CSI Characterization

I recently rewatched CSI: Las Vegas, Season 2. I was able to get the entire box set through my local library (plug for local libraries!) and subsequently watched all 24+ episodes over two weeks.

Watching the entire season reminded me why I liked the show so much when it first came out. (It isn't that I dislike the show now; the fact that I rarely watch CSI: Las Vegas these days has more to do with the fact that the only channel I get clearly is Fox, and I don't want to fuss with manipulating the antennae back and forth. And yes, cable is one of those things I refuse to get.)

What has struck me watching Season 2 is how on-target the Las Vegas characterizations were right from the begining. CSI: Las Vegas is one of the few shows I watch where I like every single one of the scoobies, and their characters function correctly in every single episode.

Now, I want to be clear here. CSI, like Law & Order, is not a DEEP and PROFOUND show. Both shows are very plot-oriented, and the plot is thirty minutes of action to twenty minutes of visuals; there simply isn't space for insightful characterizations. Characterization rests almost entirely on tone of voice and body language. One reason I admire Chris Noth from Law & Order so much is that he does so much with so little. I don't mean he overacts, but he adds these little smiles and grimaces and eye-rollings to his scenes that give him depth even though the depth is largely superficial.

This type of characterization reminds me of the Iliad and the Odyssey where people are constantly characterized by their most remarkable features: gray-eyed Athena, wise-guy Odysseus, lammo Achilles, etc. This is characterization at its most basic: just keep reminding the audience what THIS character is supposed to be.

So, on CSI: Las Vegas, Warwick is the rock (and resident holder of all sex appeal), Nick is the damsel in distress, Kat is the beauty with brains, Grissom is the cool geek, Sarah is the troubled, feminist youth, and Greggo is the CSI wannabe, who, if the show wasn't strictly heterosexual, would be paired with Nick. (The writers used this undercurrent effectively, by the way, when they made Greg's reaction to Nick in Season 2 pure and simple hero worship. It is done unabashedly, and it works well as a counterbalance to the crazy cable guy who also wants to emulate Nick. And it's a nice change to have complicated emotions OTHER than sexual interest displayed on the television screen.)

About Nick being the damsel in distress--for those of you who have watched Buffy, Willow was usually the damsel de jure in early episodes when she was always being captured and, subsequently, rescued. Whedon was quite unapologetic about it--it didn't make Willow weak, and she was so darn good at evoking sympathy with her big, soulful eyes.

Nick doesn't look soulful, but he is the character that the others consistently rescue. I love this. It is such perfect casting. Just as being rescued didn't make Willow weak, being rescued doesn't make Nick unmanly. He is THE nice guy on the show, the good guy, the Xander of CSI. Kat or Sarah could never be the damsels de jure because CBS cares a lot more about feminist strictures than Whedon (until the end of Buffy, that is). By making Nick--the guy we all like--the rescuee, the rescuers can still do all the work, and we don't think any less of Nick for the result.

As for Grissom, I really admire William Petersen. I have a feeling that the integrity of CSI:LV has been perserved as much as it has been (in the face of CSI: Miami) due to Petersen's efforts (he is a producer on the show). He never tried to make Grissom a sex magnet which wouldn't have worked anyway because William Petersen is stocky middle-aged guy to his very core. In any case, Grissom as sex magnet isn't necessary; the storyline between him and Sarah was foreshadowed early on when Grissom was still weird bug guy. Sarah being Sarah, the attraction between them is entirely believable. Sex magnet or not, Grissom's character holds the show together, much in the way I think Michael Moriarty held Law & Order together for four seasons. (I just can't adjust to Waterson--nothing against the actor; it just isn't the same.)

As for Kat and Sarah--they are very pretty women, but unlike the women on the other CSIs, they come across as naturally pretty. For example, Kat is a model-beautiful woman, but she is aging, and she looks it, and her character knows it. And Sarah looks like every single pretty hippie college student I've ever seen in my life. They don't seem excessively glammed up, and if they are a little camera-ready, well, pretty people can work in law enforcment.

Altogether, CSI: LV's characterizations have a patina of reality that CSI: Miami doesn't have (but then I don't think CSI: Miami really cares. I don't know what CSI: NY thinks it is doing. I love Gary Sinise, but the show is Boring with a capital B. I have high hopes for Fox's New Amsterdam, by the way).

Coupled with the characters' patina of reality is a truly odd kilter that, again, I put down to William Petersen. When Grissom starts rambling on about bugs or Maslow's heirarchy or other bits of unexpected trivia, he steps into the presence of those other odd but great detectives--Sherlock, Monk, House--television hits classic territory and survives.


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