Some Clues to ‘CSI’s’ Success Lie Behind the Scenes
Ann Donahue, an executive producer of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” went to the set of the show recently to help spread and celebrate the good news.
The second-year CBS drama had topped the Nielsen Media ratings for the first time during the first week of December. Nearly 24 million viewers had tuned in.
“We went over and congratulated the crew and actors,” said Donahue, who runs the show with executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. “We were the also-ran to ‘The Fugitive’ when we started. We were the answer to the trivia question: What comes on after ‘The Fugitive’? Finding an audience that has the same passion for the show that we have as writers is wonderful.”
A few days after the celebration, “CSI” finished far behind “ER” in their first head-to-head telecasts. But the “ER” episode was a landmark of sorts, with Eriq La Salle, an original cast member, leaving the show. Nielsen Media reported that 28.9 million viewers tuned in to see La Salle’s final appearance as Dr. Benton while 17.5 million watched “CSI.”
But the trend is clear: “CSI” in a season and a half has established itself as one of the most popular dramas on television.
How did the show go from being the Friday night follow-up to “The Fugitive"--pronounced dead long ago--to a mainstay on TV’s popular Thursday night?
Donahue offered some clues and a forensic theory that point to the show’s success.
And looking behind the scenes of this hard-edged show, there is a dramatic personal tale that plays more like a Cinderella story than a whodunit.
Last season, the “CSI” producers were mulling over a coming episode based on a suburban case in which both parents had been murdered.
As Donahue recalled, Elizabeth Devine, a technical advisor to the show, heard about the story line over lunch. “‘That’s a coincidence,’ she said. ‘I’ve been up for five days dealing with a multiple murder.’
“She had been the criminalist on the case we were dealing with. She gave us so many intangibles that she got story credit.”
This season, Devine was elevated to story editor, one of two on the show. It all makes for a personal story worthy of a TV movie of its own.
Our protagonist, Elizabeth Devine, a woman from Berkeley, gets her B.A. in biology at UCLA and decides to become a criminalist. She gets her master’s in criminalistics from Cal State L.A., in 1985.
Starting out at age 25, the young Californian spends the next 15 years as a criminalist in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. At the same time she is coping with such unpleasantness as splattered or decomposed human remains, she has to prove herself to police officers and mostly male colleagues.
Along the way, she gets to work on some high-profile cases, including the Menendez brothers’.
She signs on as a technical advisor for some feature films and a TV movie before landing a similar job with “CSI.”
The personal back story is that of a single mother with three children ages 4 to 8. One is autistic, an experience Devine eventually works into a “CSI” script.
Having cracked one tough profession, she finds herself making a rapid rise in another, a highly competitive field in which a lot of aspiring writers have toiled long and hard only to see her streak by them in a heartbeat.
Is there jealousy or resentment?
“Writers,” Donahue said, “are born bitter.” She calls back a while later to emphasize that she’s not talking about “CSI’s” writers.
“I don’t see [resentment among] our writers and crew,” Donahue said. “Liz is so much help. When she goes to a Hollywood party it could happen, but I don’t see it.
“Carol Mendelsohn and I are two women running the show. So maybe it’s a different world than she would have encountered elsewhere. It’s the way the world is.”
Devine respects the feelings of those around her, and at the same time she realizes and appreciates what she’s accomplished.
“I try not to say, ‘I fell backward into writing’ because of all the people who struggled to do this work. I’m sure they’re not too thrilled with that.”
When “CSI” launched, she recalled, they were looking for a technical advisor to work one day a week.
“I had Fridays off, so I told them I could work that day,” she said. “Once I did that, I pretty much separated myself from the other TAs. I was proactive in making sure we did it correctly. Others were waiting to be called. I felt for myself, I should know when questions should be asked.” When others hung back, she was on the set studying the video monitor. “I taught myself what a TA should do,” she said.
When viewer response made it obvious “CSI” was going to have a nice run, Devine was invited on board full time. She said no. “I couldn’t leave a full-time job,” she said. “I’d heard horror stories. It took a month to convince myself.”
In her first year, she received credit for the story lines in two episodes and wrote a third.
“I turned in the script and they were happy with it,” she recalled. “I’m sure they had to polish it, add camera moves and so on. But what they tell me is, get the story down and they’ll worry about camera moves, what room the action is in, whether it’s day or night. It’s harder than it seems to write a good story.”
Soon she had momentum. “After I wrote my episode, I got an agent. Once you get an agent, people stand up and take notice,” she said. “Carol pushed hard for me to be story editor this year. She had faith I could write episodes and be helpful on the show. I’m doing my third episode of this season.”
Devine calls Mendelsohn and Donahue her mentors and credits them with helping early on to turn her stories into scripts. “I didn’t know if I could write, but I did know how to tell a story,” she said. “I call it cocktail talk. The stories I used to tell at cop bars are the same ones we’re telling here.”
