The Third Eye Perspective

My husband David and I spend most evenings in front of the television, and I’ve blogged before about what we watch. Our watch list includes a lot of criminal investigative shows, and yes, we watch all three CSI shows – the original set in Las Vegas, the one set in Miami, and the one set in New York.

These three shows have a definite hierarchy in our viewing habits and in our attitudes toward them; we like and respect the original show, we diss the Miami one but watch it anyway, and we like and respect the New York outing. Just last night we were discussing these shows with a friend, and her response on our admission that we watch CSI:Miami was “And do you mock it?”

Why yes, we do, not unlike the way the Chicago Trib’s TV Critic Maureen Ryan points out CSI:Miami’s shortcomings by claiming it’s actually the funniest comedy on TV.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a murder mystery and wondered how each of these three shows would handle it.

The premise was simple; an unknown female found dead in an isolated location, with a great deal of physical evidence to process. How would her death be discovered? Discussed? Investigated? Resolved? And what would be the “kicker” on each show, and the red herring (the false “likely suspect” and the true “unlikely suspect”)”

CSI: A group of drunken college kids is out in the desert near sunset, partying hearty with several kegs, and loud music playing on competing car stereos. There are shots of sky, rocks, and dry cliffs. Beefy kids do keg stands and other stupid beer tricks. Dramatic tension rises as the camera swoops in toward the group, passing over and around the group. It focuses on one couple’s risky behavior, as they’re teetering about on the edge of a cliff while making out, but when the couple topples over, their fall is arrested by falling on a ledge.  The young man is stunned for a few moments, comes back to himself, and reaches for what he thinks is his girlfriend, but it’s actually a corpse tucked back into an alcove in the rock It’s coming to pieces, and he’s instinctively grabbed at the arms to fend the rest of the body off. His girlfriend is furious, because she’s barely hanging on to the ledge and wants him to get his hands off that other chick and rescue her, “like, right now!! Give me a hand!!” He wordlessly rolls on his side and looks at her, still holding the dead woman’s forearm, and they both start hollering for help. The music from the party is still so loud that they can barely be heard.

When the CSIs arrive, Grissom is in the lead, because there’s insect evidence to be had and he can’t wait to get at it. He’s wearing the battered straw hat he uses for daytime field work. The two college students are being taken away for medical treatment, and the rest of the partiers are being interviewed and given blood alcohol tests, and the authorities are focused on getting down to the body to photograph in situ before attempting to bring it and any physical evidence there may be. Catherine is second lead investigator, and notes the couple arguing in their respective gurneys about what happened just as the corpse is hoisted up and readied for transport. As the body is lifted, a small notebook or journal, badly stained and damaged by insects, is found, along with an expensive looking handbag. David, the younger and more physical pathologist, reports there is no ID on the body, prompting Catherine to wonder, as the young couple’s argument is clearly heard as they are put in the ambulance, “So…who’s the other woman?”

Grissom smiles slightly as he gathers several bits of insectoid debris from under and around the body. “It’s up to us to find out,” he observes, “and make sure the case doesn’t go to hell in a designer handbag.” Catherine looks the bag with narrowed eyes. You can tell she knows exactly who the designer is, and approximately how much it cost, and whether or not it’s authentic. Focus on bag. Intro to theme song.

CSI: Miami would start with a number of flying shots over wetlands. The sky is a strange orange-brown not found in nature. The camera swoops and dives and there are many different viewpoints. Eventually, the camera settles down and focuses on a group of drunken college kids, out in the swamps chasing each other in airboats, crashing into each other and laughing hysterically. A crusty looking guy in another swamp boat is chasing them, and starts yelling at them to stop and get out of there, and it’s clear that the boats are rentals and this is the concession owner, trying to stop them from damaging or destroying the airboats. The argument is conducted at high speed with lots of flashy turns seen from above, from both sides, and head-on. The lead boat serves around sharply, trying to double back on the chase boat, but a sexy co-ed in a bikini topples over into the swampgrass. Her boyfriend jumps in to help her; the water is not deep but the roots have entangled her and the more she struggles, the worse things are for her. She goes under, coughing. The boyfriend ducks under the surface and comes up with a dead girl in a bikini, held in a horrible embrace. She’s badly decomposed and beginning to fall apart. The crusty guy finally catches up with a roar of his engine, and cuts the throttle just in time to avoid a collision with the college kids’ boats. From his point of view, the dead girl has her back to him; she looks a lot worse from the front. The crusty guy cries out “Jeezus! You found her!” The college boy drops the body and thrashes around, frantically trying to wash bodily fluids off his bare chest. His girlfriend bursts out of the water, holding the dead girl’s arm, which ends in a jagged cut just at the elbow. She waves it around and screams, “drop that other chick right now and and help me, my leg’s stuck.” College boy looks down into the water and says “Her leg’s stuck, too.” Camera pans past shocked, scared, half-naked coeds and buff jocks, who are reacting in various ways. At least two have cell phones out. One guy takes pictures with his cameraphone.

