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10 On TV Drama #1: CSI [Las Vegas]


When Bang2write first started, I got nearly without exception only features. These days I get a lot of shorts and competition entries (I read a lot of Red Planet ten-pagers for example) as well as proposals, treatments and even short stories that scribes write for themselves so they can “know their story and characters inside out” which I think is a particularly good idea.

In the last year, TV Drama has become a big thing amongst my Bang2writers. With every week that passes I get at least one TV Drama Pilot, sometimes with a Bible attached, sometimes without. Because of this then, I thought it might be an idea to explore what I think makes “good” TV drama and why. [Before I begin though, a note to the purists and soap snobs: I will be looking at both US and UK, continuing drama, as well as series, from two and four episode runs through to twenty two.]

I only started watching Crime Scene Investigation this January; as a tech-no-hoper I only got a digibox for Christmas and whilst I noticed the buzz when this series started around the beginning of the noughties, I didn’t concern myself with it – I couldn’t get Channel 5 after all. Besides, as an avid crime drama fan growing up watching Cracker, Silent Witness, The Vice, Messiah etc how good could some US rip-off be? I thought I had seen it all. So imagine my surprise when not only was CSI watchable, I actively liked it. A lot. Not because the cases were in themselves were inexplicable and intriguing (though many were), but because of its characterisation.

It’s this that I think separates television from its feature sibling: it invests far more in the people whom we watch, as opposed to plot, which of course is important but plays second fiddle. It has to; a TV Drama has to keep us interested over literally hundreds of hours sometimes, bringing us back for more and more. In the case of CSI, we’ve had pretty much the same characters (I don’t think any have left, though it’s difficult to tell when you watch them out of sync like I do on C5’s CSI:Sunday), enacting the same formula for seven years now (two storylines, one team of two taking one, another taking the other, the one at the beginning before the credits usually being the major with the lesser storyline *usually* resolving around the third break, though sometimes the two meld as the plot thickens). A lesser programme would have to rely on sensationalistic tactics to keep viewers engaged and whilst I was disappointed in a slightly dodgy fantasy sequence in the last episode of this current series just past, generally this is not the case (for those of you who missed it and don’t mind the spoiler, the creepy Doll Killer who abducted Sara and put her under the car stabbed Grissom in the throat in the interrogation room, only for it to be revealed seconds later it was in her mind’s eye. Bad CSI!).

So what works for me then is not CSI’s structure or even the fact that I can guess whodunnit and act superior to my husband when I am right and he never is.

It’s the fact the investigators of CSI are a family.

Think about it:

First we have Grissom. He’s got serious emotional issues and he’s as close to a Dad the team are ever going to have. He’s the kind of father that always says “ask your mother” because he’s always tied up with something – bugs mostly or sometimes, proving someone else wrong. He’s not a team player, he’s a leader and he’s a good one if people could ever notice that and not the fact he has so many bizarre quirks that are at best gross – like storing blood in the team’s lunch refrigerator because the lab one is full. For Grissom, science is paramount as is The Truth. One episode he discovered a girl had not been murdered, but had been killed in a freak accident – which her parents were unable to accept. He was unable to understand why they could not face the truth, preferring instead to believe an unnamed assailant had killed their child, not realising that a real parent would find the truth unpalatable – you raise your kid just so they can die in a completely pointless way? From here then–

–We have Catherine. A mom in the literal sense – Lindsay her daughter is her life and she references her constantly, sometimes letting her love for her own child skew the science in front of her: there have been numerous times Catherine has had to apologise to suspects on the basis she has jumped to conclusions. An ex-exotic dancer, Catherine is not privileged and is the poster girl for “Sisters Doin’ It For Themselves.” Despite this however, Catherine is wary of Sara; she finds her as strange and bizarre as she finds Grissom, whom she believes is woefully out of touch with reality and real people. In a similar way then, Catherine asks Sara once “Since when did you care about your appearance?” when Sara asks for a pocket mirror. Catherine’s right however – Sara doesn’t want the pocket mirror to look at her own reflection, but for a case. Which is why–

–Sara is the female Grissom. Like “father” like “daughter”, Sara is a little strange, often in a world of her own. She’s a vegetarian, very opinionated and like Grissom, lives for her work – on more than one occasion she has asked for extensions so she can carry on cases or go out into the field more. She’s not one to ask why, but join in: when Grissom asks her if she’s brought her lunch in and has a pickle, she immediately gives it to him so he can barbeque it with barely a murmur: if it’s for science, then it must okay. Unlike Grissom however, Sara is much more emotional and prone to outbursts, particularly those directed against Grissom himself. What is especially clever here however is that it’s Sara, not Catherine (like an audience might expect), who loves Grissom and he too loves her and it’s this “will they-won’t they” mentality that fuels their relationship, in opposition to–

Warwick, Grissom’s blue-eyed boy. Towards the beginning of CSI, much was made of Grissom’s favouritism of Warwick; whilst Warwick is a good CSI, he is deeply flawed and as a “big brother” to Sara, makes more mistakes than her yet infurtiatingly, seems to get away with it. It was him who was placing a bet when there-just-to-get-killed-character Holly was murdered at a crime scene; similarly he has compromised evidence on several occasions. Both Catherine and Sara have an uneasy relationship with Warwick at times; Sara was the one who investigated Warwick’s betting on the job and of course Catherine believes another should be held in higher regard, since he is

Nick, the middle “forgotten” child. Nick is an excellent CSI but like Catherine is prone to prejudice. In one episode he and Grissom attend a convention of little people where one has been murdered and another reminds Nick that it is him who should be altering his perspective. Unlike some of the more hot-headed members of the team however, Nick takes criticism on board well and later in the episode does just what the little person recommended – viewing the crime scene from his knees, the height of that murderer. Predictably, Nick relates best to Catherine, not Grissom and even confesses to her in another episode that the reason he was being off with one suspect is that because he too was abused as a child, something he has never told anyone before. Bringing us on to–

