A&E has taken to rerunning CSI: Miami during the noon hour. I don’t know how long they’ve been doing this, but needless to say I’ve just discovered it and set the TiVo to record it. I revel in its sheer stupidity and the over-the-top comedy gold of David Caruso’s satirical performance. (I have to believe he’s playing Horatio Caine with a wink and a smile or else I’d have trouble sleeping at night.) I haven’t enjoyed a show’s pure awfulness since NBC’s short-lived “CSI meets Las Vegas” disaster Medical Investigation.
Still, I have to wonder why the CSI shows are a hit. CSI: Miami is one of the worst shows currently airing, yet it consistently finishes in the top 20. Why do all three shows (and pseudo-spinoffs like Without a Trace and Cold Case) get such consistently good ratings? I could never stomach the original series because of William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger attempting to exude uncomfortable, plasticized sexuality as they solved disgusting crimes. Both came across as kinda scuzzy, and even that would have been fine if the writing acknowledged it and portrayed them as such. Unfortunately, the writing is cartoonishly simplistic in both story and character, leaving a vacuum of entertainment where quality should be.
While I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these shows, I have seen enough of a sampling of each to recognize that they’re uniformly bad, mostly for the same reasons: no character depth, predictable storylines, questionable procedure portrayed as unquestionable, and (my personal favorite) the killers breaking down and spelling out their motives as soon as the police arrest them. I can understand a person possibly doing this out of guilt. It’s called a confession, and you don’t often need expensive lab tests and a high-speed chase involving helicopters to get one. I don’t understand procedurals’ reliance on the Scooby Doo “all right, you got me—here’s why I did it” ending. Killers kill. Unless they’re very guilty or very showy, they aren’t going to rattle off a confession to the arresting officer. Besides that, many of the killers play the roles as over-the-top sociopaths, making it even more unbelievable that guilt drove them to confess (and even more predictable, because you know whodunit as soon as you see the smug sneer).
But nothing—not even binging on the junk food of CSI: Miami for the past week—could prepare me for the unadulterated badness of a CSI: New York episode entitled “Down the Rabbit Hole.” I don’t watch these shows regularly, but a good friend of mine insisted it contained moments of awe-inspiring stupidity. I had to do my critical duty by watching it. After all, it’s my job to keep track of the cultural zeitgeist and explain to people why they’re wrong.
Not much more than a commercial for the game Second Life (a game that only seems to be played on television; I’m friends with an assload of nerds, none of whom have played Second Life for more than 15 minutes), the episode begins with one of the weirdest and most entertaining sequences in television history. We see a sweaty Mac Taylor jogging past a museum at night. Inside the museum, a janitor enters a room littered with mannequins, cranks up some classy tango music, and begins dancing very sensually with one…until the head falls off. When he bends over to grab it, the janitor finds a costumed dead body.
From this body, they discover many forensic red herrings, including a tick swimming in Lyme disease and a piece of bamboo under the victim’s fingernails. They use the comically inaccurate power of Google image searching to, apparently, plug in a photo of the victim, which magically finds them photos of her Second Life avatar. (Google has created some amazing technology, but this is not one of them.) Second Life helpfully provides her real-world information, and it turns out she’s kind of a loser who spends the bulk of her time “living” a Second Life.
So Mac jacks in, and the bulk of the traditional investigation occurs within Second Life itself. This includes such bizarre feats as a hoverboard chase, a “virus” nearly infecting the lab’s computers, and, best of all, the office’s random computer nerd stepping up to a giant wall-screen to battle a bunch of Second Life avatars armed with what looks like a VCR remote from 1983.
They follow some dead-end real-world leads, including questioning a fidgety Second Life player whose pasty skin and irritable behavior suggest Lyme disease (turns out, he’s just a nerd) and a mechanic-in-real-life/shoe-salesman-in-Second Life (not a step up) who “would kill” to have an “online celebrity” like the murder victim wear his digital clothing. Eek?
This leads to the most baffling development in the episode: the apparent motive for the killing (according to the CSIs, who haven’t yet identified a legitimate suspect) was the celebrity status. See, their mythical suspect is a paid assassin who may or may not have killed a judge in the same New Jersey woods where the Lyme tick is found (the bullet matched their current victim), and somehow they discover the next target is a U.S. congressman, so the assassin must be using the celebrity status of “Venus” to get close to the congressman…
…except she just trots over to the apartment anyway, dressed like Venus for no apparent reason, and shoots him dead before he can say two words. So, a paid assassin plays Second Life long enough to familiarize herself with its “celebrities,” then kills one of these celebrities and assumes her virtual identity to get close to a congressman’s avatar—just so she can find out where he’s staying in New York? There’s no easier way to find out that information? There’s nothing else she wanted out of this whole Second Life deal? Then again, her greatest hits include “paid assassin who repeatedly uses the same gun as if nobody would investigate that” and “shooting a judge while he’s on a hunting trip.” Maybe she’s just inept.
As if that wasn’t enough, the episode ends with the Venussassin diving into a laundry chute, staring at Mac as he patrols the hallway, then slamming it shut loud enough for him to hear. Mac pulls open the laundry chute, looks in, and sees the words EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: JERRY BRUCKHEIMER inside.
I watched this entire episode in stunned silence, and when it was all over, I felt compelled question the tens of readers who enjoy this column: if you watch any of the CSI shows or know anybody who does, please, please explain why. Do people watch it out of ironic fascination, or do they think anything what appears on this show is in an honest, truthful, and insightful portrayal of police work? I keep reading things about CSI influencing and confusing juries, destroying cases, yet I can’t imagine anyone with half a brain watching these shows and taking them seriously. Please, enlighten me.