CSIs arrive, by Hummer to the nearest point on dry land, and thence by airboat. Many aerial shots track their progress as they converge on the scene. Horatio stands in one of the airboats, wearing the Sunglasses of Justice, and not bothering to hold on while a uniformed officer steers. Frank, the tough-talking police homicide detective, is seated and strapped in, but Horatio is above that sort of thing. He broods, his shoulders twisted and arms folded, and somehow manages to remain stock-still on the racing airboat. The sky is now an intense blue, but the glints on the water are orange. The swampgrass is an acid green. On arrival at the crime scene, he finds compassionate pathologist Alexx bagging up the victim’s arm after examining the cut end, along with a foot and sundry other body parts and a designer handbag, which is oddly heavy. Frank directs officers in waders and wetsuits to drag the area, looking for more evidence. There is no wallet in the handbag, she tells Horatio, and the girl is an unknown. She finds a waterlogged book or diary, which is falling apart in her hands.  She looks up with sad eyes at Horatio, who is still standing in the airboat, supervising the scene with masterly inactivity. “Someone left a jigsaw puzzle for us out here, Frank” he intones. “It’s up to us to put the pieces together.” Roger Daltrey screams, and the theme music begins.

CSI: New York starts with a frenetic club scene – flashing lights, pounding music, and young people in trendy clothes with big hair dance and party. The camera angle shifts slightly, from slightly above to slightly below, and the “club kids” are seen to be quite a bit too young to get into an “adult” nightclub. Flashes of congratulatory banners indicate that this would be a bar mitzvah, but with a difference; a cross is displayed on one instead of a Star of David, and the young man at the center of the dance floor is wearing a baseball cap backwards and a WWJD bracelet, rather than a skullcap and a “chai” necklace. He motions for his date to follow him as they weave through the crowd, trying to find some privacy for a little hooking up.

They work their way “backstage” of the “club,” which is temporarily curtained off in the corner of a much larger room, perhaps an old ballroom. They manage to evade a couple of adult minders and chaperones, and head for a nearby hallway. Once there, it’s clear this building is an old hotel. The young couple giggles, trying locked doors and kissing.  They stumble through a small pass-door and, disoriented, fall down a short flight of steps, fetching up screaming with fear and then laughter at the bottom of a small room with banquette seats and tables and a railing, beyond which is the feeling of a large, empty space. They realize they’re in a real, classic nightclub – in balcony seating above a small dancefloor, with a bandstand dimly visible farther away in the half-light. The boy realizes he’s got a golden opportunity; privacy, red leather upholstery, and a willing partner. This might make this a night a real rite of passage, he thinks to himself in his father’s voice. He gets up and moves to the nearest banquette, and reaches for the girl, who can be heard floundering nearby. But when he touches her, she is cold, and he murmurs “Let me warm you up a little, baby” and pulls her up on the banquette.  She protests quietly at first, and then more loudly, and the boy wonders why she’s so unresponsive all of a sudden.

The pass-door opens with a crash, and a bright light shines in the boy’s eyes. An outraged female chaperone, whose lipstick and hair aren’t as perfect as they were at the beginning of the sequence, harangues them both for wandering away from the party. A male companion straightens his tie and threatens both with their parents, but won’t say anything if they get out of there and back to the party right now. The female chaperone stares at the young man with a shocked look on her face, and he begins to blush and stammer apologies. The girl continues to scream at the boy, saying “will you drop that other chick and get me out of here? My leg is stuck under this seat thing.” The boy looks down and sees a leg sticking out from under the banquette, but it doesn’t match his girlfriend’s and is facing the wrong way. The camera angle aids the illusion that the stray leg and his girlfriend are somehow connected, even at an impossible length. Confused, he turns to the “hot date” in his arms, sees at last that she is dead and missing some limbs, and keels over in a faint.  

