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Crime Pays Off

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor George Eads has a sign inside his trailer on the set of the CBS series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” that simply says: “Beat Goliath.”

“It seemed like this kind of David and Goliath thing with the show,” explains Eads, who plays investigator Nick Stokes. “We were up against the odds--the underdog.”

At the beginning of the fall TV season, “CSI,” a fast-paced, stylish, hourlong mystery series about a group of dedicated Las Vegas crime scene investigators, was overshadowed by such highly touted series as “The Fugitive,” “Ed” and “Bette.”

But “CSI,” executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, has become a surprise hit, ranking No. 20 for the season in the Nielsen ratings list. The show recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for best drama series--the only first-year show to be nominated for best series, in either the drama or comedy categories.

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Eads (“Savannah”) believes audiences have made “CSI” appointment TV because it’s atypical of crime series.

“The audience takes a ride from the minute the show opens to the end,” Eads says. “You really get to follow and search for clues with us.”

“CSI” stars William Petersen (who is also a producer) as Gil Grissom, the rather eccentric, dedicated senior forensics officer. Grissom’s team consists of Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), a single parent who is juggling her work and home life, and junior members Stokes (Eads), Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) and Sara Sidel (Jorja Fox).

Though set in Las Vegas, “CSI” is filmed on a sound stage in Valencia and in the surrounding environs. On a recent morning, director Danny Cannon was guiding Helgenberger and Eads in a scene involving the episode’s “B” story line about a young gambler whose brother was murdered. As soon as that scene wrapped, the production traveled a few miles away to film at an empty house on a quiet street.

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Petersen, Fox and Dourdan were involved in the main story line dealing with a man accused of arson who tries to convince Grissom he didn’t set fire to his house.

During a break in the action, Petersen discusses the series’ success. “I was with [CBS president Leslie] Moonves the other night, and I think, by and large, he’s pretty shocked.”

Petersen isn’t. “I thought it would be great. There were too many people around the country digging stuff like this.”

The actor (“Manhunter”) describes the series as “Sherlock Holmes in cyberspace.” “It’s like: What would Sherlock Holmes be doing if he had all of this equipment?” says Petersen. “Technology has made these guys the crime solvers for the future.”

Petersen is quick to point out that “CSI” just doesn’t deal with homicides. “We have traffic accidents, burglary, armed robbery, con men,” he says. “We just finished an episode in which hikers find a body in the hills that has been dead several days. There are bugs all over her, and we figure everything through the bugs. It’s pretty fascinating.”

“CSI” marks the return to series TV for Helgenberger, an Emmy winner for “China Beach.” The actress hadn’t found a show she liked until she read creator Anthony Zuiker’s script for “CSI.”

“The script really stood out from the pack as being innovative and provocative and something different in terms of crime solving,” says Helgenberger.

Whereas “China Beach” was character driven, “CSI” is plot driven, which, she says, “is at times a little frustrating as an actor. But if the show continues to be successful, we’ll be able to move more into the characters’ stories and relationships.”

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Still, all the actors seem pleased with the paths their characters are taking. Fox (“ER,” “The West Wing”) feels blessed playing Sara.

“She has some people problems,” says Fox. “She’s better at science and her work than she is relating with people. She generally says what’s on her mind, and that’s really fun. She’s quick because she stands up for things she believes in, which is really exciting.”

And Dourdan enjoys being the series’ rebellious voice. “He’s questioning authority, and sometimes he’s getting in a lot of trouble because of that,” says Dourdan of Warrick. “He has a gambling issue, which gives him another dimension. You are going to see more dimensions of him, and his past will come to light.”

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“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for coarse language and violence).


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