Television: Crimetime Lineup

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

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It also had executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who as producer of Top Gun and Pirates of the Caribbean knows how well American audiences like a spectacle. CSI looks like high-quality TV, which is to say, it looks expensive. Bruckheimer and his associates talk about creating "feature television"--delivering a movie experience on the small screen. And when Bruckheimer talks about the movie experience, he ain't talking about Lost in Translation. "It has to do with engaging your senses," he says. "It's not only titillating you with the visuals and the design and the cinematography, which we do, but the audio--sound effects and music--are very important, because they embellish the drama our writers create." Like summer studio pictures, the CSIs are largely "made" in postproduction.

And it shows. Visually, the CSIs are the most beautifully composed series on the networks. Each has its own color palette--neon for the original, set in Vegas; warm and tropical for Miami; metallic for New York--like the packaging for different flavors of chips (think of them as Original, Spicy Fiesta and Cool Ranch). And the special effects, which make the camera seem to zoom through blood vessels or the fiery barrel of a gun--render the forensic science more real than any dry technical explanation. The overexposed flashback images look like music videos, the lurid anatomical closeups like art film, the lab scenes like a lush photo shoot: cerulean blue trays, crystal glass, ruby chunks of human tissue laid out like a $300 sushi course.

But in TV, art follows business, and CSI--and its descendants, like CBS's Bruckheimer-produced Without a Trace and Cold Case-- are above all damn fine business. The shows follow the procedural format pioneered by Dragnet 50 years ago: crime stories, completely wrapped up in one episode, with minimal attention to the inner lives of any of the characters. A serial drama--say, Six Feet Under or 24--requires that you watch every week and pay close attention. That's a tall order given the competition from cable to the Internet to plain old busy work schedules, and networks are increasingly afraid that viewers will miss episodes, fall behind and give up. "There is now the S word--serialization--that the networks are terrified of," says J.J. Abrams, creator and executive producer of Alias and Lost. On the other hand, procedurals "are easy to digest," says Peter Jankowski, an executive producer of NBC's three Law & Order series. A fourth, Trial by Jury, is coming in midseason.

For the same reason, procedurals do better in reruns and syndication. This is especially important when sitcoms are in a years-long slump and reality shows usually don't rerun at all. Also, because viewers are drawn more by the crimes than the characters, the shows are less vulnerable to Friends-style salary hijackings. Last summer, when CSI co-stars George Eads and Jorja Fox held out for raises, they were quickly fired. (They later settled and were rehired.)

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