When the CSIs arrive, Det. Mac Taylor is lead, and Danny is assisting. They discuss the history of the hotel, and of the balconied nightclub in its basement. Danny passes long a story about a well-known singer’s appearance at the nightclub his father had told him. Mac mentions a famous murder that took place “back in the day” and how the well-known singer was involved, but it was never solved. They enter the old nightclub via its original entrance, down near the dancefloor, and look up at the balcony level, where Hawke is seen bending down, and Det. Flack calls down that he’ll come and lead them up to the balcony. So they wait, looking around them. For a few moments the old nightclub is re-created all around them as Mac describes it for Danny as it was in its heyday, full of well-dressed post-war couples and smelling of cologne, cigarettes, and hot-house flowers.

It’s all much, much more glamorous and romantic than the flashy, tawdry “nightclub” event put on by the party organizers, and the colors are brighter and more intense than they had been moments before. Everything looks slightly translucent, however. A pretty girl in a satin dress with a sweetheart neckline carrying orchids on a decorated tray walks around Mac, and he turns to appreciate the effect in his imagination, as the “heyday” scene fades away around him into the squalor and neglect of the present day.

Danny speculates on the event that brought the teens and their chaperones to the formerly legendary hotel; Mac had seen the crosses on the banners, and thinks it’s an expensive rite of passage – a Christian “bar mitzvah,”  as a way for Gentile parents and their teenage children to compete on the same level, socially, in heavily Jewish Manhattan. Flack arrives and leads them to the stairway to the access hallway on the floor above; along with more background information, he mentions the boy’s father is causing problems, and Flack wants Mac or Danny to talk to him first so he can take his kid and leave.

They reach the private balcony and stand, looking out over the old nightclub and then turning to get an impression of the crime scene. Dusty velvet curtains line the walls, and there’s a claustrophobic air to the room, even though it’s completely open on the nightclub side.

Dr. Hawke is readying the body for removal, but shakes his head over how she was moved around so much when she was discovered, which may have ruined some forensic evidence. Danny puts on gloves and goes through an expensive looking leather handbag; he reminds Mac that his previous experience with this kind of evidence tells him that this is a real bag, and not a knockoff.

Mac turns away from the balcony and looks down, notices something, and pulls out gloves as he squats down. Sitting on his heels, he brings a small notebook or journal up to eye-level; it’s stained with blood and the pages are stuck together. Hawke places the leg in a plastic bag, noting the torn edges where the amputation took place, and begins looking under the seats and tables for more body parts. The rescue personnel are having a little trouble getting the gurney up the short flight of steps – the space is tight and they can’t hold it so that it’s level as it goes. A package falls from the gurney and bounces down the steps, but Danny thinks quickly and fields it like a shortstop, two handed. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, boys, be careful there. Let me give you a hand with that.” And he holds up the clear plastic package, which contains a woman’s forearm and hand.

Mac shakes his head, grimacing slightly, and continues gathering evidence. Flack looks disgusted. “What did I tell you, Messer? Did I not say to you on the phone just now ‘no hand jokes’ ?” Danny grins and shrugs as he gets to his feet, but before he can frame a snappy rejoinder, Mac glances at them both and gives a quick sideways jerk of his head.

“Knock it off, you guys.” Civilians are still in the little room; the female chaperone is sitting in the back corner with her escort, being given a bottled water by a uniformed detective. They’re both visibly shaken and are still giving their preliminary statements and contact information.

“This could be a high-profile case,” he says in a warning tone. “If the Mayor’s Liaison Office gets involved, you better be able to testify that everything was done by the book.” Both detectives look soberly and seriously back at Mac. Their faces are unreadable.

He holds up the little diary for emphasis. “You got me?” he adds with an edge to his voice. “By the manual. I’m not going out on a limb for you two.”

Only Hawke dares to crack a slight grin, as his back, like Mac’s, is to the two chaperones. He gathers his gear, turns, and follows the righted gurney out. Mac, Danny, and Flack look after him, in the direction of the camera. Mac allows himself a grim little smile. Intro music begins.

With CSI: Original Flavor, you get a deceptively simple set-up, a lead character that acts more like an ensemble player, and an emphasis on the physical evidence, the forensics, and generating leads based on evidence gathered thus far. They’ll solve this case by using document and handwriting analysis on the book, trace evidence in the bag, and tool and cut marks on the severed limbs.