Captain Brass, ol’ Grandpa. More of a secondary character to the “main” team, Captain Brass was around before science, he’s old school. DNA? Pah! He’ll trust gut feeling every time. He will use science to his own advantage of course, it’s there after all, but there has been more than one occasion where he has been at loggerheads with the rest of the team, based solely on a hunch. He’s damn good at his job but has secrets of his own – such as his own daughter Elly’s true parentage and the reasons why they are estranged. At the end of the day, he and the rest of the team are a generation apart, especially when we’re talking about–

Greg, the cousin/best friend everyone has a go at. Like Captain Brass, Greg is more of a secondary character in that he rarely has a starring role in the proceedings of CSI, but his contribution is always important – if he didn’t stop joking around. Grissom often tells him to stop playing his music in the lab and Greg is chastised most episodes for playing games when revealing the results of various tests, like in one episode when he insists on showing the matches for DNA samples in an abuse case in the style of blackjack cards which particularly disgusts Warren (methinks he doth protest too much?!). Despite this, Sara in particular can be found hanging around Greg waiting for results and sparring with him in a love-to-hate way.

So there you have it – the major characters of Crime Scene Investigation and why they work for me. I think the key to good characterisation is giving them “multi layers”, rather than single, obvious role functions alone. End of the day, it all boils down to this: we all have stories – so should your characters. By studying those successful dramas that keep people interested, we can unlock some of those stories and characters already out there.

Any thoughts?

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13 thoughts on “10 On TV Drama #1: CSI [Las Vegas]”

  1. Indeed, as you say characters are vital in telly land, and it’s not just the characters as individuals, it’s the ensemble.

    Maybe that’s part of the appeal – it’s a virtual family/gang/peer group to the audience, a place to go where everybody knows yr name. Alot of TV Drama ends up focusing on this group cohesion – Hustle and Buffy, for example, have had major season finale plot lines focusing on threats to break up the groups.

    Buffy even had a story called “Family” in which a charcter is accepted into the group, climaxing with Buffy telling her parents “WE’RE her family.”

    Sometimes this cult of the ensemble gets creepy – In Friends, any outsider who tried to break up the group (eg by marrying one of the friends) was regarded with suspition and hostility. In Life on Mars, Sam even kills himself* to get back to the group.


  2. Mmm, you chose the best CSI (NY has just got sillier and sillier, Miami is prone to fill-in-the-time arty camera work and one-liners that sould significant, but aren’t).

    The daddy was Hill St Blues, of course, they really broke the interchangeable episode rule with their continuing storylines and ensemble cast as well as the crime of the week. (Cagney & Lacey was the mummy 🙂 with continuing storylines but lacked an ensemble cast.)

    You know a TV show has really established itself when, as CSI:LV has done, they do an episode where the main characters are peripheral.

    But, yes, it’s character, always character. And it’s the characters that give a show legs — and without legs it doesn’t get commissioned (well, shouldn’t anyway).

    (No “probably” about Life on Mars, it’s official that he killed himself. Bloody stupid. I don’t mind that it was a dream, but that was a cop-out. Pun intended.)

  3. Martin – know exactly what you mean, sometimes the ensemble can get too much and that’s when you know a particular show has had its day.

    Steve – I wasn’t fond of that conclusion either, but for me the whole thing was a little “Quantum Leap”… I was born right at the end of the 70s, literally moments before the 80s really so whilst my parents were going on about LoM’s “resonance”, it was just before my time. But even without that, as an 80s kid, I’d grown up with time travel/dreamworld narratives as standard, from Krull to Neverending Story to Thomas Covenant to Labyrinth…then started my script reading career where all I read that summer WAS time travel. I was a little fatigued by it all. Having said that, there was some great writing on board the show… I wonder if it would have benefited from just the one series though, with people to make their own conclusions about how he got to the 1970s?

  4. Funny you should say that Anya, ‘cos I love him too! He may be ginger and have the corny one-liners but there’s something about him and no mistake… Stand by for a post devoted to both CSI:NY and CSI:Miami actually sometime in this series. It may be the next one. Or it may be not. Who knows? Man I’m so wild.

    Behold the CSI pic… Finally figured out how to put pictures in posts, only been on Blogger for nearly a year!

  5. darren (formerly eat my shorts)

    Yeah, but what about Xmas? And Lilirose’s Christening that you STILL haven’t got round to? And other family gatherings? HHmmmmm? There is no escape. You might as well join me in my depraved musings… You know it makes sense.

  6. Caruso’s performance is frequently like ham and cheese at the same time. In the sun, too. Ugh.

    Agree that CSI is often fun – though Lucy, from the items you refer to (Sarah’s veggie ways and Greg’s playful DNA match revelation, for example), I’m guessing that you watched the episode on Sunday night set on the Body Farm? Apologies if I’m not right, I’m just following the evidence…

    One thing I like about CSI is the way Peterson’s performance is all about restraint, whereas in the film Manhunter he was jittery on the surface, even though he was playing a vaguely similar character. That’s acting, innit?


  7. No apologies needed, I am referencing the body farm episode which I did duly watch this week… though a draft of this article has been sitting in my dashboard sometime now. Sara if I recall became a veggie when they did the slow-wick method on that pig. Interesting. Tho I would prob be a veggie too if I saw it for real.

    I love Grissom, think he’s a great character… And an unusual leader, since he’s not enigmatic in a way you would expect from other crime dramas.

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