Television: Crimetime Lineup

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

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The revival of the just-the-facts procedural began with NBC's powerhouse Law & Order (L&O) in 1990, but it took nine years for creator Dick Wolf to spin off Special Victims Unit, and the series was never widely imitated before the CSI explosion. Now the schedule is so crowded with procedurals that CSI: NY had to debut against the original L&O. To the surprise of TV analysts, it beat the veteran in its first outing and most weeks since. Even so, some within the CSI family have been worried about overextending; original CSI star William Petersen has publicly chided CBS for diluting the brand. (Petersen and co-star Marg Helgenberger refused interview requests for this article; a network representative explained that they don't do interviews for stories not exclusively about "their" CSI.)

And CSI's DNA is in more than cop shows. Even new medical series--such as NBC's hit Medical Investigation and Fox's upcoming House, in which doctors hunt down disease outbreaks abetted by the latest medical, and special-effects, technology--are structured like cop procedurals. You can see the influence in a show like NBC's Las Vegas, the sophomore hit about casino security that like CSI combines frisky visual effects and over-in-an-hour stories. What goes around, comes right back to Vegas.

Simple, unchallenging procedurals and self-contained dramas were standard fare about 30 years ago--think of Cannon, Columbo and Fantasy Island. That began to change, in part because of prime-time soaps like Dallas but especially because of one show, Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues, which debuted on NBC in January 1981. Hill Street told stories, unfolding over several episodes and even years, that were about more than the caper of the week. They were about politics, cops' psychology and the social and racial contexts of crime and law. Demanding a greater commitment from viewers, the show delivered a bigger payoff.

After Hill Street came a string of dramas that broke with the procedural format to tell complex stories with deeply developed characters: St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, Wiseguy, thirtysomething, Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, My So-Called Life, Ally McBeal, The West Wing. This is not to say that the '80s and '90s were some kind of Renaissance--we have not forgotten Models Inc. But these shows believed that drama was first about character--fleshing out a set of people, week after week--and that human behavior was ultimately a more engaging mystery than any murder or virus (even if the shows were about murders or viruses).

In contrast, we know the investigators like we know our coworkers, as sets of tidbits and quirks--Horatio Caine (David Caruso) is divorced; Gil Grissom (Petersen) is an atheist--but the job comes first, second and third. L&O's cops are even less well defined, and that has helped the show survive the gradual loss of its original cast. (This season Dennis Farina replaced long-timer Jerry Orbach.)

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