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16 may 2014

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – the original Las Vegas edition, of course, the spinoffs suck – is one of my very favorite TV shows. I've seen every episode from the first eight-and-a-half seasons (the span when William L. Petersen starred as Gil Grissom), most of them several times. But like author (and fellow English professor) Steven Cohan, I sometimes nonplus connoisseurs of haut television when I reveal this. ("Usually wide-eyed surprise at my choice, followed by a frown … and the name of the other person's preference," 6.) My father, who used to watch three crime shows every night of the week with time out only for Dancing with the Stars, had certainly seen CSI now and then, but wouldn't go out of his way to watch it, and I doubt it was among his top two dozen favorites. As Cohan notes, CSI has long been one of the most watched programs in the world without ever achieving "high visibility as either a critical favorite or a cult show" (4).

Overfamiliarity is certainly a factor in this curious critical fate. Who gets esoteric cult creds for being obsessed with a #1-rated show? So is genre. CSI premiered in 2000, a year after The Sopranos and a year before Six Feet Under, shows that helped redefine the archetype of the longrunning TV series in epic, or at least continuing-saga, terms. Yet CSI remained a standard self-contained single hour, its narrative structure not hugely different from that of Dragnet decades before. And then there's the pruriently gory content, the diverse pop music that plays over the lab scenes, the garish visual style, and Jerry Bruckheimer, for crying out loud. No wonder CSI is no highbrow darling.

Cohan traces his own infatuation with the show to a source that might explain mine as well:

CSI follows a group of obsessive individuals working collaboratively in a cloistered environment, not too different from my own professional life as a university professor, so it immediately encourages my identification each week with the characters's roles as interpreters of evidence. I seek the meaning in texts, and the forensic team members on CSI look for the same in the evidence they gather, in effect treating a crime scene as if it were a text. (6)
Though of course print police procedurals and puzzle mysteries would fulfill such a fascination as well, or even better, since their crimes are literally textual. As Cohan goes on to explain, much of what we find compelling about CSI can be traced to its unique visual style, indeed its overall commitment to visual storytelling.

Even in the mid-2010s, much screenwriting for television is still based on conventions that prevailed for radio programs 70 to 80 years ago. You can follow many a sitcom without having to glance much at the screen at all. If you try this with CSI, however, you'll be listening to music a lot of the time while wondering what's going on. The swiftly cross-cut stories of a typical episode can keep you alert even if you're watching them, let alone trying to follow just the words. Cohan notes that this visual orientation is intentional, part of the Bruckheimer team's insistence on making each episode as highly wrought as a feature film – or more so; many is the rom-com feature that you can follow with no reference to the images at all.

Cohan further explores the specific character of CSI's visuals. There's the famous "CSI shot" of a bullet, pathogen, or blunt-force trauma disintegrating a life from the inside as Doc Robbins describes the cause of death. But there's also the pervasive color filtering of images, a highly artificial manipulation of scenes originally filmed in more-or-less "natural" colors, in order to highlight the objectivity of the lab, the passion of the crime scene, the glare of the desert, the fog of memory. There's a lot going on on the small screen here, and CSI helped make a lot of it standard and even formulaic for the rest of the crime genre – another reason why we may now look at its innovativeness and shrug.

Cohan also looks at the famous "CSI Effect" (whereby forensic evidence is falsely represented to be infallible, though CSI itself is far more ambivalent about the significance of evidence). He examines the show's Las Vegas setting, including the tensions that the show develops between mundane residency there and the projected fantasies of tourists. These are well-handled chapters.

Of course, none of this material would be of interest if CSI didn't succeed as drama. Cohan argues that it does succeed, but paradoxically by avoiding human interest. The series is notorious for its glacially slow character arcs and its dearth of backstory. Its spinoffs give us heroes; the original CSI gives us interchangeable hermeneuts in uniforms or lab coats. I find myself much more taken with the characters on CSI than Cohan. He is wary of the show's tiny steps toward deepening its characters and their involvement with one another. I find it more appealing on that score, more true to the nature of workplaces where one may go many years without discovering half of what motivates one's colleagues. Cohan fears that CSI jumped the shark by giving Grissom a dog and a girlfriend (his co-worker Sara, after many years of cryptic flirtation). I don't think it jumped then: it scarcely became a home-office hybrid, and Gil and Sara had rather more problems communicating once they were in a relationship than they'd had before. But not long after they got together, Petersen left the show and Grissom left the storyline, and I've been slow to catch up on developments since.

Cohan, Steven. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Houndmills: BFI [Palgrave Macmillan], 2008. [BFI TV Classics]

UPDATE 05.17.14: A 2010 book by Derek Kompare, also titled CSI and published by Wiley-Blackwell, is a nice complement to Cohan's book. Kompare's CSI offers fuller treatment of the show's history and characters, and a useful filmography. I found the writing less interesting, though. Cohan starts from the problem of why he likes the show, and tries to explain it, not hesitating to raise critical issues. Kompare presents his CSI more as a brief for how great the show is. He argues the point objectively and presents a lot of evidence. And though he's preaching to the choir in me, I found Kompare's book less compelling.