At least one of the other partiers will be a red herring, but ultimately the dead girl will have no connection to them, although the trace evidence and the location of her body will lead to her killer, who wanted her found later so that a weak alibi would be stronger. The killer will be contacted early in the episode because of their connection to the property the party was held on, but won’t be seen as a person of interest until the trace and document evidence (which is equivocal) is analyzed correctly.

There will be a fair amount of time spent in the room with the light table. Hodges will say something vaguely disturbing about his personal life as he hands over his trace analysis. A couple of rarely seen CSIs may appear, such as the fingerprint expert working on the textured leather bag, or the documents expert dealing with the notebook.

The A plot and B plot will develop leads, sometimes converging and combining into one plot, sometimes not. There’s a lot of creative leaps that go into developing leads, but a lot of them involve narrowing data down so that patterns emerge or someone recognizes a name or some other data point from a list.

Quite often, one of the CSIs will come up with a theory, and design an experiment to test that theory. I learned that pigs are often used in decomposition tests from watching CSI. I did not know that insects will lay their eggs on a dead body in a very specific and chronologically significant way, either. Usually, the experimenter is Grissom, but only if it’s in one of his areas of expertise or interest. Quite often, it’s Sarah or Nick Stokes, and now sometimes Greg, especially if it’s a really grungy, grotty one involving (shudder) overalls.

Relationships happen, but they’re almost always ancillary to the plot. If Grissom’s and Sarah’s relationship is hard to take, at least they’ve kept it under wraps until recently. It would have been much, much more interesting if Grissom had taken up with Lady Heather… and lately it seems like he might have in the past. OOoooooh! Sarah Sidle’s jealousy barely registers on her face! She puts up a screen of tolerant humor, but is clearly not all that amused or tolerant. We’ll have to wait until next season to see where that leads, but I suspect it’s not a fan favorite and will be resolved in some way next fall.

Warrick’s marriage hardly comes up in conversation at all – same as David the younger pathologist. Stokes occasionally has a flirtation with a girl you know would be bad for him – he’s like a moth to the flame in that respect. Greg is the mystery boy – rather too well informed on some pretty outre’ sexual practices and club circuit/party culture trends. You get the idea he knows a lot of this stuff from first-hand knowledge…

The killer: corrupt developer or polluter. The victim: a journalist working on an expose’, but she has expensive tastes and was open to being paid off, but got killed instead when she came out to the remote location to confront the developer/polluter. There was contact with the killer in the second or third scene, when he was leading someone out to the property, or he was in his offices obligingly pulling maps out for Stokes or Warrick, who were working background on the case. If there’s music, it’s used to enhance dramatic tension, not to overpower it. I still have a Madonna song on my iPod that I got because I heard it on CSI.

On CSI: Miami Vice Flavor, everything is overproduced and overblown and overplayed. The colors are intense and hot, the dialogue between Horatio and everyone else is intense and hot, the music is intense and hot… you get it. There will be some kind of serious lapse and or conflict arising out of one of the lesser CSIs inability to be all Horatio, all the time.

The evidence will be processed via musical montage, but leads aren’t developed so much as they are hunted down and wrestled to the ground. Everyone is suspected and as good as jailed in turn.

Some rocks weighing down the handbag, which was also supposed to weigh down the body, will lead to one specific and unique location near the shore in Miami/Dade County, or perhaps in one of the Florida Keys.

The notebook is all but illegible, but some chemicals and another musical montage with digital image sharpening will point directly to the killer, who has already been tipped off and is making a run for Cuba! All the better to chase you down with a very loud boat, my dear – but we only have a few hours before the hurricane/tidal wave/terrorist attack hits!

B plots on CSI:Miami Vice Flavor, like shit, often happen. Sometimes the B plot has something to do with the A plot, but most often there’s just Horatio saving Miami from natural disasters and terrorists. Quite often, it’s to do with some secondary character getting messily killed off, or even more messily and horrifically injured.

That’ll teach ’em to act better than David Caruso! Act badly, or be bumped off. No wonder everybody on this show is so wooden, and there’s certainly no sense of ensemble acting. Aside from musical montage sequences of DNA testing, there is no science on CSI: Miami Vice Flavor.

None of the CSIs will put together any kind of fancy-schmancy experiment. Science is for wimps. Experiments are un-sexy and are simply not done. There will be more dead bodies, however, and in spite of their own incompetence, there will be a lot of blatant clues and eventually Horatio will put on the Sunglasses of Justice and go subdue the bad guy(s) with big guns and bad dialogue.

