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‘CSI: New York’ same flavor, new package

How can the show differentiate itself from its counterparts while still appealing to the loyal fanbase? By Paige Newman
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A franchise show is a lot like a popular restaurant chain. There’s comfort in knowing that what you’ll get will be familiar and palatable. But nobody wants to eat at the Olive Garden every night, so what if you could make the Olive Garden in New York feel slightly different from the one in Las Vegas? Can you fool people into thinking you’re giving them something different, by giving them the exact same thing in a slightly different package?

“Law & Order” successfully launched two franchise shows from the original. In “SVU,” creator Dick Wolf changed the crimes to sex crimes, went with a bigger cast and refocused the show so that the trial sequences weren’t given the weight of the police scenes. In “Criminal Intent” we’re given the point of view of the criminal, but that’s just a gimmick. The true difference is that the cast is even more pared-down than the original; Vincent D'Onofrio’s Goren is undoubtedly the star of the show and the trial sequences are virtually nonexistent. Yet all three shows have a remarkably similar flavor.

“CSI” and “CSI: Miami” dominate the ratings — even during the summer re-runs, they managed to make the top five almost every week. But what of “CSI: New York,” which premieres Sept. 22 on CBS? The new show will need more than a change of scenery.

Nerds rule, Brandos go home
There’s something so endearing about watching a television show that’s full of nerds. And on “CSI,” that’s just what you get — attractive characters, yes, but they're nerds through and through. If Gil Grissom (William L. Peterson), Nick Stokes (George Eads) and Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) can all take the time out during the middle of a murder investigation to stop and compare science-fair projects — Catherine and Nick made volcanoes, while Gil went with a fair-winning study of bugs — you know you’re dealing with actual nerds. Even the super-cool former gambling addict Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) was described by a former schoolmate as having: “thick glasses, hand-me-down clothes and always [holding] a book."

If you check the popular Jump the Shark Web site, which lets viewers rate when a show started to go downhill, after the response, “Day One,” the second most-popular response for when “CSI: Miami” jumped is “Caruso thinks he’s Brando.” Instead of playing a nerd, David Caruso plays every episode like he's Al Pacino in “Scarface” without the accent. When he delivers super-serious lines like, “You know, Tommy, sending a little worm like you to jail — that will be my ultimate thrill,” they come out forehead slappingly absurd. I can’t imagine — nor would I want to — Gil Grissom delivering clunkers like that. Grissom doesn’t get emotional over a case; he’d consider it unpractical and a waste of energy.

Caruso’s Horatio Caine is more cop than scientist, and instead of the characters being motivated by scientific curiosity, they’re on a mission to right wrongs. On the original “CSI,” characters follow the evidence, but as Calleigh Duquesne (Emily Procter) says on “CSI: Miami”: “We’re a little more fanciful here.”

On "CSI: New York," Gary Sinise seems just right to play Detective Mack Taylor as an unabashed nerd. While he chewed scenery in a rather frightening manner in “Forrest Gump,” Sinise was able to go for something much more subtle in “Apollo 13.” As astronaut Ken Mattingly, Sinise was a role player — part of a team who needed to work out a complicated solution, a role very similar to what he'll tackle on “CSI: New York.”

Unfortunately, Melina Kanakaredes comes to “CSI: New York” from the defunct family soap “Providence,” which required her to cry on a semi-regular basis. Crying on “CSI” just won’t do. Kanakaredes should take a lesson from Kim Delaney’s short-lived stint on “CSI: Miami,” it’s not about drawing attention. You’re not the star of the show, the crime is. Here’s hoping that the original show's understated acting and emphasis on scientific pursuit will be emulated by the New York show.

Watching the detectives
One thing that both current shows are missing is a little taste of reality. Officer Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police media relations department said that its CSI unit is composed primarily of former detectives, but that when it comes to a crime scene, the homicide detectives are in charge and the CSIs are there to support their efforts. Officer Whitcomb also told that a CSI — though probably qualified to do so — would never interrogate a suspect. How many times have we seen "CSI: Miami's" Horatio Caine browbeating some suspect into confessing?

Both "CSI" and "CSI: Miami" do have detectives. Captain Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) is a regular presence on “CSI,” but he does seem to defer to Grissom and the gang. On “Miami,” it’s even worse. Caine seems to have the authority to do anything from call in the coast guard to chase down suspects gun in hand, and while Detective Adell Sevilla (Wanda De Jesus) is along for the ride, she never seems to be in charge of a case.

You would think one interesting aspect to explore would be the dynamic between the detectives and the crime-scene investigators, particularly if the investigators are former detectives. Here’s hoping that, on “New York,” the creators will give fans a couple of prominent detectives and demonstrate how their methodology differs from the CSIs and how the enforced hierarchy plays itself out. It would be a great way to differentiate the show, and would use the same technique that “Law and Order: SVU” did, expanding the cast.

Location, location, location
Unlike, the “Law & Order” shows, none of the “CSI” franchises are shot in the cities where they’re set. The shows do pickup shots of the actors walking in and out of buildings and scenic shots of familiar landmarks, but they rarely shoot an entire episode in those cities. With a city that has as big a personality as New York, it’s simply foolish not to shoot there. In shows such as “Sex and the City” and all the “Law & Order” shows, the city actually becomes a character. Viewers get to know the streets of New York and the extras all actually sound like New Yorkers.

Last year, when New York went through a bitter cold spell, you could tell “Law & Order” was actually shot there: the coats got bigger, the snow got thicker and Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) looked cold as hell. Why not shoot “CSI: New York” in New York? You would think with such a successful franchise, that surely the creators (um, Jerry Bruckheimer, hello) would have the money to shoot there. Sinise could do theater during his off-months. It would be perfect.

The other main benefit to having the show in New York would be to let the crimes get a bit grittier. On both “CSI” and “CSI: Miami,” our criminals tend to be a bit on the glamorous and glossy side. Why couldn’t the “CSI: New York” unit be located in a more unseemly part of New York? We don’t need Park Avenue crimes. Give us a bit of that dark underbelly. We can take it.

For this watcher: More grit, shoot in New York, add prominent detective characters, let the CSIs be the nerds I’ve come to love and keep the overacting to a minimum. Really, though, even if they don’t do these things, I’ll probably still watch. After all, “CSI: New York” can’t possibly be worse than my regular Monday-night ritual of howling at Horatio Caine’s antics on “CSI: Miami.”