Sunday, February 18, 2007

In defense (well, sort of...) of CSI

I rent seasons of CSI (the original, William Petersen-having one) and watch them, compulsively, several episodes at a time. Many people don't like this show, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. It's terrible-- so formulaic, so contrived, so predictable. Like most TV crime shows, its dramatic success depends on the characters "TAKING! IT! PERSONALLY!" Grissom's quips and puns, most of them relating to a victim's cause of death, which are meant to be endearing, are in fact formulaic, contrived, and predictable-- are we noticing a pattern here? Also, has anyone else ever doubted that such a large number of intricate, elaborate, and complicated crimes happen in Las Vegas? In Edmonton, there are plenty of murders, but they tend to be stabbings in bars, and then when the police come, a guy holding a bloody knife says something along the lines of, "yeah, i murdered him/them. I was drunk and/or we had a fight and/or it was gang-related."

Given my acceptance of the fact that CSI is not good, why do I keep watching it? I have been asking myself this question recently as I work my way through season 6. I believe there are two answers. First, all TV shows require a certain amount of concentration, and that amount varies according to the show. Battlestar Galactica requires enough attention that I don't like to do other things while I watch it. CSI requires the perfect amount of attention for me to watch: ie., not very much. I don't really care what happens, whatever happens is probably basically the same as what happened last time, and the show makes everything obvious enough that you don't have to focus. The characters' relationships, such as they are, are sketched in the barest possible terms to be still recognizable as relationships. There are science montages that take up quite a bit of time which you can just ignore. You can watch CSI while doing almost anything else and the show will not punish you.

The second thing I like about CSI is that I have almost come to admire the way this show is made. It is lowest-common-denominator film (TV)- making, Bruckheimer at the top of his game. The viewer doesn't have to do any cognitive work because everything has already been thought out for them. The music and the editing tell you what you are supposed to feel, when you are supposed to feel it. I think this whole theory of making TV can be summed up in that shot in the opening credits, when we see the whole CSI team walking under some yellow police tape. The wind is blowing in their hair, and they are in slow motion, and the theme song plays, and if you stop to think about it, what you think is this: "How did this show manage to trick me into believing that forensics investigation is a glamorous, sexy job, that these people grapple with the weight of justice and progress and modernity on a daily basis-- and yet, that they are so well-balanced that this epic struggle seldom tired and never defeats them?" The answer is in that shot. I have stopped resenting being manipulated. Instead, when I start to cry over an officer-involved shooting or ponder the dynamics of the Sarah/Grissom relationship (Will they? won't they?), I just let myself be carried away. I will be CSI's ideal audience, never questioning the fantasy the show has constructed around heroism and the value of science.

But as I watch, I will probably be doing something else at the same time.

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