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Fall 2000: "CSI"

Yes, it is March, and this is the year 2001. Valentine's Day is in the can, and baseball season is just around the corner. The Oklahoma Sooners are the champions of college football, and Geroge W. Bush is the president of the United States -- both designations resulting from arcane and shadowy decrees not entirely understood by the populace at large. The XFL is not just a gleam in Vince McMahon's power-mad eye, but a living, breathing football league -- assuming NBC doesn't pull the plug by the time I finish typing this sentence.

I mention all of this because some readers might stumble across the words "Fall 2000" in this article's headline and conclude that we need to have our copy editors flogged. Either that, or a horrible technical glitch has occurred. Our server is posting moldy, months-old articles. Buggy software has prevented us from updating the site since Columbus Day. When upgrading to new equipment, we caused a rip in the time-space continuum and, after falling in to the resulting wormhole, found ourselves stuck back in early October.

You know -- a plausible explanation.

But really, there's a perfectly harmless reason for why we've waited until just a few days before the feast of St. Patrick to review a show that debuted on Oct. 6 of last year -- we're just plumb lazy.

Despite any outward appearances to the contrary, TeeVee.org does not exactly run like a well-oiled machine. Oh, we try. Each fall, when new shows roll onto the airwaves like Edsels out of a 1950s Ford factory, we try to review each and every one, forswearing sleep, human intimacy and solid food in order to chronicle the best that network TV has to offer. But you try watching episodes of Tucker and The Geena Davis Show and Yes, Dear back-to-back-to-back, and you'll soon discover as we do every year that good intentions are rarely a match for bad shows. A week's worth of WB sitcoms and UPN action dramas, and we have to head off to the local multiplex for the matinee showing of "Dude, Where's My Car?" just to cleanse the palate.

And when that happens, new shows are bound to fall through the cracks without ever undergoing our strenuous, if lackadaisical, review process.

Nine out of 10 times, nobody notices our crass unprofessionalism and inept negligence. We forgot to watch the Mission Hill premiere? Hey, so did the rest of humanity, buddy. Safe Harbor slipped in under our radar screen? Rue McClanahan's loss is our gain. We never properly vetted Maggie Winters? That's just a black mark we'll have to take to our graves.

But every now and again, one of the shows that slips past our army of reviewers doesn't have the common courtesy to quickly fade into obscurity. It lingers on the schedule for months or, even worse, becomes a bona fide hit. And when that happens, you can only imagine how embarrassed we are. All we're left with is shame. All we're left with is unending humiliation.

All we're left with is CS-flippin'-I.

You can hardly blame us for missing the CSI boat. When the show premiered in October, it was saddled with a moldy premise -- forensics investigators who solve crimes! -- a low profile, and a deadly time slot on Friday nights, the Devil's Island of network scheduling. I mean, consider these three shows: a highly anticipated sitcom starring a beloved Seinfeld supporting player; a high-profile crime drama from TV powerhouse Dick Wolf; or a latter-day remake of Quincy starring the guy from the Hannibal Lecter movie that didn't feature Anthony Hopkins. Back in October, which one would you have expected to live to see the new year?

Michael Richards and Oliver Platt, you do not get to vote on this.

Not only has CSI survived the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its debut, it's thrived -- "TV's highest-rated new drama," as the marketing wizards at CBS are fond of reminding us. For the week ending Feb. 11, CSI scored a 13.8 rating and a 20 share, which translates to about 21.45 million viewers. That's a bigger audience than The West Wing and Law & Order. Among dramas, only ER and The Practice can claim to attract more viewers.

CSI's success goes beyond ratings. It won a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Drama. Entertainment Weekly named it one of the 10 best shows of 2000. CBS handed the program the cushy timeslot behind Survivor, where it regularly trounces one-time critical darling Will & Grace.

And having watched CSI, I believe I have a solid-enough foundation to make one unassailable claim about the show's success -- there is no earthly explanation for why CSI is this popular.

This is not the embittered conclusion of someone who tuned in to one CSI episode, saw the open-mouthed visage of Marg Helgenberger and then retreated into his hole for six more weeks of winter. No, I've seen every, single episode of CSI, from the pilot in which William Petersen and company solved a couple of three crimes to the Feb. 22 episode in which crime-solving fun times were had by all. You see, my wife writes for another Web site that pays her much, much more than TeeVee (since most mathematicians consider "a little bit" to be much, much more than "nothing"). Part of my wife's duties for this Web site require her to recap episodes of CSI. And since my wife gets to watch every episode of the show, so do I. Putting the "for better or for worse" part of our marriage vows to the test early on, as it were.

