★★★ It’s gory and implausible, but why is CSI so popular? JG Ballard thought it was all about our innermost fears…
Channel 5: starts Saturday, 24 January, 10.15pm
WHAT A WEIRD and unsettling series CSI is. A house of horrors for the TV age, delving into nightmares of mortality with detachment and a throbbing rock beat.
Watching the opening episode of the 15th series, I was reminded of a typically provocative feature that JG Ballard wrote about the series 10 years ago in The Guardian. He became hooked on it and stated: ‘The series was original, slick and deeply disturbing, though I wasn’t too keen to find out why.’
But then he goes right ahead and dissects the drama anyway (excuse the pun). As a former medical student with experience in the exploration of corpses before he went on to write unsettling masterpieces such as Crash, The Unlimited Dream Company and High-Rise, his insights were intriguing.
Ted Danson and Elisabeth Shue
He wrote about CSI taking place in a strangely interiorised world with emotionless protagonists, and his insights do still apply the latest series. While the cast has changed, with William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger giving way to Ted Danson and Elisabeth Shue, and there have been small changes to the series’ focus, Ballard still gets right under the skin of CSI‘s world.
|‘Interiorised world’ – Russell confronts Briscoe|
‘The crimes – they are all homicides – take place in anonymous hotel rooms and in the tract housing of the Vegas suburbs, almost never in a casino or drug lord’s gaudy palace,’ he wrote.
‘A brutal realism prevails, the grimmest in any crime series. Suburban lounges and that modern station of the cross, the hotel bathroom, are the settings of horrific murders, which thankfully are over by the time each episode begins. Gloves donned, the cast dismantle u-bends and plunge up to their elbows in toilet bowls, retrieving condoms, diaphragms and bullet casings, syringes, phials and other signs of the contemporary zodiac.’
The Gig Harbor Killer
One difference from 2005 in the opening episode of series 15, The CSI Effect, is that although the serial murders are over as it begins, we get a helpful flashback of the Gig Harbor Killer butchering three women to a blast of rock ‘n’ roll. So, not only do we pick through the viscera of the victims, we get a gratuitous pop video of the violence and torment that ended their lives.
|Fiendishly clever – Briscoe|
Like Silent Witness, the BBC long-runner that preceded CSI by four years, all faith is placed in forensic science, as though studying the choreography of a killing along with trajectories and hair fibres will reduce all possibilities down to one finite suspect.
Again, Ballard touched on this lack of heart in the show: ‘Every viewer knows that the only people who show emotion in CSI are about to be dead. This lack of emotion extends to the cast, who never display a flicker of anger or revulsion.’
CSI has little emotion or plausibility
More recent hits such as Broadchurch, The Killing or Happy Valley have explored different realms of crime drama by depicting the emotional impact of violent crime. CSI prefers the cold exploration of death without emotion or plausibility.
The CSI Effect is off-the-radar in its preposterousness, starting with Julie Finlay finding herself in a booby-trapped car, while the Gig Harbor killer, Jared Briscoe, seems to be operating again even though he is in prison on death row.
As is common in series such as The Following and Criminal Minds, serial killers are all geniuses who deploy ludicrous levels of ingenuity in staging their crimes. So, Briscoe delighted in doing the forensic work on his crimes before the CSI team arrived, dusting for prints and leaving horoscope patterns in blood splatter and bullet trajectories.
‘The real crime… being alive’
It’s silly, morbid and sometimes really unpleasant, but hugely popular. It has been hailed as the
|Has Julie got her man?|
world’s most popular dramatic series three times by the Festival de Télévision de Monte Carlo. Already back in 2005 it had been spun off into its Miami and New York companion series.
So, why are audiences riveted by CSI? Ballard had a sobering suggestion here: ‘I suspect that the cadavers waiting their turn on the tables are surrogates for ourselves, the viewers. The real crime the CSI team is investigating, weighing every tear, every drop of blood, every smear of semen, is the crime of being alive.
‘I fear that we watch, entranced, because we feel an almost holy pity for ourselves and the oblivion patiently waiting for us.’
Cast: Ted Danson DB Russell, Elisabeth Shue Julie Finlay, George Eads Nick Stokes, Jorja Fox Sara Sidle, Eric Szmanda Greg Sanders, Robert David Hall Dr Al Robbins, Wallace Langham David Hodges, Marc Vann Conrad Ecklie, David Berman David Phillips, Elisabeth Harnois Morgan Brody, Mark-Paul Gosselaar Jared Briscoe/Paul Winthrop, Mark Valley Daniel Shaw