CSI: The cop show that conquered the world

It's the show the critics don't bother with but the public can't get enough of - tales of forensic investigators going about their strangely compelling business in three of America's most photogenic cities. As the box-sets fly off the shelves, and the schedulers celebrate, Gerard Gilbert unlocks the secret of 'CSI'

I've had this conversation, or one like it, so many times this year that I've lost count. Other person (on learning that I write about television for a living): "So, is there anything good on TV now?"

Me: "Well, yes, did you see The Line of Beauty/Jane Eyre/Doctor Who/Peep Show/Extras... and of course you can't go far wrong with Curb Your Enthusiasm... "

Other (curbing their enthusiasm): "Yes, yes, but do you know what I watch?"

Me (with a creeping sense of inevitability): "Er, no."

Other: "CSI. I love it. CSI, CSI: Miami and now CSI: NY. But I think CSI: Miami is my favourite. In fact, I'm a bit addicted..."

These CSI addicts don't have the understandably haunted air of West Wing and Sopranos junkies, worried that their fix may end with a brutally swift network executive decision. CSI fans announce their habit with the quiet satisfaction of people who know what they like and like what they know. Their beloved shows don't attract the critical love-ins of 24 or Lost - after all, they are shown on Five (as most of us will never learn to call Channel 5).

Five may be edging ever closer to Channel 4 in terms of viewers, but Britain's youngest terrestrial channel still doesn't have C4's knack for getting its shows talked about. It's a non-vocal minority. And anyway, CSI fans would be right in not thinking of themselves as something special, as part of a cult. Far from it. In fact, they are engaging with the most popular TV shows on the planet. And you should tune into Five's digital offshoot Five US on 29 December, when it will screen five hours of CSI shows and a documentary, to find out all about it.

The similar but distinctive series that make up this franchise - CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY - are syndicated in 200 countries to a global audience of two billion. You have to go back as far as Baywatch for anything even remotely close to that kind of penetration. About 60 million Americans tune into the three shows every week, and it's single-handedly turned round the fortunes of its maker CBS, leaving the once-mighty NBC - purveyor of ER and Friends - looking to its laurels. ABC, which turned down CSI: Crime Scene Investigation because they reckoned it would be too complicated for the audience, were left feeling... well, you can imagine. It's like being the man who passed on The Beatles.

In the US, CSI dwarfs the likes of Desperate Housewives and Lost, the recent critical darlings of the UK media. Here, they provide Five with its three most popular programmes, by far. Last Tuesday, for example, nearly three million viewers tuned into CSI: Miami, while the other two CSI shows posted only slightly lower ratings. But this still means that a huge chunk of the UK viewing population is either ignorant of, or uninterested in, this TV phenomenon.

A little explication is probably in order. The original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation began in 2000 and followed the high-minded, resolutely logical Gil Grissom (played by the moderately successful film actor William Petersen), a father figure to the dedicated professionals of the Las Vegas Police Department Crime Lab. CSI eschewed the street-slogging, suspect-berating style of its forerunners NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues for forensic-led investigation - not so much a who-dunit as a howdunit. Grissom is more likely to pull an electronic spectrometer than a gun, and to utter lines like: "Based on the size of the fly lava he's been here three days," or: "The entrance wound says nine mil or a 38."

Viewers immediately took to the way these geeks got to solve crimes by, according to the show's catchphrase, "following the evidence". The critics agreed and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation alone has won six Golden Globes and 24 Emmys.

In 2002, the CSI franchise began to develop, setting up shop in Michael Mann's old stamping ground, Miami. Immediately the makers had another hit show on their hands. CSI: Miami was followed in 2004 by CSI: NY, viewers happily adding a third show to their weekly diet. Three hit shows on the trot - CSI has come an awfully long way since a struggling scriptwriter collecting tickets on the Las Vegas trams, Anthony Zuiker, first dreamt up the idea.

A large, bald and ebullient man with clipped beard and wrap-around tinted spectacles, Zuiker wouldn't be out of place at a science-fiction convention. Inspired by watching the OJ Simpson trial unfold on TV, Zuiker managed to persuade the real Vegas CSIs - then called Field Services but now, thanks to the show, actually called CSI - to allow him to shadow them for five weeks. This is a favour that would probably not now be granted, thanks to the popularity of his own creation. Everybody, it seems, from Britney Spears (reportedly wanting to swap her pop career for forensics) to eager school-leavers with no science education whatsoever, wants to get in on the crime scene investigation act.

