Monday, July 06, 2015


Vancouver, BC

“Da Vinci’s Inquest”, a Canadian series, was the first CSI show I watched regularly.  That was decades ago.  At the beginning the hero would declare, “I speak for the dead.”  He did so well that he became Mayor of Vancouver, BC.  Well, on the show -- not in reality.

The cluster of recent American CSI shows (CSI:Crime Scene Investigation; CSI:Miami; CSI:NY; CSI:Cyber; NCIS:Naval) are structured very much like those Fifties cowboy shows we all used to love: Gunsmoke, Paladin, Rawhide, Wagon Train -- but I hadn’t really thought about it much until I ran across someone commenting that CSI shows are the “comfort food” of series.  This is not a literal comment, since there are often autopsy scenes that are not meant to be watched while you eat lunch.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation  (Las Vegas)

Each has a strong central character, glamorous females (a little more adult than is usual), and bantering buddies -- at least in terms of the team members.  The “vics” as they say on CSI Miami, but we are cautioned it's an undignified term on NCSI.  In spite of female characters who demand respect, the vics and the background women tend to be Hollywood cannon fodder willing to do anything, even wear nothing but sushi or a g-string.  That version also has the most spectacular homes and fabulous tropical ocean clouds.  I have yet to notice any academics like those who populate Morse and Lewis.  No matter.  Though it’s interesting to speculate about CSI Harvard vs. CSI Berkeley, if they were to invented.

I read recently that the conviction rate for murder has sunk from maybe half to one-third.  Of course, the really successful murderers are never detected in the first place: it's the murder itself that is never detected.  On a rez there are never accurate statistics about most anything.  I wonder whether a CSI Rez could fly.  Maybe Longmire has it covered.  That program really IS a resurrection of the Fifties formula except WITH Indians.


All these shows (except the Cyber one) revolve around the main man, who explicitly defends respect for human life and justice.  The whole conceit is that technology means we can know much more about how people do bad things.  There have been two real world consequences.  Juries today have no tolerance for technicians who don’t come through and criminals are fascinated by all the neat tricks they can learn.  Evidently there has been no change in the level of funding for technical criminal investigations.  Nor has it affected the tendency of juries to decide whom they like, who looks dodgy, and to base their decision on that rather than any evidence.

Most of the plots are ripped from the headlines by educated writers with an taste for contradictions and philosophical quandaries.  They’re in league with the media, esp. the part that is barely separated from “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”  Here are two powerful local cases, one for "CSI Park Ranger," and a second for "CSI Great Falls." The July 5, 2015, GF Tribune features a story about criminal cannibals -- not Bar Jonah but rather two scruffy and deranged young men who killed and a third young man who gave them a ride when they were hitchhiking.  It was July 5, 1970.  

Three years earlier, 1967, was the “Night of the Grizzlies” in Glacier Park, and the descriptions of the two events are very similar: night, sleeping, sultry weather, thunderstorm, and eating the victims.  The two men were supposedly taking LSD and the bears were suspected of having been shot with PCP in tranquilizer guns.  These are vampire stories that need magic.

The bears were killed.  One of the deranged hitchhikers, now 65, is today serving eight years for intent to distribute meth.  He served two years for the dismemberment murder.  The other guy claimed he did it all, in fact had the vic's fingers in his pocket, and was convicted of manslaughter.  He served sixteen years and died of liver cancer in 1994.  (I was going to link to this story, but I’ll just let you do it.)

This is a time in history in America when we have no consensus about grievous harm -- even when the vics or perps are animals.  We find juries guilty of wrong convictions, don’t trust ANY authorities, and are from a hundred cultures and subcultures.  Law and Order is another franchise that operates in the same formulaic terms as the CSI shows, and since our high schools no longer teach civics, they are a needed educational tool, particularly the ones that deal with sex crimes since high schools don’t teach sex education in any thorough way either.  Anyway, both democracy and sex are being sharply questioned and revised.

The investigators are the ones we respect and they show it by being beautiful and enhanced by excellent makeup.  (Even Caruso wears a little dab of mascara.)  Even the Medical Examiners on these shows mostly give up the English model of crusty old seen-everything philosophers.  I love the one on CSI Miami, a beautiful woman who is actually a fine dancer, tenderly holds the vic’s heads and talks to them, calling them “baby.”  The shows rely on “trace,” which at first thought was the name of a character:  “I’ll take this swab to Trace!

All the CSI’s are in cities with gorgeous helicopter views at dawn and dusk.  Modern crime seems to be a creature of population density, while the problems of the Westerns happen out in open country with harsh weather that destroys “trace.”  More Westerns are about politics and personal relationships.  CSI Cyber was supposed to move in this direction but evidently the producers were getting bored because the reviews were scathing.

The discussions of what’s right in terms of justice at the heart of “Law and Order,” are replaced in the CSI shows by the explanations of evidence and how it is handled, illustrated with pulsing graphics of guts and wires. There are just enough car or boat chases and shootouts to keep the jejune watching and give the rest of us a chance to go check the refrigerator.  Once in a while there is something that’s a bit preposterous: like a tsunami that is deliberately used to enable the theft of gold bars that would be almost impossible to transport otherwise.  But it was mixed with actual post-tsunami and hurricane footage -- very real.  I liked the one about the world's most toxic snake venom (Australian) being infused via DSMO into newly cleaned uniforms.

Lately there’s been a buzz about “dad bods.”  These are at their heart "dad shows" -- “Father Knows Best”.  We miss dads.  The impossible bosses are replaced by heartless FBI agents.  David Caruso is a straight connection to NYPD Blue, but there is no equivalent to the Dennis Frantz politically incorrect wild man unless you count the ditsy Pauley Perrette.  Mark Harmon links to hospital franchise serieses.Gary Sinise was unknown to me and I see that’s because he’s been “doing” astronauts and sci-fi.

I'd be tempted to say these men are fantasies, that men in charge these days are neither compassionate nor just.  But my experience is different.  They do exist -- they’re just not school administrators nor are they likely to be pastors.  Strange considering the contexts.  The most vicious and incompetent bosses I’ve had were female.  I’ve always fled from management roles.

The tentpole men in these CSI stories are top management.  Even Morse was held back by a boss.  They are products of experience.  Mr. Favor from Rawhide was the reflective one who considered all possible solutions -- in those days Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood) required a LOT of management.  

“Wishbone” provided wise but salty commentary to Mr. Favor.  There is no such character in the CSI series.  I suspect it’s because there’s no such thing among the writers these days as freedom.  I wonder what Canada is doing in terms of CSI right now.  There is an abundance of characters who comment on “Game of Thrones.”  Those English are so self-reflexive.  More likely the good crime shows are Swedish.

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