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‘CSI’ clones are even better than the real thing

Thank you, "CSI." The CBS show has never been given proper credit. Without it to lead the way, some of the best and most popular shows on television might never have existed.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Thank you, "CSI." The CBS show has never been given proper credit. Without it to lead the way, some of the best and most popular shows on television might never have existed.

If "CSI" hadn't had its crazy successful first season in 2000, Jerry Bruckheimer might not have become the TV megastar he is today, and shows such as "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case," which he also produces, may never have seen the light of the screen. Ditto for "NCIS," which on paper looked like the perfect blend of two hit CBS shows — "CSI" and "JAG" — but in reality became so much more.

Yes, "CSI" helped CBS become the procedural network, and with the help of Jeff Probst and Charlie Sheen, turned CBS into the No. 1 network, too. It also stole Thursday night from NBC and received heaps of Emmy nominations. Its greatest accomplishment, though, was the role it played in getting those other TV shows on the air.

Like the best of children, "NCIS," "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace" have surpassed their parent. They've managed to do what "CSI" never could — weave compelling procedural crime stories seamlessly with character development.

And really, "CSI" has no one to blame but itself.

Beyond the procedural Let's start with "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace." At first glance, the differences between these shows and "CSI" are obvious: "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case" swapped the evidence's story for the witnesses' stories. All three shows feature flashbacks, but while "CSI’s" are scenarios suggested by blood spatter and DNA, "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case's" are re-enactments told by not-always-credible human beings.

But the shows' differences go beyond their formats. In a way, "CSI" forced them to evolve into better series.

Once "CSI" became a colossal hit, TV rules dictated that copycats must follow. But the TV rule many show-runners (and especially network executives) forget is that copycats are successful only when they distance themselves from the original.

When these copycat shows came out ("Without a Trace" in 2002; "Cold Case" in 2003), "CSI" was in its heyday and everyone was talking about the return of the procedural. And while CBS was undoubtedly looking at the shows’ similarities to "CSI," their producers were trying to find a way to emphasize their differences.

Their formulas didn't provide much to work with, but their characters did. Jack Malone and Lilly Rush were not Gil Grissom. So who were they? Their approach makes sense: If you don't want to be just another procedural, you need to do the things procedurals don't — develop characters.

Right from the start, "Without a Trace" gave Jack personal demons to battle (his collapsing family) and women to woo (fellow agent Samantha Spade). And midway through the second season, Anthony LaPaglia won a Golden Globe for his often gut-wrenching performances as Jack. When "Without a Trace" crosses over with "CSI" next month, it will be interesting to see how Jack fares in Vegas, but even more interesting to see if Grissom's visit to New York — and "Without a Trace" — can open him up a bit.

"Cold Case" took a little longer to focus on its characters, but by its second season, the lives of Detective Rush and her squad began to fill with love and loss, and secrets as well. The gimmicky but fun theme music episodes may get most of the headlines, but the show's real appeal lies in its star.

The best medicine "NCIS," which celebrates its 100th episode this week, brought one more key ingredient to the mix: humor. And that humor is largely what has made "NCIS" a top 10 contender almost every week. In fact, of all the crime shows CBS spawned in the wake of "CSI," including its direct spin-offs in Miami and New York, "NCIS" is the highest rated.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Not coincidentally, it's also the most different. Sure, there are dead bodies found in all sorts of intriguing and gruesome states almost every week, and there's plenty of scientific mumbo jumbo to go around. And viewers love that stuff. But what we really love are the characters.

Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs is the best role Mark Harmon ever played, and Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo is so much like actor Michael Weatherly that on the just-released season four DVDs, Weatherly's pop-culture-reference-laden commentary could just as well be coming from movie-loving DiNozzo. We long to share some brandy and discuss dead bodies with "Ducky" Mallard or slurp up a Caf-Pow and discuss tats, bats and mass spectrometers with Abby.

Last week on "NCIS," DiNozzo and McGee wrestled around the floor of a shrink's office before questioning him, and, later, after McGee saved DiNozzo from falling off a ledge, they shared a funny "guy love" moment that would have made “Scrubs'” J.D. and Turk proud. Warrick and Nick would never do that on "CSI." And Grissom certainly would not slap them on the back of their heads afterward.

That humor defines "NCIS" and keeps it from being "CSI: Navy."

Sure, "CSI" has some humor, and not just those horrible puns before every main title sequence. Bringing Hodges in full-time was a great idea. But he's still the comic relief of an otherwise stoic show. On "NCIS," the ratio is flopped. All those dead bodies and icy blue-eyed stares from Gibbs are there to add some dramatic relief to an otherwise usually upbeat action comedy.

And it's not as if "CSI" hasn't tried to deepen its characters, with Grissom going deaf and Warrick's invisible marriage. And on rare occasions, such as Nick getting buried alive or Grissom flirting with Lady Heather, it's worked. But really, those moments are just happy diversions from the cases of the week because that's why viewers tune in to "CSI" every week — the cases. And frankly, "CSI" does cases better than anyone else. That's why it is the best procedural on television. That's why it has two successful spin-offs. And that's why it will be fine when Sara Sidle leaves.

But that's also why it will never be as fun as "NCIS" or as emotionally compelling as "Without a Trace" or "Cold Case." As Grissom would say, the evidence doesn't lie.

Jeff Hidek is also a TV columnist for the Star-News in Wilmington, N.C. Read his blog at tv.starnewsonline.com. He can be reached at jeff.hidek@starnewsonline.com.