Friday, May 2, 2008

Why I Don't Watch CSI

I gave CSI a brief chance when it premiered, because at the time I was still watching a fair amount of TV and interested in police dramas. NYPD Blue is probably my favourite TV show ever (and the only one of which I taped every single episode), and I also loved Homicide and was a regular Law & Order viewer for many years (never again; more about that another time).

So I figured I'd give CSI a shot. I'm very interested in police procedures - John Douglas is one of my favourite authors, and I've read many other books on criminology and law enforcement over the years, as well as having received a (very) little formal training in related fields.

Unfortunately, CSI quickly lost my interest. Perhaps I could have enjoyed it if I had thought of it not as a police procedural drama but as an Airplane / Scary Movie / Meet the Spartans "wacky parody". The police work and forensics on the show were simply laughable.

There's one particularly egregious transgression that seems to recur every time I see a few minutes of a CSI episode (my wife still watches it, and I sometimes wander into the room long enough to watch for a couple of minutes, get disgusted, and walk back out), and has become a pet peeve of mine: the Magic Camera.

The Magic Camera shows up whenever the CSI crew have surveillance camera footage of a suspect. The scene always plays out the same way: the investigators are leaning over the shoulders of the Computer Geek, whose monitor displays a grainy low-resolution image. Someone asks, "can you enhance that?" The Geek smugly says, "Sure!", we hear the generic sound of fingers mashing on a keyboard (all TV shows use this sound, which sounds nothing like any sound anyone who actually uses a computer would recognize as typing), and the image miraculously comes into sharper focus. The Geek may even be able to rotate the picture to show a different angle.

(TV aficionados will realize that the Magic Camera showed up on another crime show this week, in an episode I unwisely tried to watch because I got lured in by the stunt casting. More about that another time as well, perhaps.)

This is, of course, absolutely ludicrous. I've been the Geek in a previous career incarnation. I was once seriously asked what I could do with surveillance camera footage that supposedly showed someone throwing a rock at a client's building. Turns out that although the live monitor feed from the cameras was a lovely 30-ish clear frames per second, all that was stored on the hard drive of this client's very expensive digital security camera system was one low-resolution JPG picture per second.

The small, fuzzy pictures that their security administrator showed me were of some young-looking people walking down the sidewalk in front of the building. In three sequential shots, one of them bent down as though picking something up from the ground, then stood and pulled his arm back as if to throw something, then had his arm back down as though following through after a throw. Note the "as thoughs". They would be significant if the matter went to court.

I asked the security administrator if they had any intermediate pictures, or any pictures establishing more clearly that this was someone picking something up and throwing it, or any eyewitnesses, or even any physical evidence (a broken window, a chipped brick, a rock on the lawn near the building). No to all.

She asked if these pictures were enough to take to the police - I laughed. There was absolutely no way we could even prove that anything was picked up or thrown, or identify the alleged thrower.

She asked if I could enhance the pictures. I laughed harder, and showed her what really happens if you zoom in on a grainy low-resolution still picture: you get a big, fuzzy, useless mosaic.

So, the Magic Camera on CSI amuses me, and makes me not want to watch their silly program. Making matters worse, it seems to appear every time I give the show even a very brief chance. I've seen the Geek get an image of the suspect from a reflection in someone else's eyeglasses, and even from a reflection in someone's eyeball. I've seen the Geek "enhance" a photo to prove exactly what object someone had hidden under their coat ("the Club") based on the visible bulges in their sleeves. (Some of the specific examples I remember may have been on other shows; I don't care. I know I've seen the Magic Camera on CSI more than once.)

Folks, if cameras or processing software like this existed in the real world, they would revolutionize the surveillance industry. They don't. I don't particularly care for the science fiction genre, but I like it even less when it's sold to me in the guise of a police procedural.

The other thing I find funny about CSI is a problem that also afflicted the character of Mulder on the X-Files: the Expert On Everything. It doesn't matter what obscure topic comes up, this character knows everything about it and can extensively quote from the leading texts in the field.

Grissom is, of course, the Expert On Everything for CSI. That tiny chunk of twisted metal found twenty yards from the victim's body? Clearly a link from a historically accurate chain mail shirt. To the Renaissance Fair, to question the only man on this side of the Mississippi who still hand-crafts mail armour! That inscrutable symbol at the bottom of a ransom note? Obviously a fragment of a hieroglyphic from 9th century B.C. Egypt, and I just happen to know that the nation's foremost archaeological authority is in town this week doing a lecture series!

Give me a freaking break.

My wife, who tries to my amusement to defend shows like this, has assured me that the two examples I've seen most recently - Grissom being an expert on bugs and roller coasters - were both established as hobbies for the character before the scenes I saw, in which his arcane knowledge in those fields was instrumental in solving the crime.

That doesn't help - it just means that it's lazy writing in a different direction. The Expert On Everything is normally a deus ex machina trotted out because a writer has been too clever for his own good and written himself (or herself) into a corner. "The only way the characters can solve this is if one of them is a previously unrevealed expert in the Russian aristocracy of the 18th century. OK, (closes eyes and throws a dart at a cast list) this one is!"

If characters have already been shown as having actual personal quirks (just like real people), it's just as lazy to contrive plots that play to those quirks. "Wow, Bob, since this crime could only have been solved by someone who knows every atomic weight in the periodic table to the third decimal position, it's lucky that we have you on our team! And that we mentioned your elemental obsession once back in season two!"

This, of course, gets old real quick. "That was, what, the third atomic-weight-based crime spree we've had in the last few years? Gee, Bob, it's, umm, getting luckier all the time that we have you on board, I guess!"

It also has the consequence of the writers randomly passing out quirky traits to characters, just to give them wiggle room for future episodes. "OK, I'm going to throw in a scene showing that this twenty year old rookie cop also has a doctorate in astrophysics and plays the hammer dulcimer. I'll come up with a plot to make those matter next season."

On a closely related note, didn't anybody else notice that when the X-Files premiered, Dana Scully was both a medical doctor and an FBI agent at twenty-five years old (or at least played by a twenty-five year old)? Or that Jill Hennessy was playing an assistant district attorney - not an entry-level position - on Law & Order when she was just about old enough to be graduating law school?

I'll finish with a quick aside to CSI: Miami (I never bothered with any other spinoff(s) that may have floated past). I gave it a chance because it premiered with two former cast members from my beloved NYPD Blue. One quickly vanished, but not before I had given up on the silly car-chase-and-explosion plots and terrible acting. Maybe they've had Magic Cameras and Experts On Everything too; I couldn't get past David Caruso as Batman long enough to find out.

So, as far as the CSI shows are concerned, I'll pass. If I want to see more realistic detective work and better acting, I'll watch some Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my now-dead dog. This one was taken in 2004.

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