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The devil is in ‘CSI’s’ details

Special to The Times

When “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” writer and executive producer Naren Shankar was a kid, he carefully crafted models of classic cars from the 1930s and ‘40s.

Little did he know that several decades later, his youthful hobby would help him shepherd a seventh-season television series with a recurring story line about a serial killer with a penchant for building miniaturized crime scenes.

Known as the Miniature Killer, or the “MCSK mystery” (for Miniature Crime Scene Killer), to fans trying to unravel the felon’s identity online, the murderer will be revealed Thursday night in the “CSI” season finale.

It’s the first time “CSI” has used a serialized story line. Some TV critics and fans thought it was implemented in response to the CBS series being pitted this season against the emotional lather of ABC’s popular “Grey’s Anatomy,” but Shankar said that was not the case. The writers had talked about creating season-long arcs for years, he said.

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Asked how the serialization has worked, insofar as standing off the ratings threat of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Shankar’s nostrils flared slightly in the hallway of the “CSI” offices in Universal City.

“The comparison between ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ story arcs and ‘CSI’ is a little apples and oranges to me, because that show is truly a soap opera and we’re not,” he said. “We’re a true crime procedural; we’re a mystery show. Any kind of season-long arc we generate is not about who you’re going to sleep with, or who you’re going to choose, or who you’re going to drive off into the sunset with....”

In any case, the MCSK mystery certainly hasn’t hurt. For the season as a whole, “CSI,” which performs well in repeats, has averaged 20.5 million viewers a night to “Grey’s Anatomy’s” 19.1 million. But the lusty doctors at Seattle Grace lead among the advertiser-preferred demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds.

“CSI’s” Miniature Killer tale is a byproduct of the show’s hard-nosed crime research mixed with free-form culture sampling.

If the series writers are students of any one show, it’s “The X-Files,” Shankar said, which famously did both “anthology stories,” in which mysteries were solved in one episode, and “mythology stories,” which tackled a single theme, such as space aliens, over the course of the season. Swap out space aliens for the MCSK mystery, and you have “CSI’s” five Miniature Killer episodes this season, with each installment complete unto itself.

The inspiration for the plot came during “CSI’s” fifth season when director and supervising producer Ken Fink’s wife, Beth, read an article about Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), a Chicago heiress who was barred from attending medical school because of her gender but who went on to become a pioneer in scientific crime detection because of her use of murder-scene dioramas as forensic training tools for police. There was a resurgence of interest in her work when Corinne May Botz, a Brooklyn photographer, published 500 photos of Lee’s blood-soaked dioramas in the book “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

The trick for the “CSI” writers was figuring out how and when to introduce a killer ghoulishly obsessed with dolls into their hit series. They met last summer with a forensic scientist to better understand the type of person who would plan a murder using miniatures. From that conversation was born a character and story line.

The hard work of physically bringing the idea to the screen fell to “CSI” set designer Rob Sissman.

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For each of the crime scenes in the five episodes, Sissman first designed a life-sized set, then built two miniatures with the help of Manhattan Beach-based So Cal Prop Shop. One was a half-inch-scale model for the actors to use as props, the other a 1-inch-scale version for the camera department to shoot with a remote high-definition digital camera system.

Sissman spent long hours at his drafting table bent over mouse-sized sets and bloody dolls, using tiny tweezers, knives and glue as he sought to match the three sets detail for detail, in three scales.

Those hours of alone time seemed to influence Sissman’s countenance as he gave a downbeat tour of his miniatures and the “CSI” set late one rainy Friday afternoon in April on the Universal lot. The finale was being filmed on a set that seemed half-inspired by Terry Gilliam’s junk-deco aesthetic of “Brazil” and half by avid doll collector and author Anne Rice’s Southern gothic St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage in New Orleans.

“This season was exhausting,” Sissman allowed. In fact, a few days earlier he had told the producers he would be leaving “CSI” to accept a job with Fox’s “Bones.”

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“If you stay too long on any one series in this business, people forget who you are,” he said.

Shankar echoed the sentiment when discussing the ongoing internal pressure of keeping a series as fresh as possible season after season.

“If you get to a point where you’re just sort of churning it out, and it just feels the same, that’s when a show begins its decline into irrelevance,” Shankar said. “I don’t think that’s where we want to be.”


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