The stories fashioned by Devine, her fellow story editor, two producer-writers, three executive producer-writers and a consulting writer have turned “CSI” into a different kind of crime show.
The key to the show’s success?
“Closure,” Donahue said. “There are no situational ethics on the show. The evidence says what happened, and our people interpret it, point the finger and end of story.”
Which is not to say that the guilty don’t sometimes elude the show’s team of crime-scene investigators. The show’s team--anchored by William Petersen as the CSI chief with a fascination for insects and Marg Helgenberger as the senior investigator with a complicated past--sometimes watch the perpetrators walk, as happened in the episode that aired opposite “ER.” But their sorting and sifting of evidence is usually conclusive, always interesting, often surprising and highly informative on the sophistication of modern forensic science.
“There’s a lot of great stuff on TV,” Donahue said, “but there are shades of gray that allow the bad guys to get away. We do that occasionally, but not often.”
Taken Into Account
The whole show is based on Locard’s theory, she explained. The theory, generally stated, is that every person or object coming into contact with another person or object will leave behind some evidence of that contact and also will take some evidence away.
“So a murderer will leave something behind, and the victim will send something on,” Donahue said. “It could be asbestos fibers from a guy’s job; it could be ink from the newspaper where you work. It’s a simple equation that is mind-boggling in a way, but it’s the crux of the show. We never hit a dead end. If we’re stuck, we go back to the body.”
“CSI” stories, Donahue noted, are told in three ways: the conventional, flashbacks to illustrate various versions of the crime, and animation at the molecular level to show how a weapon undermined the body.
If there is a growing interest among TV viewers in forensic science--a number of cable shows offer case documentaries--there also seems to be a revival of interest in dramatic storytelling. While “reality” and game shows are seeing their Nielsen rankings slip, dramas are showing muscle.
During the week in which “CSI” was No. 1, six other dramas made the top 20. Only one game or reality show, “Survivor: Africa,” ranked that high.
The “CSI” cases are pursued by a cast led by Petersen as Gil Grissom, the bug-obsessed loner, and Helgenberger as Catherine Willows, the former stripper-turned-criminalist.
The rest of the cast covers most of the demographic and attitude bases, with Gary Dourdan as Warrick Brown, George Eads as Nick Stokes and Jorja Fox as Sara Sidle, with Paul Guilfoyle as police detective Jim Brass.
The scripts generally manage to keep all of them involved in the story lines, along with a manageable roster of peripheral characters.
The series is primarily a workplace drama and rarely makes a character’s domestic life the center of the show.
“When you go home, you’re in trouble,” Donahue said. “I’d rather see their personal problems through the prism of the office.”
The whole show gets a different visual spin by being set in Las Vegas. Lush photography takes advantage of everything from neon to desert sand as a background.
Even the show’s creative team is off the beaten path. Anthony Zuiker, who created the show, was driving a tram at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas before he became interested in forensics and decided to try his hand at a screenplay.
Jerry Bruckheimer, also listed as an executive producer, helped Zuiker sell the show to the network.
Mendelsohn and Donahue are the show-runners. Mendelsohn previously served as a co-executive producer and writer on “Melrose Place.”
Donahue, 46, wrote for “China Beach” (which gave Helgenberger a memorable role as K.C.) and served as a producer on “Murder One” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“What we have in common is a passion for TV and storytelling,” Donahue said. “We both worked at [many of] the same places. We know what we’re doing.”
Donahue also uses the word passion when appraising the work of Devine. “She knows the nuts and bolts that a criminalist would,” she said.
“She has the storytelling ability of a writer,” Donahue added, “and the passion you have to have for both jobs.”
Devine also is nursing a passion to write a book.
“The tentative title is, ‘What’s This Girl Doing at My Crime Scene?’ Which I used to hear a lot,” Devine said. “I was one of the few women going into the field. They were used to older men in tweed coats. I showed up looking like a surfer chick.”
She Eventually Earns
Respect of Colleagues
Devine won over the police officers she encountered at crime scenes with her willingness to do the work, she said. Colleagues in her own line of work were tougher, she said, resenting her success and her association with high-profile cases.
Devine said the mix of male and female criminalists in her old office is now about 50-50. When she started out, she was one of a few.
“If I opened doors, I hope so,” she said, “because I worked [hard] at the sheriff’s office and did things no one else would do--blood and brains dripping off the ceiling, 2-month-old decomps.
“There’s a body in the Dumpster? I was over the side and into the Dumpster. That was received well, especially by cops. They size you up in two minutes, and if you’re not pulling your weight, they react.”
When it came time to leave all that behind and commit to TV writing, Devine sat down with her children. Youngest daughter Rachel and son Austin were OK with the idea. Middle child Katherine had reservations.
“She said, ‘Mom, it’s more important to catch bad guys than to work on a TV show.’ I said, yes, but Mom’s caught bad guys for a long time. Now I’m going to do something different.
“She was the only one who didn’t support it,” Devine said. “She was proud that I caught bad guys.”