Television: Crimetime Lineup

How the slick show changed television-- in part by dragging it back into the past

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It's a beautiful day in New York City, and Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes are spending it on a garbage barge docked on the East River. They're shooting on location for CSI: New York, and the pair has found a lovely corpse in fishnet stockings among the trash. Fortunately for them, it's "clean" trash--Pampers boxes, garbage bags filled with paper wads. When the crew used a barge filled with real garbage on CSI: Miami, it found a bloated dead rat that--waste not, want not--it used in the scene.

Executive producer Anthony Zuiker gleefully surveys the set, complete with a Coast Guard helicopter thundering overhead and Coast Guard and N.Y.P.D. boats offshore. "They gave us a chopper and two cutters--no charge!" he says. "How cool is that?"

Way cool, if you get past the nagging worry that in a city at terrorism-alert orange, the hardware might be better used for, oh, guarding the coast. But when you've achieved CSI's level of success, everyone wants to give you a 21-gun salute. Your viewers do; they made CSI the most popular drama on TV and its two sequels, Miami and New York, instant Top 10 hits. Your network does; chairman Leslie Moonves of CBS approved the New York spin-off in a meeting that essentially consisted of his asking Zuiker to pick a city. "You can't overestimate how important the CSI franchise is to us," says Moonves. "It is the linchpin of the resurrection of this network." Your peers do; at this year's Emmys, the original CSI was nominated for Best Drama for the third year in a row. And if imitation is TV's highest compliment, you need only read the listings to see the crime spree the networks are on.

And why not? CSI and its cohort have taught TV new visual tricks, raised its production standards and perhaps shown the dinosaur networks a way to survive the swarm of nimble cable competitors. The CSIs have made network drama more consistent. But they have also--cop show after doctor-cop show after military-cop show--made it more homogeneous. They have taught TV to tell entertaining, simple stories without dumbing them down--and left the networks uninterested in much besides simple stories. The CSI effect has produced TV that looks 21st century but is as conventional as a rerun of Mannix. In some ways CSI is among the best that network drama has to offer, and it is evidence of how limited the networks' idea of "best" has become.

Within a few months in the year 2000, CBS debuted two series that not only turned around a limping network but also reshaped network TV. The effect of the first--Survivor--and of the dozens of reality shows that followed it was quick and obvious. But the second--CSI: Crime Scene Investigation--got little initial attention, even from CBS. CSI proved a dream marriage of the edgy and the safe: an old-fashioned whodunit, set in sexy Las Vegas, that wouldn't alienate CBS's Murder, She Wrote demographic but geeky enough--scientists wielding swabs, not guns--to attract the passionate audience of a cult show.

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