Television: Crimetime Lineup

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

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Today's cop shows aren't usually so strident, but the legacy of 9/11 arises, directly or obliquely. On the one hand, in a powerful episode of Without a Trace, a Muslim doctor is mistaken for a terrorist and gunned down after someone overhears him joke about "blowing up" Shea Stadium. (He's a baseball fan and thinks it's a lousy park.) In a more Ashcroftian vein, on CSI: Miami, a child is abducted from a Chuck E. Cheese--like establishment, and the CSI techs close the building to keep anyone from leaving. A law student pipes up that the lockdown is unconstitutional--which it is--but he's portrayed as a selfish crybaby, unwilling to pipe down for the greater good. The war on terrorism may have superseded the war on urban crime, but the arguments are the same. Do you want to be free or safe? Do you attack root causes or crack down on offenders? Should you be worried about why people do evil or only how? Is it prudent, or is it bleeding heart, to try to understand criminals--or, put another way, to ask, "Why do they hate us?" On this, the network procedurals are united: they're not too concerned with deeply understanding anyone, cop or criminal.

With CSI, Bruckheimer said he wanted to bring the movies to TV, and he succeeded perhaps more completely than he intended. In the TV universe after CSI, the big "studios" (read: the major networks) are where you go for Bruckheimerian spectacles, with big-name actors, eye-popping visual effects and a generous helping of music to do the emotional lifting. The "indies" (read: cable) are where you go for character studies, with generally plain visuals but novelistic attention to dialogue and psychology. The CSIs are not dumb shows; they're brisk, entertaining, full of scientific detail and thankfully low on cornball melodrama. But you can watch them while paying your utility bills, and these days, that's what keeps the stockholders happy.

There are signs, though, that the CSI effect may have started to peak. Even as CSI: NY became an instant hit this fall, ABC had two surprise Top 10 hits with Lost and Desperate Housewives--ambitious, demanding serial dramas as unlike CSI as anything else on the networks (see box). CSI, CSI: Miami and Without a Trace still dominate the Nielsen's top five, but it may be that mass audiences are ready for something more than "just the facts, ma'am."

TV would be better off for it. There's a famous line used in another New York cop show, Naked City: "There are 8 million stories in the naked city." What that means--or should, anyway--is not that there are 8 million potential victims of really cool murders involving carpet fibers and arcane poisons. Rather, there are 8 million people, and any ordinary person--a cop, a plumber, a teacher--can, if you spend enough time with him or her and ask the right questions, be as fascinating as any whodunit. (This is one reason that, for all their detractors, reality shows are as popular and often absorbing as they are.) Good mysteries like CSI belong on TV. But so do the subtler stories--the kind that remind us that the most amazing secrets inside the human animal are ones that you cannot find with a microscope. --With reporting by Jeanne McDowell and Desa Philadelphia/Los Angeles and Kate Novack/New York

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