Dial Miami for Murder

CSI’s Florida sojourn.

Can Miami meet CSI’s high standards?
Caruso: the subtext that drives the drama
Making heroes of those whose pleasures are mental

For the fifth year in a row, crime in Miami—homicide, aggravated assault, forcible sex, and more—is way down. Throughout the ‘90s, television about crime in Miami also plummeted from its dangerous, delirious 1984-89 heights, during which NBC viewers, in droves, fell victim to that perfect broadcasting crime, Miami Vice. But this season Miami crime shows are up by 100 percent—and someone deserves a medal of honor. CSI: Miami, the spinoff of CBS’ extremely successful show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, arrived in style last week, well-stocked with grisly misdeeds, perplexing still-lifes, and thousands and thousands of microscope slides’ worth of conclusive evidence. The CSI franchise’s stalwart faith in empiricism, deduction, and meticulousness has not been shaken on the flight to Miami. (Neither has its affection for The Who: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” plays over Miami’s opening credits, as “Who Are You?” does in the original show.) And though Miami is burdened with two robotic lead actresses, its plots match or exceed CSI’s high standards of ingenuity. CSI: Miami stars the still-Cagneylike David Caruso, once younger and a cop on NYPD Blue, now an exhausted rosacea sufferer and crime scene investigator. He’s in fine form in the enervated role of bomb whiz Horatio Caine (cool name—Latin and New England at once). He’s also enraged. He displays sympathy for the grieving, the dead, and the nearly dead, but for almost no one else; the subtext that drives the drama is that Caruso, who’s mad at himself for ever leaving NYPD Blue, knows that he is in every respect just better. “Bombers,” as Caine puts it, “are ego-tripping. Some believe they have been betrayed by society.” As a detective and an actor, Caruso all but shoves the other players out of the way with his easy line-readings and unmatchable voice. This can’t feel good on the set, but the show derives suspense from this tension. Best of all, the signature camera work of CSI—sporadic hyperclose press-ins onto evidence, often at a microscopic level—has been refined on CSI: Miami. The show starts off by using the shots sparingly and at low magnification; as an episode develops, the camera pulls in closer, more often, and with increasing urgency, until finally every germane screw and rivet seems to come horrifyingly to life. In this new animistic order, the past appears, visually, to be battering down the door of the present—and the story of the original crime is revealed. The fast-zoom is nothing new to CSI fans; it’s part of what keeps us spellbound. On CSI: Miami, however—where producers, no doubt mindful of the pressure on spinoffs, are playing their gimmick hand very carefully—the narrative potential of the camera technique is ideally exploited. CSI: Miami is also cleaner, more deadpan, and less windy and staticky than the original. CSI: Miami takes on the clichés of TV action, making heroes of those whose pleasures are mental and who work deliberately, methodically, patiently. On an early episode of the progenitor show, one of the investigators issued a CSI credo: “If you want to go fast, go slow.” CSI: Miami, in turn, skips the stock cop scenes of running, scaling chain-link, cocking guns. It is dominated instead by the drama of analysis—attaching meaning to this scarred bullet or those blood traces of Dilaudid; arguing about whether the route to truth is intuition or empiricism. When CSI: Miami does supply an action scene, it’s one that demands endurance and nerve rather than speed and muscle (all the better for its aging leads). In the second episode, an investigator dismantled a bomb around a woman’s neck while having her sing Stevie Wonder. The cop’s uncertain hands and the woman’s fragile voice on “Everything is all right, uptight, clean out of sight” were captivating.

The exception to Miami’s relentless analysis may be Alexx (Khandi Alexander), the coroner, who seems cast in part to deliver us from empiricism by bringing sexxy voodoo to the show. She speaks sweetly to the dead, calling them “honey.” To an apparent suicide she finds in the Everglades, some distance from a plane crash: “How did you get so far away from your friends? Did you fall out of that plane? Is that how you ended up all alone out there? All by yourself?”

Would that the other female characters were so intriguing. As Caine’s leading lady Megan Donner, Kim Delaney keeps a frozen face, except for her jaw, which she compulsively squares in self-assertion. She’s been arbitrarily huffy from the second she came on the scene—I hope she gets help for whatever’s bothering her. Similarly, blond, sharp-featured Emily Procter is meant to play a kiss-my-grits South Florida ballistics expert named Calleigh Duquesne, but she comes off only as an unclassifiably preposterous person—overly made-up, unconvincingly smart, and badly miscast.

A last thought about CSI:Miami—a light mystery among the explicit mysteries of the show. David Caruso is having trouble with the light. His red complexion, to the degree that I can see it, is dented, crimson, big-pored; he should be careful in the Florida sun (though the show is largely shot on L.A. soundstages). The producers have made up for this by shooting him often in three-quarters and in shadows—the man’s answer to soft-focus. I like it, but I suspect his ravages could look good, and I want to get a better look at him. Don’t we CSI fans, believers in the very close-up, deserve it?