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Secrets of ‘CSI’ success

Great characters, tawdry subject matter and so much more. By Paige Newman
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My favorite thing about “CSI” is that its new episodes beat in the Nielsen ratings each and every week.

I feel a little sense of pride looking at the numbers and seeing that once again, Gil Grissom and crew have kicked Simon, Paula and the would-be “Idols” down to second place. Even when the show is a rerun, it always lands in the top 10. Obviously, tons of people love “CSI.” But why does it work so darn well?

1. A different kind of “very special episode.”
When you see a promo for “ER” trumpeting “you cannot miss the last five minutes,” you know you’re probably going to see some miracle last-minute cure. But on “CSI,” a “very special episode” means only one thing: the show is going to delve into the tawdry depths. Witness a few of my favorite episodes from this season. They featured respectively, illegal transgender surgery gone awry, a swingers’ party and a man whose fetish made him want to behave like a big baby (and I don’t mean he was a whiner — the man literally dressed up in a diaper and had a full-size cradle).

The combination of titillation (let’s face it, that’s what it is) and the show’s ability to maintain a cool, somewhat detached eye when telling these sordid tales is what makes these episodes particularly compelling. Because we’re always dealing with someone’s death, the show doesn’t necessarily “condone” the behavior — after all, that behavior has led to murder — but it doesn’t judge either. We viewers just get a nice, safe way to check out what happens on the wild side. And, as anyone who giggled through the “Fur and Loathing” episode from last season knows, it just feels like good, slightly unclean fun.

2. No red shirts here.
Unlike “Law & Order,” “CSI” isn’t afraid to add new characters or even to let some main characters fade into the background. And when someone is added to the cast, that new character is always unique. Take Aisha Tyler’s lab tech Mia Dickerson. I will never look at a birthday cake the same way after hearing her describe what kind of residue is left on frosting after someone blows out candles. It was the most memorable part of that night’s show and yet, the writers didn’t give that line to one of the main characters. Instead, they used it to build Mia’s character and show us just what kind of a person she is.

But the real emergence this season has been Greg Saunders (Eric Szmanda), who went from goofy lab tech to full-fledged investigator and in the process gave the show a brand-new twist. With his inexperience in the field, Greg gives the audience a point of view to follow. He finds autopsies just as disgusting as we do. He asks the questions that we want to ask. The willingness of the show to expand a character like Greg — and this might have been in part due to the sour negotiations with George Eads and Jorja Fox over the summer — makes it that much more of an ensemble show.

3. The “CSI Effect”'s own space and science editor, Alan Boyle, recently wrote an article about how shows like “CSI” create heightened expectations that any crime can be solved with gadgets and science. In the recent Robert Blake murder trial, journalists speculated that part of what happened was that the lack of physical evidence caused the jury to acquit. After all, anyone who’s watched an episode or two of “CSI” knows a little something about gunshot residue, right?

In the spirit of full disclosure, after following the Blake case rather closely myself, I, too, experienced the “CSI Effect” — I was convinced that, due to a lack of evidence, Blake wasn’t guilty. Hadn’t all those episodes of “CSI” made me some kind of expert? Probably not, but part of what draws people into the show is that feeling that we’re learning something real about solving crimes. We learn to speak the language of the show and throw around terms like “latent print,” “trace evidence” and “blood spatter” as if they were words that come up in normal conversation.

4. No “Days of our CSIs”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but the best thing about all good crime shows is that they’re not soap operas. The “CSI” creators took a lesson from the “Law & Order” crew and always make the character’s personal lives secondary to the plot. Hallelujah.

Of course, this is not to say that “CSI” hasn’t had a few slips this season, with the main offender being Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox). Okay, so she was a foster kid, who now may or may not have a drinking problem and has the ultimate unattainable crush on Gil Grissom. Enough already. And, same goes for Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) and her tenuous relationship with her teenage daughter. And, “CSI” writers, don’t you dare have Gil hook up with Sofia Curtis (Louise Lombard). These two have sparks, but this show should be about solving crimes, not about people’s love lives.

5. It’s raining men
After watching “Las Vegas” for the first time with a male friend a couple of weeks ago — and watching his eyes continuously bug out — I thought, now here’s a show that’s made for men. It’s populated with beautiful women, and the only bone that gets thrown to the female viewers is the rather Ken doll-esque Josh Duhamel. Ugh. But “CSI” offers a treasure trove of lovely men. Want someone who’s cool and maybe a little dangerous? Look no further than Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan). Maybe that Josh Duhamel-type is your cup of tea. No worries, Nick Stokes (George Eads) is willing to be your eye candy. Maybe you want someone kind of sensitive and sweet? Greg is your guy — and his hair looks like it would be awfully fun to play with.

But of course, the pinnacle of the “CSI” male is definitely Gil Grissom. Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote a great piece on Grissom's mysterious appeal. Let’s face it, the best thing about Gil is no matter what little dark secret you have buried in your past, the man won’t judge. This is best displayed in the “Cha-Cha-Changes” episode about transgender surgery, where Gil is not only undisturbed by the transgendered women, he also shows real compassion as he gives Mimosa the news about what happened to her friend. Though Gil is quintessentially a cool, detached scientist, he’s also compassionate and human. I could take any piece of bad news well, if it was delivered by someone like Gil Grissom.

6. Squeamish delights
I’m the kind of person who turns my head away when giving blood, but that doesn’t stop me from fully enjoying the way “CSI” uses visual effects to demonstrate how a bullet penetrates a body — leaving shards of bone fragments in its wake. From watching Grissom boil a fetal pig in Greg’s urine to seeing Coroner Robbins (Robert David Hall) pull a baby snake out of a dead woman’s mouth, I just love the “CSI” cringe factor. Yes, learning how a woman sets herself on fire may not be for everyone, but count me in. It’s rather the same effect watching a good horror movie. Getting to experience violence from a nice safe spot on your couch while munching chips is actually not a bad way to spend an evening, even if you do have to cover your eyes from time to time — or maybe that’s just me.

“CSI” is rife with television delights, and unlike real life, there’s a nice cool logical reason behind everything that happens. Who doesn’t need a Gil Grissom to coolly take a look at their life and explain in a calm reasonable tone why things aren’t working out they way they should. If you spend your day sitting in front of a computer, trying to make sense out of yet another company memo, that kind of cool logic is pretty darn seductive. And isn’t that the best reason of all to watch “CSI”?

Paige Newman is's Movies Editor