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Why I love/hate CSI

Author: • Aug 30th, 2005 •

Category: Australia, Ballardosphere, features, psychology, television, terrorism

Recently I’ve come across a piece by one of my favorite authors, J. G. Ballard, on a show I’ve become addicted to against my better judgement: Crime Scene Investigation (you can access Ballard’s article here). I was pleased and disappointed by Ballard’s analysis. Although a lot of his comments are perceptive, I think he missed some of the fundamental reasons for the appeal and popularity of this series.

I approach television nowadays with heavy doses of cynicism and trepidation. It’s hard to get me hooked. But after two episodes of CSI, I’m addicted. I cannot stop watching it, regardless of what my critical faculties say. I love it and hate it in equal measures.

I think the allure of the show derives mostly from what it borrows from the crime genre. Crime is the purest and most efficient form of narrative, one that allows endless permutations, but which adheres to a strong, logically seamless structure. I speak here of an archetypal, perfect crime narrative; one that perhaps does not exist, but which perhaps subsists in many remarkable examples of the genre. Every element in the story moves towards a final goal, an anticipated revelation, and every bit of plot must contribute to this final denouement. Hence the suspense, the narrative drive that compels reading, watching, discovering.


The characters are clearly defined by their relative position in a network of relationships: Detectives, suspects, perpetrators, innocent bystanders, etc. The detective acts as a kind of master storyteller, a demiurge enclosed in the world of the story, anticipating different twists and the possibilities that lurk behind the manifest events. The detective must weigh probabilities, hypotheses, plot scenarios, what-ifs? Form and content, plot and structure merge together perfectly in this genre, for each piece of text is (ideally) structurally necessary. The reader may even be allowed to know the identity of the killer from the beginning; and even then the crime story would obey this tight teleological structure. The story doesn’t even exist, it’s not a story, until we reach the end—and the whole edifice is glimpsed, and the swarm of possibilities collapse into a single reality.

The genre also permits a myriad interesting variations and detours. The crime narrative can be used to comment and digress on the society of the time. (Ballard himself has done this, in his remarkable foray into the crime genre, Cocaine Nights). A crime reveals skeletons in the closet, allows intrusion into intimate places. “What were you doing at 9:15 on Wednesday night?” The genre effortlessly opens the space for a piercing psychological intimacy.

A second dimension of the genre, always identified by theorists and critics, is the fact that it is concerned with morality. (This has, in part, to do with the historical beginnings of the genre in the urban, industrial environments of the nineteenth century.) The very fact of a crime—the act at the core of the narrative, the impetus—obviously implies a wrong, a morally reprehensible act. The stakes are high; the genre absorbs some of the functions of ancient myth, dealing with moral infractions, violence, monstrosity, the forbidden. In other words, the moral order.

Crime narratives are concerned with the social and institutional apparatus that comes to bear on such a transgression—as well as the human, psychological universe that surrounds the act. We may even be allowed to identify with the killer or criminal, forgive him or her, share his/her perspective. The narrative can also turn against this apparatus, exposing its flaws. The detective, as the human incarnation or focus of this apparatus, usually must be a sharp judge of character, a connoisseur of human nature. Again he/she is a surrogate of the writer.

Crime stories may not always have a ‘moral’, but they explore a moral universe. Even in its most jaded, disillusioned noir incarnations, the crime story still portrays a moral universe—or anti-universe where the good don’t always win, and where things are not black-and-white. Witness one of the great crime novels of all time, Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, which realizes the philosophical potential in the old genre trick of having multiple characters, each with his/her own story. Each ‘suspect’ in Dostoyevski’s novel incarnates a perspective on life, a system of ideas.

CSI, of course, is nowhere as interesting as Dostoyevsky, yet it presents its own moral universe. The series boils down the structure of the archetypal crime story to its bare schematic skeleton, with some postmodern twists.