So that explains why the two people in the Michaels household never miss CSI. That leaves just 20,449,998 of you to account for yourselves. Unless there's been a sudden boom in the number of TV show-recapping Web sites that previously escaped my attention.

Look, it's not that CSI is a bad show. On the whole, it's actually pretty good. The writers spin a good yarn, the show moves along at a crisp, engaging pace, and, most importantly, prolonged exposure to CSI doesn't cause the gray matter between my ears to throb in agony. There are plenty of shows I'd rather watch than CSI, but there's a considerably longer list of programs that make me relieved that it's William Petersen on my TV screen and not, say, the cast of Two Guys and a Girl.

Still, the last time I checked, "competent" and "workman-like" did not translate to "commercial and critical smash." Of course, that was before CSI came along, back in the day when the universe still made sense to me.

There are plenty of reasons for me to hate CSI. Watching the show requires a willing suspension of disbelief -- preferably with reinforced cables and netting just in case the rigging gives way. On CSI, for example, it's the forensics team that usually collars and interrogates suspects. Bet that's good for a chuckle or two around precinct houses across the country.

Then there's the not inconsiderable matter of Marg Helgenberger appearing on the show. We all have actors and actresses who -- through no apparent fault of their own -- set our teeth on edge. And Helgenberger to me is like blood on the doorframe for the Angel of Death in ancient Egypt. I see her name in the credits, and I pass over.

Finally, CSI suffers from what we'll call, for lack of a better name, The Quincy Factor. Namely, no crime is so complex, no mystery so vexing and no malfeasance so cryptic and involved that it can't be wrapped up by the final five minutes of the show.

The creative forces behind CSI would like me to take that Quincy talk and stuff it on the nearest morgue slab. "Quincy was a medical examiner in a different time," Petersen explains in an interview with the hard-hitting reporters of CBS.com. "This is 2000. And it's much different in that we have different equipment. Those labs working in America and those coroners' offices are equipped with completely different types of equipment."

And yet, they still solve crimes in just under an hour of TV time, like they did back when Quincy and Lt. Monahan and Sam Fujiyama were ferreting out evil-doers a generation ago.

All that aside, there's also plenty to like about CSI. Sure, a show about solving crimes is a twice-told tale, but at least the CSI crew finds an interesting way to tell it. The show really makes its bones dealing with how crimes get solved and -- laughable portrayal of police interrogation procedures aside -- it generally gets things right. An episode a few weeks back centered on a serial bomber terrorizing the Las Vegas metro area. Most crime programs would have been content to show the detectives tapping a few computer keys and stumbling upon the correct answer. CSI showed the actual grunt work -- the forensics team analyzing clues, testing materials, even constructing their own pipe bombs to try and figure out what they were dealing with. It's good storytelling, and in age of ER histrionics and David E. Kelley absurdities, that should count for something.

It also helps that Petersen does a superb job playing Gil Grissom, the bloodless, focused head of the Crimes Scenes Investigation unit. So good is Petersen playing a man extremely gifted at his job and extremely awkward at the business of life that I wish CSI would devote more screen time to him and less to the band of ciphers under his supervision. The exceptions: Gary Dourdan and Paul Guilfoyle turn in fine performances as a skilled-but-troubled forensics investigator and gruff police lieutenant, respectively.

Could CSI improve? Most definitely. The better crime dramas on TV -- your Homicides, your Hill Street Blueses, even your short-lived EZ Streets -- were as much about character as they were about story. That's not the case on CSI, where the producers' idea of character development is to let it slip that Helgenberger's Catherine Willows used to be a stripper. Maybe that will change as the series progresses, and the writers become a little more comfortable with their charges. It would also be nice to see Grissom and the gang come across the occasional stumper of a crime.

But don't hold your breath waiting for any of that to happen. This is CBS, after all, where audiences do not deal well with things like nuance and unresolved conflict. CBS's core demographic likes its crimes solved, its punks busted and its characters transparent. When was the last time you heard someone say, "Boy, that Nash Bridges is one complex dude" or "That JAG is like an enigma to me?"

In the meantime, you could do worse than to give CSI a look-see. It's not great television, but it's better than most of what you'll find on the networks these days. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but there are a bunch of shows over on UPN that would kill for press like that.

And if you can figure out why the show is so popular, let us know. There's a spot waiting on the Crime Scene Investigations unit for whoever unravels that mystery.


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