C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation

C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Zack Handlen drops in on the original CBS procedural, C.S.I. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff watches a week of The Young And The Restless.)

Have you ever seen a human corpse? I have. Once in person. I was thirteen or fourteen, and my mother's father passed away, and there was an open casket for the wake. There were carpeted stairs you had to climb at the funeral home, and they were very light pink, the sort of color that apologizes when you notice it, and the wallpaper had flowers, very tasteful. It was a quiet building. There was a hallway, and I tried to make up my mind how I was going to handle this, because--well, because I'd already burst into tears when Dad said Grampa was dead, and there was no way I was going to do that in front of everyone. And then we turned into a room and there was the coffin and there was the corpse. Somebody I couldn't see because they were already gone punched me in the stomach so hard and of course I cried. But it wasn't... it wasn't a big moment. I make it sound dramatic, I make it a story, and I've made it a story before. But it was just this thing that happened, and after I stopped crying we stood around in the back of the room talking to relatives. Eventually, Mom and and my sister and I walked over to the corpse, and we said good-bye. There was a lot of rouge on the cheeks and the skin was pasty, but sure, it looked like my grandfather, and no, it didn't look like he was sleeping. I thought about kissing the forehead, but I chickened out. 

I've seen corpses in photos, too, like I'm sure nearly everyone has. They aren't hard to find. But I did take a Forensics class in college, and during one class, the professor invited the chief medical examiner of a Boston hospital to come in and show us crime scene photos. Not everyone lasted the whole period. There were pictures of dead babies, bloated like lumpy, under-inflated basketballs. The photos I remember best are of suicides who constructed elaborate methods of killing themselves, and the sick joke of it was, those methods had obviously worked, but never as efficiently or quickly as the builder had intended. Like the guys (and there was more than one) who put together homemade guillotines, only they failed to allow sufficient distance for the blade to work up speed, and wound up bleeding out with a chunk of metal lodged halfway into their throats. It was unsettling, and gross, and called into play all the usual questions about mortality and inevitability and the failures of flesh. But it was also pathetic. All the bodies in these pictures, and my grandfather's body in its coffin, they looked pathetic, in a miserable, stupid way that has nothing to do with love or compassion or pity. They were pathetic because there was no point to them anymore. They were just junk.

I've never watched an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation before, and I'm not exactly sure why. No, wait--Jerry Bruckheimer produces it, and I really can't stand his style of film-making, or the way he's translated that style to television. The ads show lots of rooms full of reds and blues and greens and people spouting hilariously cliched dialog, and the few times I did try and tune in, it was always some beautiful dead woman having her picture taken which is, let's face it, sort of a weird runner of modern procedural television. I started calling it the Sexy Corpse Show, or somebody else did and I copied them, and I still think it's unnerving how often shows like this (and really, CSI is responsible for this whole TV genre now, it being so insanely popular and all) often fetishize bodies, giving us corpses that somehow still retain their sexiness as they lay splayed out in a junkyard, frozen in some horribly suggestive pose. There's nothing like that in tonight's episode, "Father of the Bride," so I won't get into it too much, but I don't think it says much nice about us as a culture, and as I get older, I have a harder time watching shows like this and shrugging off the subtext. 

Like I said, though, nothing like that is on display in "Bride" (there are plenty of corpses here, but none of them are pretty), and I'm glad for that. Because I had a fair amount of fun watching this episode, and in enjoying it, I found myself rethinking some of my assumptions about why we, as a culture, seem to take so much pleasure in seeing serious people solving ridiculous crimes. Because, let's face it, this is all really silly, and no amount of Sturm und Drang from Laurence Fishburne is going to make any of it matter too terribly. Once again, I've jumped into a CBS cop show and randomly found myself watching a mythology episodewithout any real notion of who the players are, or what the history is, but "Bride" does a very good job of catching me up to speed. That's one thing nearly all of these shows do well; delivering lots of exposition in discrete chunks, so that even if I'm a little off-balance for the first five minutes, by the time the shit starts getting real, I've found solid footing. It can be repetitive at times, and I can't imagine how it would play for a loyal viewer whose been taking notes all these years, but me, I was grateful for the hand-holding.

What we've got here is a Hannibal, a magical serial killer who can seemingly manipulate time and space in order to achieve his vile whims, despite the sizable handicap of being, y'know, basically fucking insane. (Sorry, language. But I find this concept so hilarious. Hannibal Lecter was pure fantasy. There are real serial killers. Some of them are even clever, and manage to get away for a very long time. But serial killers are crazy, and inherently incapable of the kind of elaborate, thematically rich, endlessly inventive planning that they manage in movies and TV. It's fiction and all, so it'd be silly to get worked up about it, but it does create this imbalance in which we find ourselves actually impressed by the guy, and maybe a little envious. Hard to imagine a sane person envying Jeffrey Dahmer.) His name is Nate Haskell, and he escaped from prison a while back with the help of his harem of brides. Now he's back, sending videos to Avery Tinsdale (Bruce Davison), the father of Vivian Tinsdale (Kate Blumberg), one of Haskell's accomplices. While Dr. Raymond Langston (Fishburne) and Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) try to determine just what the videos mean, other members of the team work on solving a seemingly unrelated case involving a man and woman's body parts discovered in a barn outside the city. (This is all set in Las Vegas, in case you somehow didn't know, although Vegas color doesn't feature a lot in this particular ep.)