Zuiker took his idea to Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood producer behind such action blockbusters as Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Con Air and Pearl Harbor. Bruckheimer recalled Zuiker's pitch ("You walk in and there's a dead lady on the floor, a plant knocked over and a pink elephant in the back yard - what happened?"), but above all he remembered his enthusiasm. A deal was struck.

"We started in 2000 and it was a success, but our ratings really shot up after the September 11 attacks," Zuiker says in a documentary about the CSI phenomenon to be aired at Christmas. "People were rushing to us for their comfort food. There was a sense of justice in CSI - it helped to know that there were people like our characters out there helping to solve crimes. And, of course, 9/11 was the world's largest crime scene."

There have been forensic crime dramas before - notably our own Silent Witness, in which Amanda Burton spouted medical jargon over mortuary slabs. What makes CSI so different?

You could start with the special effects. If a picture is worth a thousand words, CSI's microscopic tunnelling along gunshot wounds, or down the throat of a "vic" (that's CSI shorthand for victim; you soon pick up the jargon) are worth a hundred weighty expositions by characters in white coats. Dead babies, severed limbs, you name it - all are grist to the CSI mill. The only place they're unwilling to penetrate, apparently (for reasons of taste), is the human backside.

These cleverly filmed inserts not only bring to life what happens when a bullet rips through skin, bone and organ, and illustrate the significance of blood splatter or ripped fibres; they also move the story along as well as any conventional cop show car chase or shoot-out. The makers use tiny cameras and lenses, or else oversized props, to achieve their effects. CSI is never about showing off, and these bravura sequences play their part and swiftly exit the stage. But they leave the viewer with no doubt that they're in the presence of a TV series that wants to be bigger and bolder.

It's all about production values. Each episode of the three CSI shows costs $3m (about £1.5m) to make and takes eight days to shoot - and a season's filming lasts about 10 months. A lot of that money is up there on the screen, reminding you that the kingpin here is Bruckheimer, a man versed in Hollywood blockbusters and providing more bang for your buck.

TV, he's saying, need not look cramped and second fiddle to the big screen. "It's all about doing 'feature television'," Zuiker says. "We do 45-minute Bruckheimer-esque movies every week, with a level of editing and sound and pace unlike anything in motion pictures." CSI is a hybrid, and as such the more adventurous big-screen directors have been attracted to the show. The director of last season's double-episode finale of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was Quentin Tarantino.

But if the production values are new, then the dramas also depend on some old-fashioned storytelling virtues - like the heroic central protagonist. Each of the CSI teams is built around a male authority figure, starting out with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation's Gil Grissom. Part Sherlock Holmes and part Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grissom is a monk-like scientist given to lofty statements which, surprisingly or not, don't stop him being a bit of a hit with female viewers.

Our next hero was David Caruso, the former NYPD Blue star turned flop movie lead who had more or less given up acting to concentrate on a chain of upmarket clothing and furniture stores in Miami. The right man in the right place, Caruso may be a weedy-looking redhead, but the actor has the most macho murmur this side of Clint Eastwood. Famously given to removing his sunglasses to emphasise a point and breaking up his sentences with dramatic pauses ("We will... be in touch," or "Have a... nice day"), his character even shares a first name with England's most heroic naval officer. Lieutenant Horatio Caine is wide open to parody, but (depending on taste) he manages to remain on the heroic side of laughable.

And finally there is Gary Sinise in CSI: NY, the most modern and complex and the least archetypal of the trio, his greyness suiting the post-September 11 Manhattan location. In fact, the writers gave Sinise's character, Detective Mac Taylor, a shameless back-story; a wife who died in the twin towers. Man and the city as one.

Anyway, so there I was explaining all this to my wife when she gave a "harrumph" and said something along the lines of: "We all know why blokes tune into CSI - it's for the babes." She's not entirely right, but she has a point. The crime units of Vegas, Miami and New York do happen to be stocked with more than their fair share of beauties. I was reminded of Helen Mirren talking about how, when she first researched her Jane Tennison character in Prime Suspect, a lady copper told her that policewomen invariably wore their hair cut short so that criminals couldn't grab hold of their tresses in a fight. The females in CSI look like they've just had a full grooming session with Nicky Clarke.

