Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Undifferentiated Philosophies on "CSI"

In the Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist, I say that the team as a whole should have a group-philosophy of how they do things (often contrasted with a competing force pursuing the same goal), but the ensemble should also have philosophical differences with each other. The pilot of “CSI” does a great job with the former and a poor job with the latter.

In the pilot, every hero has the same philosophy, total empiricism, and they each boast about it. There are six statements of philosophy in the pilot, and they’re mostly interchangeable. Here’s the most prominent one:
  • Willows: The cops? Forget it, they wouldn’t know fingerprints from paw prints. The detectives? They just chase the lie. WE solve. We restore peace of mind, and when you’re a victim, that’s everything.
But even the new hire, who is learning about this world for the first time and not entirely happy about being there, complains about her situation by citing this same philosophy:
  • Brass: You're the fifth person I’ve been forced to hire. We’re the number two crime lab in the country. We solve crimes most labs render unsolvable. Now what makes you think you belong here?
  • Gribbs: Sir, with all due respect I thought the key to being a lucid crime scene investigator was to reserve judgment until the evidence vindicates or eliminates assumption. You’re prejudging me.
As we discussed last time this show has a lot of work to do to reset traditional cop-show expectations and prove to the audience that CSIs are valuable and interesting. One way it does so is to hit this philosophy over and over: this is why we’re following the “nerd squad” instead of the manly detective whom you might naturally put your trust in. But ultimately, the pilot focused too much on defining its cast in contrast to outside forces, and not enough time defining them in contrast to each other.

So let’s combine this with the problem from yesterday (the CSIs had to hand off the audience-satisfying arrests to non-characters) and look at how the show paired off these two problems and solved them at the same time.

As you may have noticed in the above quote, Jim Brass, the character played by Paul Guilfoyle, was the boss of the CSI team in this pilot. After the pilot was picked up, however, they quickly realized that it could not sustain a series with these two problems hanging over its head, so they came up with a simple solution: After Gribbs is killed, Brass is fired from the squad and made a homicide detective instead.

This turn of events is hard to buy, and it becomes even odder when Brass promptly forgets all of his scientific knowledge from that point on, but it’s an elegant solution to the problems of the pilot:
  • Now they have a member of the cast who can actually make the arrests, so that they don’t have to hand that task off to faceless characters.
  • Now that Brass is just a science-ignorant detective, they have someone to whom they can explain what they’re doing.
  • Now they have a member of the team who represents an opposing philosophy: Brass tries interrogation and brute force, while the others rely on evidence.
  • And now the show’s leading man, Grissom, could take Brass’s place as boss, placing him more naturally at the center of the show by putting the final decisions on his shoulders.
Instead of competing generically against “the cop point-of-view”, the CSIs are now competing specifically against Brass’s (newfound) distrust of their methods, and specifics are always better than generics.

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