A lot of groups have protested CSI over the years; the Parents Television Council has spent a lot of time and effort objecting to the show's graphic violence and sexual content. There's not much in the way of sex here, outside a silly plastic surgeon's wife trying to hit on one of the heroes, but there's definitely violence, or at least the after-effects of violence, and it's definitely graphic. The various body parts and maggot-infested crime scenes are shot with a loving precision and attention to detail, including helpful close-ups on the torn flesh and rotting skin, and while it's not what I'd call erotic, there's definitely a sense of reveling in the carnage, of saying "This is disgusting, here, look closer." As someone who grew up on horror movies (and still has a fondness for them, including slasher films, which at their worst are far more hateful and off-putting than anything you'd see on network), I didn't mind it. It was kind of fun, in its way, and I could see people who don't usually watch horror movies getting even more of a kick out of it. It makes all the absurdity of the story-telling easier to take, because it's not like anyone is pretending here that this is great art. It's pulp, and not all of the pulp is paper.

The show has also dealt with protests from law enforcement agencies which object to its depiction of police and forensics work, and I think it's safe to say that they are one hundred percent correct in the substance of their complaints. I mean, I don't really know how a forensic unit actually works, but I couldn't figure out who were the regular cops here and who were the scientists, if there was even any distinction; people ran tests and did field work with equal conviction, as if they existed in some magical world where it would be possible to find the time to go raiding hide-outs and performing the exhaustive technical work that's required to find these hide-outs. And there's the fact that all their tech seems to have been ported over from the Enterprise, and that no test takes longer than five, ten minutes to run through. Everything is basically magic, and everyone can do what needs to be done, and the only people who cause problems about due process and legal ramifications are the sleazy lawyers that infest shows like this like termites in the True Cross. I can imagine being put off by all the short-cutting, but I can't in my heart take the show to task for it. Because this is supposed to be fantasy, and unlike, say, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the goofy lighting and bombastic music cues give away the game right up front. 

And if they didn't, the plotting would. So, and this is going to shock the hell out of you, it turns out that the corpse chunks on the farm actually are related to the Haskell case. There's a complicated explanation here involving Haskell using plastic surgery to build a new face, then leaving town and sending two of his brides to take care of the plastic surgeon and the surgeon's nurse. One bride turns on the other, which is why Vivian's corpse winds up at Haskell's last known-address, but before she got corpsed, she helped Haskell make videos to send to her father. Mr. Tinsdale, it seems, is a very bad man, who did some awful things to his little girl, and he ends up killing himself when Haskell threatens to send the cops proof of his crimes. The end of the episode is a cliffhanger, with Haskell and his surviving bride, Tina, watching a Bach concerto (referenced earlier in the episode, so it all fits!) in Los Angeles, admiring the player, and scowling at the player's wife, Dean Norris. (aka Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad)

This is a two-parter, and you're only getting a review of the first half. I hope you'll be okay with this, all of you out there on the other side of the computer screens. As it stands, the hour passed far easily than I thought it would. I like Fishburne a lot, and the rest of the cast was, well, present. The cliches were palatable, and the story moved at a good clip. Although, considering this is a "To Be Continued...," it did feel a little filler-ish by the end. By the time Langston and Stokes arrive at that first crime scene in the cold open, all the damage has been done and the bad guy has moved to another city. That's not a bad conceit, and I did enjoy when Langston put all the pieces together (complete with a Vertigo-inspired camera move, which I can only hope is this show's equivalent of Hugh Laurie's epiphany-face on House), but the fact is, this is an ep that uses molestation and child abuse as a throw-away plot-point. That's upsetting, and takes away a lot of the fun. Plus, there are a few scenes with Langston getting all intense, and Willows talking him down, that seem to be there just to satisfy the "This is the one case that pushes me over the edge!" quota. Not awful, and it may pay off down the road, but not great.

Still, I expected coming into this that I'd have a lot of snarky things to say about it, but while I do have my criticisms, and I do still think it's a goofy ass show, I found a certain respect for it by the end. It's very efficient in what it does, for one. But more importantly... Well, I mentioned those corpses I've seen, and how upsetting it is to see dead people because they're just waste product. Whatever poetry was in them is gone for good. While I wouldn't say that CSI has much poetry to it, it does provide something more than sexing up mortality. The whole concept of the show hinges on a team of smart people who use clues to reconstruct the past in order to solve crimes. Calm, brilliant experts who walk into the aftermath of a traumatic event and instantly make confident assessments on times of death, blood spatter angles, the gender of a severed hand. Throughout the episode, we're treated to imagined visions of that past, to brief re-enactments of people driving away, or shooting each other, and it makes all those hunks of flesh on the autopsy table into more than just trash. It makes them pieces in a puzzle, tools to uncover a larger picture. This is a show that sells the lie that every event in life is verifiable, that each one can be tracked and charted by the marks left behind, be those marks blood or bullets or meat. It sweet talks us with the comforting untruth that violence is a simple line of cause and effect, put together by a bad man who will be tracked to his lair and, eventually, taken down. It lets us pretend that no crime goes unpunished for long, because everything leaves a mark. And while I'm not sure this the sort of lie that makes for great television, I can't deny that it passes the time.

Stray Observations:

  • The farmer who owns the corpse-filled barn was played by Raymond J. Barry, none other than Arlo Givens from Justified. He doesn't get much to do here, but it's nice to see him.
  • This is the kind of show where if you see a haystack, you wait for the needles joke.

More TV Club