The evidence will first point to the crusty guy, who indeed was dumping bodies out there and was trying to herd the drunken college kids away, but he’s just a minion of the Nemesis of the Week. The NOTW keeps a fast plane/boat/private rocket fueled up and ready to head for international airspace/waters/space stations and is a big shadowy narco-trafficker from (insert corrupt or socialistic Latin country here) financed with money from (insert scary bad regime, cartel, or gang name here).

I have never bothered to look up any of the music heard on CSI:Miami Vice Flavor, because I’m already tired of it by the time the credits roll.

On CSI: Extra Crispy Flavor, Mac’s clipped tones mixed with Danny’s and Flack’s distinctive (and authentic sounding) accents make for a very big city, no-nonesense production ethic. The locations can be glitzy or gritty, the crime lab settings are both modern (upstairs) and funky (the morgue in the basement). All the other players are important to the whole – when there is a B plot (and there usually is) the lead detective on that plot is just as compelling to watch as Mac is.

CSI:NY is a little less awkward about personal relationships than either of the other two shows are – from the beginning, we knew that Mac missed his dead wife and was lonely but unsure how to have a relationship again. We’ve known when Stella has been dating (sometimes, dating really bad guys). We now know that Danny and Montana are an item. And now that Mac and the female pathologist are out in the open at last about their relationship, there will be less of the “our hidden passion must be kept a secret” baloney and more “my significant other is in jeopardy” tension.

Also, if Sid, the other male pathologist shows up – he hardly ever leaves the lab – he’ll click his fancy magnetic reading glasses together at least once. 

The evidence will be thoroughly worked, and then re-worked when new insights are attained. Flack will end up doing a lot of solid police work – routine stuff. They show him pounding the pavement talking to people and everything. So will Danny.

Mac will often get a bright idea and put together an experiment, with actual scientific methodology, and prove how something was done, or prove that it couldn’t possibly have happened the way it’s been described. Leads are developed and narrowed down. There are sometimes false leads, but that usually ends up in one of those “lightbulb” moments. Sometimes, people move fast n order to chase down a lead or get to some specialized equipment. For the blood-soaked book, they might resort to MRI tomographic imaging at a nearby university hospital, through a connection of Sid’s, the glasses-clicking pathologist.

Oh, and the killer? Father of the Bar Mitzvah boy. Owns the hotel in a blind trust, as his father was the mobster who used to own it. The mobster grandfather killed the cigarette girl from the old nightclub, left her body in the private balcony room, and let the well-known singer be the focus of rumors about the murder.

The “new” murder victim is a journalist investigating the old murder, and since the empty hotel is due to be imploded within a few weeks, it seemed safe enough to host his kid’s party there, lure the journalist there ostensibly for covering the party, but with the promise of some extra “dish” on the old murder. The plan was to kill her, get her notebook, and leave her body to be buried in the rubble. He was going to go back and dismember the body, hiding the parts a little better after the party, so the workmen wouldn’t find them when they came in to clear and prepare the building.

Too bad he was interrupted when he heard his own son bumbling down the hall trying doors. He was hiding in the back of the balcony behind the curtains for the whole thing, but slipped out after the discovery when everyone ran out to call the cops, clean lipstick off their faces, and otherwise panic. The evidence that let to him included trace under the murder victim’s nails, which pointed to a male relative of the kid who discovered her, since he left his own epithelials on her in the big love scene. Then the notebook appeared to point first to the old murder, and then Mac reinterpreted it in light of the new data from the DNA test.

The music on CSI:NY is more emphatic than on the original series, but it’s well chosen and I often think about looking it up online later, but never actually get around to it.

See? The production teams behind each show are pretty much the same, but the art direction for each is different, the writing/story development people are mostly the same… but I think that each works its teams differently and farms stuff out. The same three top writers couldn’t be doing ALL the scripts, now, could they?

William Peterson is a producer on CSI, and his influence is probably seen in the nuanced way episodes are put together. There’s a lot of thought process going on behind the scenes.  Gary Sinise is a producer on CSI:NY, and again there’s a lot of intelligent care taken with the stories, characters, and casting. Caruso doesn’t do squat either onscreen or offscreen on CSI:Miami, but I suspect that if he were producing, the show would be even more perversely funny and nearly unwatchable.

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