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Image: David Caruso on "CSI Miami"
Cliff Lipson  /  CBS
Horatio Caine (David Caruso) is "CSI Miami's" worst character, and also its star.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/9/2008 10:56:32 PM ET 2008-11-10T03:56:32

"CSI: Miami" was the second-most popular television show in the world last year. It is also one of the most ridiculous, implausible, and badly written series in the world. Despite that, it's still watchable and almost incomprehensibly compelling, even if it is one of the worst examples of the art form that television has become in recent years.

"CSI: Miami" has spent time at the top of the ratings list, commanding the world's attention at the same time shows such as "The Sopranos" and "Dexter" were on the air. Considering all of the TV shows that are produced in the United States, it's tragic that "CSI: Miami" would even rank in the top 50, never mind being number one or, last year, number two — behind the original, Las Vegas-set "CSI," which is a more coherent, thoughtful procedural drama, one that helped to redefine the sub-genre. (Reality show "American Idol" is enormously popular in the U.S., but "CSI" and "CSI: Miami" dominate the worldwide ratings, according to Eurodata TV Worldwide.)

When it debuted in 2000, CBS' "CSI" fictionalized the world of forensic science, making it TV-friendly while generally sticking to actual science (test result times are compressed, CSIs act as cops, detectives, and scientists all at once). But "CSI: Miami," which was spun off of its parent two years later, tends to leave plausibility at the door.

Its cases-of-the-week are often thinly written, with an easily identifiable suspect appearing onscreen with everything except a T-shirt that proclaims "I Did It." In Miami, the science is often an afterthought or a footnote to the on-screen action, which ranges from detective work to high-speed chases. That action is often, in a word, weird — particularly when it involves star David Caruso’s character, Horatio Caine.

Raising Caine
Caine repeats other characters' names multiple times in one sentence for no reason, and always stands at bizarre angles where he's never quite looking at whoever he's talking to. He's constantly removing or putting on his sunglasses, and he makes profound-sounding declarations that are actually trite and trivial. He talks to everyone as if they're children, and although he experiences emotion, doesn't express it verbally or non-verbally.

Caine also walks away in the middle of conversations, and appears just as unexpectedly. On one episode, he appeared in the middle of a street that was just shown to be empty in a wide shot, as if he was some kind of magician.

This magical, odd Caine is the series' worst character, yet he's also the lead, and because he's at its helm, the show teeters toward the being absolutely ridiculous instead of just vaguely believable.  He is no Gil Grissom, the actually complex character who's the heart of the Vegas "CSI," but Caruso's Caine is fun for being so absurd.

Adam Rodriguez's Eric Delko and Emily Procter's Calleigh Duquesne are far less cartoonish than Caine, and Procter brings more intelligence to her character than does anyone else on the show. Still, both are required to talk as if they're lecturing a class of kindergartners, even though two professionals would never speak to each other that way.

Guest stars, who often go on to more impressive work, show up to chew some scenery while reciting the lines written for their poorly developed characters. Nearly everyone seems to deliver their performance via text message, even if they enjoy themselves while doing it.

Over its seven seasons, "CSI: Miami" has attempted to interweave a larger narrative across its standalone episodes, but those tend to be so pathetically underdeveloped that it doesn't make much sense to exert energy remembering their plots, never mind becoming actually emotionally invested in them.

So why is a show this bad so entertaining?

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The answer is simple: "CSI: Miami" looks better than it is, literally.

What may be most notable about the series is how it places its visual aesthetic above all else. If the Las Vegas original shocked viewers with its rapid-zoom close-ups of body parts and three-dimensional examinations of the origins of injuries and wounds, "CSI: Miami" shocks viewers with its stunning version of Miami. In high-definition, it's intoxicating, with bright colors that scream for attention.

It's HDTV porn, and high-definition television manufacturers should require big-box electronic stores to tune their sets to A&E, which repeats the show with ridiculous frequency.

Nothing looks quite like "CSI: Miami" does, nor does any other show make Miami look so stunning and flawless, whether the camera is scanning bikinied bodies by a pool or surveying high-rise condominiums from a helicopter. Showtime's "Dexter," which also follows a forensic scientist (although one who happens to be a serial killer), makes Miami look appealing, but it is nowhere near as fake and fantasyland-like as the CBS version.

Their industrial, glass-filled office and lab spaces are even more visually interesting than the city. Mostly, scenes in the lab are just an excuse to show off the exceptional if implausible lighting design, which bathes every space with yellows and oranges, blues and greens, as if the Care Bears decorated "The Matrix."

The coroner's lab, for example, has multi-colored spotlights illuminating the wall and different colored lights in each of the cabinets. It's stunning and apparently functional, and what's wrong with that, really, even if it's not realistic?

The people benefit from the aesthetics, too. Cast members are frequently backlit with blinding light, often so brightly that their ears become translucent and individual hairs stand out. The shadows make them look like subjects in carefully composed photographs used in high-end magazine advertisements. Even the grizzled or unattractive benefit from the super-saturated colors that surround and cover them.

Examining all of this closely, however, causes it to fall apart just as easily as the plots do. For example, when a CSI is interviewing a suspect, both are backlit despite the fact that they're sitting across a table from one another. Were the show's production to follow the laws of physics, only one would be backlit, and the other would have a brightly lit face. Instead, here the light source changes places depending upon the camera's position.

But on "CSI: Miami," aesthetics always trump reality. Considering how beautiful the result is, that's a forgivable crime.

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