How Miami made crime pay

While 'The Wire' has caused anger in Baltimore, 'CSI Miami' celebrates its host city, even if it is mostly shot in California. Sophie Morris flies in

Impossibly blue sea? Check. Improbably cloud-free sky? Check. Soaring pan of the Miami skyline, taking in the powerboats and mansions of Star Island's celebrity residences and the art deco luxe and trashy beach-life of Ocean Drive? Check. All that is missing to complete the CSI: Miami formula is a sympathetic close up of David Caruso as Lieutenant Horatio Caine, working his on/off sunglasses move and dropping a deadpan one-liner at the scene of a new murder.

It all sounds so simple. But CSI: Miami is ahead of the mob when it comes to "police procedurals", as the genre is known. The show came top in a survey of the most popular shows in the world, beating Lost and Desperate Housewives and even its own precursor, CSI, which was placed sixth. In the UK, CSI: Miami routinely pulls in bumper audiences for Five. DVD sales are big business too because fans like to collect and keep their favourite shows. The CSI juggernaut has already shifted a staggering 400 million discs, 700,000 of these last year alone.

The original CSI (which stands, of course, for crime scene investigation) is set in Las Vegas and began in 2000. Miami came in 2002, followed by CSI:NY in 2004. Arguably this makes the success of the Miami show all the more impressive. How did a spin off show, with "crudely drawn characters and numbingly silly dialogue" as Glenn Garvin, television critic of The Miami Herald, puts it, develop such a consistent following?

The secret lies in the location. "I credit the city itself," says the series producer and director Sam Hill. "The seafront and the colours are breathtakingly gorgeous, and we take care to bring that out." They have to, given that 90 per cent of the show is actually shot in California. "They do a pretty good job of simulation," says Garvin, "blending in B-roll environmental shots and the occasional location scene with stuff that looks like it could be Miami." They even run up costs making those swooping ocean shots the colour of the water in Florida.

Of the many films and television series set in Miami, it is the violent, thrilling crime stories that stick in the mind. Scarface captured the onset of the cocaine-driven crimewave in the early Eighties, but it was Miami Vice which set the tone for the Floridian metropolis. Add to this the films True Lies and Bad Boys and the newer television dramas Dexter and Burn Notice, and it becomes clear why Miami has made a name for itself – if not for glamorizing violence, at least providing it with an amenable backdrop. Hill insists CSI: Miami is not piggy backing on the success of Miami Vice nor trying to outshine it, but recognises the part the older show has played in US television culture. "It can't hurt," he admits.

All of these productions, bar Scarface, are notoriously improbable; they are slick, flashy, fast-paced shows with none of the seedy downtrodden drudgery of real crime. In CSI: Miami, murders occur at an all-American swimming contest, a wedding and on a modeling catwalk. The suspects are football players, nannies and teachers. The clues are pieced together using futuristic forensic technology which is unlikely that a state police department would be able to afford. One murder weapon is the mythical DX4, a gun capable of shooting 100,000 bullets in a single minute, known as "the vaporiser" thanks to the scant remains of its victims.

This isn't to say that all crime in Miami is fictional. In the early 1990s, the city had the reputation of a no-go area for European tourists after a number of shootings. Garvin says that while Miami Vice exaggerated the issues, "it's not as if there were no truthful elements to it". He added: "We do have narco-traffickers here, we do have a lot of crime here, we do have a lot of dissolute glamtrash on South Beach."

What makes CSI: Miami so palatable, and explains its popularity, is that it avoids subtext and overrides all possible nuance. Clear lines are drawn between good and evil, resulting in a show which dabbles with danger but is entirely unthreatening. The original CSI has the glitz of Vegas but no beach. CSI:NY offers more realistic characters and ambiguity. In CSI: Miami, the investigators are all Hollywood beautiful with perfect physiques, except the star, David Caruso, who plays the team's fair-handed father. "His idiosyncrasies are mesmerising," explains Hill on Caruso's dubious appeal. "Caruso is one of those people you just want to watch."

According to Garvin, the Miami tourist office is aware that big shows like CSI: Miami bring in the bucks. He says that the state subsidised the making of Dexter, in which a police technician moonlights as a serial killer, to the tune of $450,000 (£300,000). Another subsidy of $3m for the third series of Burn Notice, an espionage drama, was announced earlier this year.

Such generous municipal support is in stark contrast to the long struggle The Wire creator David Simon fought to get his show made in Baltimore. The Wire's five-season epic shines a spotlight on every facet of Baltimore society the authorities wished to hide, and Baltimore's mayor hated it. But Simon was not in the business of creating a hit show; he had a story to tell.

"If the dollars were really the point then The Wire would have had more women with longer legs and larger breasts, and there would have been a car chase or two, and shit would have blown up in a real good fireball in every episode," he has written.

All of this happens in most episodes of CSI: Miami but the cops are resolutely the good guys and Caruso always gets his man. Hill says that much of the show's appeal across borders and cultures is down to the fundamental story structure: "every culture has puzzles and human beings like them."

But where The Wire's open-ended puzzles are terrifying, bleak and exasperating, the closure achieved with each episode of CSI: Miami makes it, for all the shooting and icky post mortems, a comforting watch.

When the British Airways check in assistant learns the reason for my visit to her city she looks worried. "I'm a local Miami girl," she protests, "and shows like Miami Vice have given the city a bad name in the past." But CSI: Miami is having the opposite effect.

CSI: Miami 6.1 is released on DVD today

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