Firstly, the fiction of detection has undergone an interesting mutation in the age of forensic science. In this regard, CSI is part of a larger phenomenon, largely spearheaded by the novels of Patricia Cornwell, and the subgenre of ‘forensic detection’.

Nowadays every time you switch the TV on at prime time, you’re bound to see a corpse lying on a table, or some ghastly forensic procedure take place. The voyeuristic spirit of TV has now taken a worryingly morbid turn. What is the root of this obsession? Given the immense popularity of these shows, they definitely seem to touch a paranoid nerve. In fact, you need to watch the news to find their ‘real-life’ counterpart. Terror, fear, catastrophe.

But first, let’s look at the narrative side. In the subgenre of forensic detection (or whatever you want to call it) the whole process of reconstructing the events takes place in the laboratory, by following chains of deduction based on laws of physics, biology and chemistry. Whereas in, say, Agatha Christie’s novels, the detective must piece together the events from people’s testimonies and their inadvertent bodily or facial clues, here it is the objects that speak. Chemical substances, pieces of glass, blood splatters, footprints and, of course, cadavers. The only people the investigators are interested in are dead. Yet, the narrative thrust of the archetypal crime story is intact. CSI follows a very classic structure. Despite its flashy hi-tech gimmicks, we could call it conservative. All we get, in fact, is plot.

Grissom (the head of the crime forensics unit in CSI) is like a postmodern Sherlock Holmes. One of the things that makes Conan Doyle’s stories so delightful is that moment of revelation, when we find out what Holmes has been thinking, how he has logically pieced it all together out of clues that have completely passed us by. Grissom surprises us with similar inferences and logical gymnastics. But his reasoning is firmly techno-scientific. Grissom knows where to look because he knows his science. This is not to say that he’s stupid. He has hunches; but these are nothing without evidence. At the end of the day, what matters is the evidence, the scientifically incontrovertible facts. A CSI investigator might conclude from the impact lines in a piece of glass that a window was shattered from the inside. Grissom might deduce from the presence of a particular insect that a human corpse has been hidden nearby. To function properly, reason now needs a huge apparatus around it—a laboratory, lots of machines, a vast corpus of knowledge. Chains of deduction must be anchored on an institutionalized body of observation, on complex apparatuses of imaging and measurement, and on the strict following of police procedure. We have come a long way from the quasi-solipsistic, opium-fuelled rationality of Holmes.

That’s why we get no character interaction, no emotions, hardly any narrative ‘fat’. The suspects, once faced with the truth, hardly struggle. In the face of the unassailable evidence, they surrender feebly, blurting out their confession in time for the credits to roll. In the last couple of seasons, the creators of the show have been trying to give us more rounded characters, creating affairs and rivalries, and trying to generate more tension between the members of the team. The results are uninteresting, and add nothing to the show—in fact, we feel vaguely uncomfortable with their ‘human’ side. Ballard perceptively notes this austerity, and identifies the qualities of the setting, its strange claustrophobic ‘ecology’. Most of the action takes place indoors, and we rarely see the characters travelling anywhere. There are also a lot of close-ups. We inhabit the gaze of techno-scientific procedure: intimate yet inhuman.

Grissom is self-absorbed, literate, and quirky—yet somewhat infantile, emotionally stunted. Grissom’s obsessive quest for the ‘objective truth’ sits incongruously in the midst this technological paraphernalia. We get the feeling that his quaint idealism (‘science is about finding the truth’) has no place in the modern crime-fighting machine. And this is Grissom’s tragedy (and largely why we sympathize with him). His team-mates are happy to tag along, and don’t need this kind of grand justifications; most of the time they just look happy to have a job. I think we also sympathize with Grissom also because of William Petersen’s great performance in the role. Petersen plays the oddball Grissom with affection and humor, and the show becomes more interesting as soon as he walks into the frame. Despite his limitations, Grissom is somehow unpredictable; we just never know what he’ll come up with.

