Disclosure: I once worked for CBS to produce television advertising for CSI: Miami, and many of the opinions expressed below have been informed and influenced by those experiences.
The odds are that CSI: Miami is either a show you love, or a show you love to hate. Whichever camp you fall into, it’s a certainty that your opinion of the show’s star, David Caruso is the defining feature of your opinion.
Since its 2002 premiere, it has consistently ranked in Nielsen’s top 10 shows. One study claims that it is the most watched show in the world, based on internationally aggregated top ten ratings.
The last show to lay claim to that title was Baywatch, and both shows have a fair amount in common. They’re silly, two-dimensional cutouts; liberally sprinkled with bikinis, music-driven montages, and non-linear storytelling that translates easily to foreign languages. If it barely adds up in English, then translating it to Russian, Vietnamese, or Swahili can’t hurt. But where Baywatch was content to cheaply sell T&A to afternoon audiences, CSI: Miami is dedicated to pushing the boundaries of style.
While talk of the best shows on television inevitably revolves around the dramatic heft of The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, or The Sopranos, few discussions look at the other end of the spectrum. CSI: Miami draws millions more viewers on a weekly basis, and in a populist medium, that’s a significant metric. The lesson here is that quality and artistry are not synonymous. If producing fluff was easy, the radio waves would be flooded with a hundred successful Britney Spears clones. There are imitators, to be sure, but the key word is ‘successful’. Vacuity is as hard to achieve as substance, perhaps harder.
There’s nothing middle-of-the-road about CSI: Miami and nothing else quite like it on television. It has long since transcended its origin as a spin-off police procedural, and has become a unique hybrid – equal parts soap opera, eye candy, and David Caruso’s ego.
The heart of CSI: Miami is Caruso’s singular creation, Lieutenant Horatio Caine. Every episode kicks off with Caine standing rock-still, gravely presiding over a crime scene before uttering a cynical, bad action movie witticism. (A great montage of his one-liners is available on You Tube.)
Less a man and more a demi-god, he exudes a lunatic unpredictability. His body is rigid, and at the same time prone to moving in sinuous, unexpected ways – he hunches, stares, or removes his sunglasses seemingly at random. Watching him is like watching an autistic savant calculate impossibly long prime numbers; he’s tuning into something completely invisible to mortal men. It’s a performance that’s a far cry from parody, though, because Caruso has small-screen charisma to burn.
On set, Caruso is fixated on finding a very particular groove for Caine. In between sips of diet Coke, he ranges freely through his dialogue, often re-inventing it outright. The rest of the cast delivers the script exactly as written; Caruso shuffles his lines or simply re-writes them on the fly. The infamous one-liners that close the tease of each episode are rarely – if ever – delivered as scripted. During my time producing promos for the show, I don’t remember the quip from the shooting script ever remotely matching what Caruso delivered on set.
My favorite moment from the dailies happened while shooting on location. Normally, when he loses his flow, Caruso will cut his own take with a shake of his head and a call for some diet Coke. Only this once, Caruso blanked mid-take and called out to the script supervisor for his next line. Off-camera, a voice shouts “Frank, it looks like homicide.”
A second later, Caruso said “This looks like murder, Frank.”
It’s not just the ‘money’ lines of dialogue he re-crafts; it’s all of it – from the minor bits of exposition to the major speeches. High minded critics might dismiss that as egotism and bad celebrity behavior, but it’s hard to argue with results. Whether you’re cheering for him or laughing at him, Caruso is a singular presence on television. What he’s created in Horatio Caine is singular; even if it will be parodied for years, he’s achieved something unique. It took three decades for Shatner’s overacting Kirk to gain icon status, something Caruso attained in less than three years. There isn’t another television star who divides the audience so sharply, and is watched by both ends of the spectrum.
The rest of CSI: Miami is held together purely by Caine’s gravity. In the last few years, there have been serial killers, doomed romances, murdered wives, lost sons, pregnancy scares, undercover moles, a long lost brother, kidnappings, amnesia, gambling problems, drug possession, and most recently, an extradition to Brazil that have plagued the forensic team outside their caseload. The stories are ludicrous, and the presented motives for murder are nearly nonsensical. Caruso’s hyper-solemn manner destroys any need for plausibility. Nobody watches this show for content – it’s all the style.
There isn’t a better looking show on prime-time, high-definition television than CSI: Miami. The fictional Miami is a volatile city of gold, exploding with impossibly over-saturated color. How many police labs in America are suffused with lime green and tangerine orange lighting? How many coroners show up at crime scenes in white linen suits and four inch heels? It’s a glamorous, immigrant’s dream of Miami… blending Scarface, telenovellas, and slavish celebrity worship into a modern mélange. Much as Dallas epitomized wealth and success in the '80s and Beverly Hills, 90210 did in the '90s, CSI: Miami is a vision of how the "have-nots" dream life is like for the "haves".
Television is essentially where America dreams, and embodying the roiling, contradictory desires of the national subconscious is a far more difficult task than it appears. The failed attempts are too numerous to count, and CSI: Miami couldn’t be a success if it didn’t inspire such divisive attitudes. Love it or hate it, you can’t argue against the quality.