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For TV writers who want to tell more involved stories--who have had reality TV eat into their mortgage payments--the CSI-ization of the networks has been trouble. David E. Kelley established himself with character dramas like Picket Fences and The Practice. The year before CSI's debut he had five shows on the networks. Today he has one--ABC's Boston Legal--and a reality show about lawyers in the works for NBC. Last year his family drama The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. was blown off the air by Law & Order after just four weeks. "Ten or 15 years ago," he says, "a show like Poland would have had a chance to cultivate a constituency. And that's what character-driven shows need--to get an audience invested in the people, which happens over a series of episodes." Later this season Bochco will debut Blind Justice, an ABC drama about a sightless cop. It looks to be much less serial than his NYPD Blue (which goes off the air after this season); it also uses nifty visual effects to show how its lead "sees" a crime scene that look a lot like ... CSI.
Ironically, executive producer Zuiker says that CSI: NY is meant to be more "character driven" than its two siblings. Sinise's character, Detective Mac Taylor, we learn, lost his wife in the World Trade Center. In the first episode, Taylor describes throwing out all his wife's effects except a beach ball she blew up the weekend before she died. "Her breath is still in there," he says. The promise of emotional scenes, says Sinise, helped persuade the Oscar nominee and Golden Globe and Emmy winner to take a role that still largely involves staring very, very seriously at garbage. That, the Bruckheimer pedigree and the relative job security. "It seemed like the right thing for my family," he says. "It shoots in Los Angeles"--with occasional location shoots in New York City--"and that's where my kids are."
Still, Taylor's story is nothing like the layered look at 9/11 trauma, for instance, in the FX fire-fighter drama Rescue Me. Taylor's reminiscence doesn't teach us much about Taylor except that he's really sad, and the episodes still mostly follow the CSI crime-science-confession formula. Indeed, everyone connected with CSI: NY stresses it will still be mainly a procedural, and with good reason. The franchise has dabbled before in the personal lives of its characters; the original CSI tried a continuing story line in which Grissom began to lose his hearing. "We were fascinated by the idea of, What if a crime-scene investigator like Grissom were to lose one of his five senses?" says Zuiker. "How would that impact his ability to be perceptive?" But fans griped that the story arc detracted from CSI's no-hugging-no-learning ethos. One quick bout of ear surgery later, as Zuiker diplomatically puts it, "we moved on."