But when it comes to glamour and CSI, the heroic males and leonine females take a back seat to the real stars of the shows - three of the most distinctive conurbations in America. "We cast a great city," says the executive producer Anne Donohue. "We let each city inform us and then we produce to that."

So it's no accident that CSI: Crime Scene Investigation takes place largely at night, in that neon-lit dreamers' paradise that is sin city, Las Vegas. CSI: Miami, by contrast, unfolds mostly in daytime, taking advantage of the hot colours, bright clothes and eternal sunshine. Each opening credits sequence is an aerial tour of its show's respective city, to pounding theme music from The Who ("Who Are You" in CSI and "Won't Get Fooled Again" in CSI: Miami, and "Baba O'Riley" in CSI: NY). No wonder Pete Townshend and the boys are currently on a sell-out tour of the States.

Bruckheimer encapsulates the show's appeal thus: "A combination of great writing and great casts and it's a show that's intriguing each week."

What he probably wouldn't disagree with is that CSI is not creatively cutting-edge TV in the manner of darker, grittier crime shows such as Homicide: Life on the Street or the Baltimore-based drugs drama The Wire. And, although care has been taken to differentiate the characters, they are not nearly as distinctive as the cops of NYPD Blue, or those of the most characterful crime series of them all, Steven Bochco's seminal Hill Street Blues, with its wonderful gallery of undercover nutcases, weathered beat cops and unscrupulous detectives.

The CSI shows are also heavily formulaic - CSI: Miami more so than the others - but they are always suspenseful, and there's invariably an interesting new angle. I know this because I write the TV listings for this newspaper, and each week I'm impressed by the original storylines the writers have conjured up. They apparently scour the tabloid press for inspiration, and talk endlessly to real-life crime investigators. Zuiker says: "If it's happened once, and it's cool, then it's in the show."

Such an endless search for novelty - and the many ways these criminologists find to solve cases (always within the hour) - has not been without repercussions in real life. The American public now demands the highest standard of forensic investigation, which is unreasonable because Zuiker's fictional CSI labs are the best equipped in the US, and his show has some of the most experienced criminologists working on it. "Forensic experts prefer to work on the show," Zuiker says. "It's better pay, for one thing."

In other words, life is struggling to imitate art. Juries have been acquitting accused murderers because they haven't seen the same standard of forensic evidence as they saw on CSI the night before - including last year's acquittal of the actor Robert Blake for the murder of his wife, despite the testimonies of 70 witnesses. And it's become almost standard for judges to lecture juries at the start of a trial that "they are not watching an episode of CSI".

Meanwhile, criminals are getting a crash course in crime scene destruction. Cases where crime scenes have been doused in bleach (bad news for the forensics folk, apparently) have gone from extremely rare to commonplace. On the positive side, there has been a huge increase in interest in forensic science ("From about five applications for forensics jobs a year to more than 5,000," Zuiker says) and some people claim to have detected - although this is unquantifiable - a surge of interest in science generally. Zuiker calls it the "CSI effect" and is hugely proud of his creation. "For the first time in American history," he says, "you're not allowed to fool the jury any more."

That's open to debate. But as the search for certainties pushes crime detection ever closer to Philip K Dick's imagined world of Minority Report, where people are accused of murders they haven't yet committed, does it finally signal, exactly 120 years after Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story, the death of the classic murder mystery story?

CSI: the Inside Story is on Five US on 29 December, as part of the channel's five-hour CSI evening

If it's good enough for Quentin Tarantino...

When Quentin Tarantino saw the pilot episode of CSI from the comfort of his sofa in Los Angeles, he thought it was destined to become his own personal obsession. "I'd been a big William Petersen fan, so when I switched to the show by accident, I thought, 'Wow, he's got a series,'" Tarantino recalls. "I thought it was this cool little show I'd found. My little secret."

How wrong he was. "In the next two weeks, CSI exploded into the greatest drama series since ER, and suddenly it was the biggest thing on TV. It plays all over the world. I even watched it in Beijing when I was making Kill Bill."

Six years later, Tarantino was persuaded to write and direct the two-hour final episode of CSI's fifth season. Yet he is only one of many stars to have pitched up on CSI, which now boasts more memorable cameos than any other show - aside from The Simpsons. Faye Dunaway and Tony Curtis (who played himself) have appeared. Kid Rock will star in an episode in May as the murderer of a limousine driver in New York.

