Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Most of the CSI in Valier is on television, I must admit.

I’ve watched all the CSI:Miami and CSI:NY episodes that stream but not yet the original CSI, set in Las Vegas and only available on disc.  Each of them follows a formula:  a team has a primary charismatic and strong male lead with an equally strong “second” who is female.  The relationship between them is strictly work and friendship.  Around them is a team of assorted specialists in crime scene processing for trace, traditional evidence, and corpse analysis.  

These were not the first shows of the kind; the first that I was aware of was “DaVinci’s Inquest,” a Canadian show with a much darker hero.  DaVinci is a loner, philosophical, and driven or tortured — however you want to look at it.  I’m watching "NCSI" and finding it painful because it is so — for lack of a better adjective — “Republican.”  A lot of schtick and an unreal emphasis on lab bench folks getting into car chases and shootouts, while Mark Harmon demonstrates patriotism.  (They ARE supposed to be a government agency.)  This crew is totally unreal, sometimes unbearable.  All these shows, as they age, begin to emphasize “pairing off” and double entendres to satisfy the young audience.

If they had let Eliot be "darker", he might have stayed.

CSI shows, like “Law and Order: SVU,” became possible because of increased audience tolerance for explicit sex and violence — indeed, the draw of these elements pulled people out of the nervous TV networks onto cable.  

Another factor is the increased appetite for health and trauma information and the development of medical graphics that could show molecules doing their stuff and faux open chests with all the organs there.  The simulacra of corpses are intense, esp. the burned or scrambled ones.  With as much medical research as those folks must have been doing, the writers’ room plot development sessions must have been amazing.  The clues are often a bit exaggerated or displaced, but if you looked online for the reality, you’d find yourself out in front of most people’s awareness.

In fact, you’d find yourself out ahead of the dependability of all this evidence, to the point that there is a phenomenon called “the CSI effect” which has glamorized and validated dubious techniques so much that juries wrongly convict or exonerate innocent people.  As long as there have been professional police forces, detectives have been in a kind of devil’s handshake relationship with scientists, pulling them away from skepticism, towards the idea that if a person seems like a criminal then it’s okay to distort facts in order to convict them.  “Seeming like a criminal” often is a matter of social stigma or being just plain ugly or atypical.

With ten year runs, we watched them age.

Society/culture has a nasty dynamic of getting obsessed with one issue or another, possibly because of shocking statistics or maybe because of the exclusion from power of some part of the population (immigrants?) — or just that demonizing, witch hunting, appetite for revenge, that haunts us.  If we find all the pedophiles or rapists or murderers, or so we think, then we’ll be “safe.”  But there’s no regard for the complexity of simple-seeming transgressions.  Everyone likes to hear about and identify with the power of a badge and gun, but few want the power and obligation of the jury.  Maybe it’s time for a series about that.

The problem of keeping order, even in theory, is a tough one that shifts all the time.  Ugly mobs are not brought to trial and, even if they were, what do we do with them?  Plot lines proceed up to the riot with fire and tear gas, but then they sort of blank out, except for the dilemmas of politicians.  Often the focus drifts from the criminals to the private lives of the investigators. 

One of the most troublesome problems of a technological society, where only specialists have enough knowledge to judge validity, is that we are all dependent on techies of one sort or another.  The computer adepts on these programs are mostly depicted as freaky geniuses.  Their equipment is fantastic: a little box that can instantly analyze molecular proportions, access to universal data bases, detailed GPS information, and so on.   Even if such magic exists, it wouldn’t be available in small towns, with budgets already exceeded, where the coroner is just the funeral director or maybe the sheriff.  Or what if you’re on a rez where the FBI is in charge of the major crimes, but not very interested.

The CSI effect, that leads us all to believe that a bite pattern on a thigh or the analysis of a hair snippet can dependably crack a case wide open, interacts with celebrity-level coroner’s testimony — like the OJ trial — to prevent a fair trial.  The interesting example of the OJ case is that the public split both ways: partly believing that any black man is guilty and partly believing that any black man has been framed.  Both opinions have their evidence.  http://articles.latimes.com/1995-06-03/news/mn-8841_1_simpson-case  And their consequences.  A simple difference in the rules meant that OJ was CONVICTED in the civil version of the case.

Michael Baden, celebrity coroner
host of "Autopsy"

But the days of the crime lab that is under the jurisdiction of an enforcement agency, may be numbered.  Following is a link to a story about defeating corruption, counter-intuitively, reform coming from Mexico.

You may have noticed that each “franchise” CSI show is linked to a major city, each of them with vivid cultures and landscapes, crime issues, and resources.  “Longmire” is a police procedural but it depends on reasoning and local knowledge in a place of thin resources and few buildings, much less dependable cell phone coverage.  Jurisdiction boundaries and even “magic” are more relevant than the chemical formula for automobile paint.  But the audiences are in the cities.


The best of these CSI shows take us to interesting subcultures and true dilemmas that plague democracies.  The worst go off down the over-trodden alleys of sex and violence.  “CSI:NY” was the best at depicting streets full of addicts and lost kids, sometimes approaching the insight of something like “The Wire.”  “CSI:Miami” threw wealth, youth and privilege in our faces.  It was gorgeous, fabulously filmed, fast-paced, always beginning with a semi-orgy of nearly-nude women drinking some mysterious blue stuff out of fancy glasses and dancing to intense music.  

I’d love to see a panel of the CSI alpha males discussing their roles and how they felt about them, esp. if David Caruso, Mark Harmon, Gary Sinise, were accompanied by Jack Klugman (Quincy '76-'83), who was classified with medical shows, and Nicholas Campbell (Da Vinci '98-'05).  Clearly the cynical maladjusted mortician of 1976 has been replaced in recent times in the USA by the cleancut patriot, a little quirky but a really good shot.  Even recent plots hint at ignoring the rules in the romantic interest of justice.  Not shooting bad guys, but maybe not offering a helping hand while they drown.

If you like this kind of reflection, here’s an interesting essay.  http://flowtv.org/2006/07/178/  A bit of exploration with search engines pays off.  I’m not sure the analysis of TV shows justifies a Ph.D., but they are a pretty good mirror.  Our feelings about crime, death, justice, and the allocation of resources seem rather pressing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is fine commentary about the shopworn CSI genre. This type of crime scene drama carefully avoids the more absorbing real-life phenomenon of crime committed in the name of sacred belief or biblical literalism. One can find justification for most any sort of mayhem or cruelty in the Pentateuch.