Why I Prefer CSI: Las Vegas (Even Though I Don't Watch It Anymore)

Recently in my folklore course (yes, it went forward this semester!), I discussed regionalism. I got out a few episodes of CSI: Miami and CSI: New York plus the ones I own of CSI: LV. I showed the beginning portion of an episode from all three to illustrate that although the shows are all shot in California (interspliced with outside shots), each show attempts to differentiate itself from the others with a particular look or feel. My question was "How does each opening portray the city/region in question?" and "Is that portrayal accurate? Is that how we perceive those cities/regions?"

Before I go on, to answer the first question:

CSI: LV is all glitz and glamour and lights in the darkness. CSI: Miami is all supersaturated colors (as one student put it) and bikinis. CSI: NY is blue tones and grit.

I also learned that I still prefer CSI: LV to the others.

CSI: Miami does have David Caruso going for it. I know, I know, people tend to love or loathe him. I don't love him, but I always get a kick out of compact, lithe men without exceptional looks who manage to be absolutely, fantastically sexy (Peter Falk is another good example). And Caruso is magnetic enough to hold center stage. The episodes (at least the ones I watched) tend to be all about him.

They also tend to be about drug dealing and immigration issues. Yawn. Drug dealing, the mafia, and immigration issues bore me silly. If I'm called upon to have opinions about drugs, the mafia, and immigration, sure, I'll come up with some. As the basis for narratives, especially mystery narratives, I so don't care.

CSI: NY puzzles me. It ought to be great, and it isn't. Understand, I adore Gary Sinise, so I really hate to write this, but I think Gary Sinise is more of a supporting than a lead actor. And I think the CSI writers/directors/producers must have known this because they surrounded him (and I mean, surrounded) with rampaging individualists (without clear personalities).

This doesn't work; it's too many characters pulling in too many directions. The great thing about CSI: LV is that the characters are distinct but still function as a single unit. I don't necessarily mean plot-wise. CSI: LV is known for running at least two mysteries per episode. But the characters themselves are types who never function beyond what the group requires. Warwick is the gambling cool guy; Greg is the crazy lab boy; Nick is the newbie (not really, but he acts like it); Katherine is the sassy/ex-stripper mom; Sarah is the troubled youth chick; Grissom is the father-figure nerd; Brass is laconic.

There's something to be said for stereotyping or, at least, typing. Homer was right when he created "grey-eyed Athena" and "cunning Odysseus". Establish your characters: move on to the mystery! In his book How Fiction Works, James Woods points out that fictionally-speaking there is nothing intrinsically meritorious about creating fully-fleshed out characters. Dickens and Austen created brush-stroke characters all the time, but those characters were just as vital and interesting as supposedly more "real" characters.

The other great thing about CSI: LV is that most of the mysteries are domestic. There's the episode about the son who steals his father's paintings, and the Agatha-Christie story about the bank robbers who kill each other off. There's the murder on the plane; there's the lady buried in the foundations of the house (one of my favorites). There's a few mafia-type crimes, but most LV mysteries are local and personal. Despite the Vegas setting, there's no overt attempt to be regional in the plots. Actually, I have to take that back; the underlying theme of CSI: LV has always seemed to be "all the strange people in the world come to Vegas" or (as another of my students put it), "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

But Miami and NY try too hard to do episodes about MIAMI-TYPE CRIMES (such as drugs) and NY-TYPE CRIMES (such as the stock market), and I just don't see that it works. CSI: LV is still the winner (even if I don't watch it anymore).

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