Other names making their debut next season include Kevin Federline, Britney's estranged husband, while Roger Daltrey, whose group The Who provide CSI's theme music, will jollify proceedings as a killer who keeps changing his appearance - from a karaoke-crooning killer to a Spanish fisherman and finally to a middle-aged Afro-American woman. They are all obsessive fans.

Equally gripped are British celebrities from Lorraine Kelly to Naomi Campbell, and Graham Norton to Jemma Kidd. Ronnie Wood invited the show's stars to his art exhibition. Kirsty Young likes the way the directors "make the boring bits sexy", while the impressionist Jon Culshaw reckons: "It's the eternal slickness of it, which is almost comic. I'm sure there's a strong element self-parody there." But the queen bee of CSI fans is Liza Minnelli, who is said to have turned to the show during her separation from David Gest. Any resemblance between Gest and a CSI murder victim is, of course, purely coincidental.

Guy Adams

Death by 'CSI'

Ohmygod! Now my wife knows exactly how to murder me and get away with it! By Brian Sack

I like to think that I married well, and that my wife is unlikely to kill me. That said, through her passion for forensic programmes, my wife is now a criminal mastermind. The odds of her killing me and getting away with it are much higher now than when all she watched was Curb Your Enthusiasm. What follows is a hypothetical attempt to determine her course of action in the unlikely event that she were to become homicidally enraged.

SCENARIO

I'm in the kitchen enjoying a delicious Polish wafer. I'm looking out at a trendy 24-hour café. My wife enters, notices I haven't cleaned the cooker as she'd asked, and, enraged, decides to kill me.

HER OPTIONS

BLUDGEONING The kitchen is filled with blunt and potentially lethal instruments. However, my wife knows that bludgeoning is a messy endeavour and can leave a variety of telltale signs, no matter how good she is at disposing of my body. Thanks to her forensic training, she'd be concerned about blood spatter patterns that might not only tarnish the newly-remodelled kitchen, but also indicate angle of attack as well as velocity of impact. Investigators could determine the height and strength of the attacker. In addition, she may unwittingly leave fingerprints on the instrument, as well as skin and bone fragments from my head. She knows full well that details like that would turn a missing-persons case into a homicide investigation. She wouldn't want that. Therefore, I do not believe my wife would bludgeon me, how ever dirty the cooker.

GUNSHOT I'd be surprised to be shot by my wife, for two reasons. One, she's my wife and she says she likes me. Two, she knows better. A gunshot would alert our neighbours. In addition, the horrifically trendy 24-hour cafe across the street could provide a slew of pretentious eye-witnesses.

A gunshot is likely to produce lots of blood, which she knows bleach can help get rid of, but which she also knows can be detected using Luminol illuminated with a black light, no matter how much she scrubs.

Certainly there would be a great deal of irony in my wife shooting me for not cleaning the cooker and making a bloody mess in the process. Besides, if she's going to spend all that time scrubbing bloodstains, why not clean the cooker herself?

STABBING Quieter, but still could leave plenty of blood. Part of the reason criminals get caught is they don't realise there's a whole world not visible to the naked eye. Thanks to forensic TV programming, my wife is now pretty much aware of this. There are also angle-of-attack and strength issues that could pinpoint her. Therefore, I would not expect my wife to stab me and I'd prefer she didn't, thank you.

SMOTHERING One of the cleaner ways to go, but my wife knows that smothering me with a plastic bag could leave impressions on the bag, mainly of her hands and my shocked expression. There's also the fact that I'm very tall and she is very not. In fact,if I was unable to keep my petite wife from smothering me, I'd deserve it just for being weak.

POISONING Here, I start to get worried. She's well aware that poisoning can be quiet, clean and undetectable. She's also aware that some poisons can be bought over the counter, and knows she shouldn't mix them with kitchen utensils, as they may leave a tell-tale residue. But, I too watched the episode where a husband was slowly poisoned via his wife's soup. I'm confident that if I started collapsing and soiling myself every time I ate a delicious Polish wafer I'd catch on.

THE ACCIDENT Bingo! My wife knows that deaths by supposed happenstance are the toughest to prove. Assuming she's taken everything she's learnt into account, she'd be able to create a plausible scenario for my demise - one free from tell-tale fibres, incriminating receipts, fingerprints, bloodstains, witnesses and most importantly, my body.

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