CBS's big hit of the 2000-1 season was supposed to be The Fugitive, the remake of the series that had aired on ABC from 1963 to 1967. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, created by Anthony Zuiker and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, was an afterthought and an underdog; it had been turned down by every other network. This Wednesday, CSI and CBS will celebrate the airing of its 300th episode. And do you remember The Fugitive? You do not.
CSI — and the larger franchise, which includes the late Miami and NY versions — has contributed to the television and pop culture vernacular in a slew of ways we now take for granted. For one thing, its focus on minutiae: Fibers, stains, skin, and blood drops might have gotten attention at real crime scenes before CSI, but they never did on television. (Obviously, House borrowed CSI's microscopic gaze, but I also think about it when I watch BBC's Sherlock.)
CSI also ended up coinciding with the rise of the nerd as a hero and a success. The CSIs, first led by William Petersen's Grissom and Marg Helgenberger's Catherine, and later through numerous cast changes, were front-and-center crime solvers and lab rats. Realism be damned.
The show also brought a historic level of, well, grossness to TV. Executive producer Carol Mendelson said in a recent interview that CSI's aesthetic of disgustingness has evolved as the years have passed. "We were consumed by science," Mendelson said. "And we were trying to tell a great crime story, but through a different lens: the lens of forensics."
"We never went for a shot, I don't believe, that was fully gratuitous," Mendelson continued. "But we did get desensitized as we learned more about science. And I believe that the audience did too."
Not everyone has loved the graphic content, of course. There were the usual Parents Television Council complaints. But Mendelson says that the show has been scrupulous in working with CBS to make sure that the show never crossed lines.
"Every episode is reviewed by broadcast standards and by legal," she said. "And they are really tough on us. They would give notes, like, 'the blood pool is too big,' or 'there's too much dripping blood,' or 'you cannot see a bullet actually impact a person,' or 'you cannot hold a gun to a person's head.' 'You have too many maggots.' I can't say that at times it wasn't contentious? But they're the guardians of the airwaves."
And that sounds like a good thing. "Without them, who knows where we would have gone!" Mendelson said with a laugh.