stylish crime show has unseated ER as TV's most watched drama; a sequel (tentatively titled CSI: Miami) is a near shoo-in to make the CBS schedule next fall. How did CSI pull off this perfect crime? Here's the evidence:

IT'S OLD-FASHIONED. Like Law & Order, CSI is an easy-to-take, bite-size whodunit. Someone dies, the good guys jump on the case, and after a twisty, fast-paced hour, someone's off to jail--case closed, time for pie! There are simple motives and no dithering about crooks' unhappy childhoods--it's Dragnet with DNA. "It's totally a show from the '60s and '70s," says star (and producer) Petersen. "That's what I love about it."

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IT'S NEWFANGLED. The ways people kill and cover up have not changed much since Cain and Abel. But the means of catching them evolve constantly, and therein lies CSI's hook: the public's post-O.J., post-Monica fascination with DNA and modern forensics. Killers are traduced by their own dandruff; sleuths use aerosol to reveal telltale traces of blood. It's an appealing notion--spray-on justice--and CSI aims to make the science "approachable, understandable and fun," says executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. CSI underscores its tech savvy with innovative visuals: a whooshing special-effects sequence whips you through a poisoning victim's veins. Then there's the novel, noirish location. "You go to Vegas to escape and become anonymous," says creator (and Vegas resident) Anthony E. Zuiker. "It's the perfect place for a crime drama."

IT'S GRITTILY REALISTIC. Ask Helgenberger, who has just finished shooting an interrogation scene in which two 9-year-old girls relate details of the murder of their neighbor, an old lady whose body lay around until her cats, um, got hungry. "I'm so freaked out right now," Helgenberger shudders. Outlandish as they may seem, CSI's plots are rooted in the experience of such professionals as consultant Elizabeth Devine, once a CSI in Los Angeles. Find red spots in the whites of a victim's eyes? He died by suffocation. Find a seed follicle on a strand of the victim's hair? It was ripped out of her head. To unearth these nuggets, the writers and researchers go to forensics conventions, scour gory tomes like Practical Homicide Investigation and collect gadgetry catalogs for products like Clue Spray.

...BUT NOT TOO REALISTIC. Of course, real CSIs don't do interrogations or grill confessions out of suspects. "We are aware of all the cheats we make," says Devine. "But we don't cheat the science."

MURDER IS FUNNY! There have been many rich, subtle explorations of crime on TV. CSI is not one of them. The scripts are brisk, jargonish--"vic" for victim--and businesslike (except for Grissom's occasional sermonette about religion or man's animal nature). The tone is smart, as opposed to intellectual. But the show does offer black-humor dialogue with camp appeal: you can count on at least one groan-inducing zinger per episode, as when a CSI, scouring a crime scene for broken pieces of teeth, deadpans that she's on a quest for "the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth."

IT'S THE CORPSES, STUPID. On CSI, each victim's body is a rich source of detail, a novel in which the investigators read about deception and murder. The lead characters are another matter. They're sexy and likable but self-effacingly undeveloped. The series tosses us a tidbit every now and then--Grissom is a lapsed Catholic, Willows used to be a stripper--but the show is least original when it delves into their private lives. Yet the CSIs' parsimonious back stories can make for tantalizing enigmas. Is Grissom sweet on Sara (Jorja Fox)? Will Warrick (Gary Dourdan) pursue his love of jazz? The actors don't know, and the scripts may never tell. It can be tough to play such lightly sketched characters, says Helgenberger: "You want to sink your teeth into a scene." But for fans of CSI's high-tech mysteries, this is no problem. They know that the most interesting people on CSI are dead.