Needless to say, the purported ‘gritty realism’ of the series is curiously at odds with the fantastic, preposterous nature of the action. The dialogue is ludicrous, the attempts at humor fall flat on the face (when they are not in very bad taste), and not for a minute can we reasonably believe that we’re watching a faithful rendition of police procedure. For a start, forensic scientists are not detectives, and do not interrogate suspects or conduct investigations.

Yet this trashiness, this awkwardness almost, is central to the appeal of CSI. The patent artificiality acts as a buffer against the most unpleasant aspects of the reality that the show is documenting. Yes, because CSI does have a basis in reality, however dim; it hooks into powerful social and psychological forces. American film and TV (even US culture in general) can’t stomach realism. (Remember that realism is not about a faithful portrayal of reality but about verisimilitude: fooling the audience into thinking that what they are watching could easily happen). The only way Americans can recognize reality is when it mimics film (witness the attack on the World Trade Centre). A ‘realist’ crime show would simply be unwatchable. In fact, Australians make the best realist crime TV: Wildside and Blue Murder, for example. These shows are so stark and uncompromising they’re almost unpleasant to watch.

Even the celebrated, flashy computer simulations of CSI (in which we follow in clinical detail how a bullet enters the lungs, or the effects of a certain poison on the internal organs) are distancing devices, abstract and synthetic images that provoke a strange mixture of physical revulsion and intellectual remoteness.

Ballard misses the point completely. I think the massive popularity of CSI does not stem from the obscure echoes it strikes in the ‘collective unconscious’. Ballard likes this kind of explanation, and most of the time he’s quite persuasive. The reasons are partly psychological, yes; but they float much closer to the surface. CSI is, in fact, a parable about the War on Terror. It is full of paranoid warnings, admonitions, explorations of fear. The space the forensic investigators tread on every day is a landscape of death and remains, of accidents and rotten intentions. This is the modern traumascape, an unsafe and paranoid place, a netherworld of catastrophe and loss. No, there’s no heaven; just decomposing bodies, flesh cracked open on the stainless-steel table, organic fluids and chunks of tissue under the microscope. CSI portrays a world in which we have come to accept these things as necessary and inevitable—and, surprise surprise, it is our world. Perhaps the source of the fear is not limited to the War on Terror, but also to the war crimes that have ravaged the closing decades of the twentieth century, and which seemingly will also be a staple feature of the twenty-first. The terror arises from the collapse of the myth of globalisation with its happy vanishing of frontiers and cultural barriers. It is the dark awakening to the horrors of genocide and rabid nationalism. Maybe Grissom and his crew are symbolic stand-ins for the anonymous crews of forensic anthropologists that have to catalogue the mass graves in Bosnia, Sarajevo, Rwanda, South America, and countless other places.

But there’s a right-wing edge to CSI, a morally conservative paranoia that urges us to lock the doors and find refuge in—where? Where does Grissom find refuge? How do the characters gather the moral fortitude to deal with this horror on a daily basis? CSI doesn’t tell us. This is where right-wing moralism comes face to face with its own emptiness. Or alternatively (as a couple of shows have suggested) we must look somewhere else, outside this fallen universe. Shall we look to the church, to God for guidance? “You might not believe in God,” an unmasked murderer tells Grissom at the end of one of the episodes, “but you are doing His work.”

So, remember kids: In the immortal words of Robocop: STAY OUT OF TROUBLE.

– Andrés Vaccari

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2 Responses »

  1. You’re spot on! CSI and other similar series, just like the books of Patricia Cornwell all have this slightly morbid touch, that raises fears and at the same moment feeds our curiosity and fascination with death, evil crimes and any thing to do with good cops, bad criminals etc. – That pattern has worked ever since the first stories were told!

  2. Yes, I believe that CSI, no matter how gory or disgusting it seems, is always very addicting. I myself have become absorbed with it, almost never missing an episode. I agree that series of crime stories, are captivating, and have followed the same type of pattern for ages. This is fantastically amazing, to say the least.

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