CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Complete First Season

William L. Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, George Eads, Jorja Fox, Eric Szmanda, Robert David Hall, Paul Guilfoyle. Various directors. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (full frame). Dolby Digital 2.0. Six discs. 999 minutes. 2000. Paramount/CBS Video 87165. NR. $89.99.

Picture *** 1/2
Sound ***
Film *** 1/2

Billed by its fans as the "best show on television," CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is engrossing and fascinating, although a bit too episodic to stand comparison with such series as The Shield, The Sopranos, and 24, which use season-long story arcs to weave complex narratives of greater depth and focus than any show that needs to wrap things up neatly at the end of each hour.

That said, CSI stands head and shoulders above most of the weekly fare from the major networks. It offers an interesting wrinkle on the hoary formula of the police procedural, and the crack cast and writers give the characters believable and all-too-human foibles. The series also makes great use of both sides—Sin City USA, sleepy Southwestern anytown—of the split personality of its setting, Las Vegas, Nevada.

CSI is the story of forensic scientist Gil Grissom (William L. Petersen) and his crew of crime-scene investigators as they work on various cases assigned to the graveyard shift of the Las Vegas Sheriff's department. More than anything else, the series is a variation on the classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries: brilliant scientist commands vast realms of seemingly trivial facts that, taken together, reveal the answers to unsolvable puzzles.

Unlike Doyle's stories, however, CSI makes for gritty television; some folks will be put off by the way the camera lingers on wounds, decomposing flesh, and other evidence of violent crimes. In fact, some viewers have reported that CSI makes the increased resolution of HDTV a decidedly mixed blessing.

By and large, the show is not gruesomely exploitive of its violent milieu. As the season progresses, however, it relies increasingly on a set-piece wherein explanations are re-enacted in gritty, slow-motion video footage showing various traumas from points of view within the body. In small doses, it works; as the series goes to that well more and more frequently, it becomes a gimmick.

At times, CSI also descends to the sin of gratuitous explanation, as characters who should have been on the same page spout exposition at one another to bring the viewer up to speed. I find it unlikely that any forensic investigator would not know the Latin names of the bones in the human skeleton, for instance, or forget where in the jaw molars or incisors are.

These are minor quibbles. For the most part, the scripts are cracking good, the science plausible, the characters believable. Intelligent weekly television—what a concept. Let's pray it catches on.

The production values are high. CBS obviously lavished money on the program from the beginning. The sound is superbly clear—some of the best I've heard from television. The transfer to DVD is also extremely fine. The show uses a lot of video effects, including deliberate grain and washed-out colors, especially in flashbacks and crime reenactments. But when such artistic choices are not indulged, the picture is demonstration-quality clean. At one point, I even spied a corpse taking a breath during an autopsy scene, and at least one reflection of a camera in a nearby glass surface. [Since the show is presumably filmed and framed to look best for hi-def broadcast in a 16:9 aspect ratio, however, one wonders why we have been given a 4:3 presentation on the DVD.TJN]

In addition to the first season's 23 epi-sodes, this set includes character profiles; a featurette, CSIPeople Lie . . . But the Evidence Never Does; and a music video of the show's theme, "Who Are You?"—all worthwhile additions. But the primary appeal of CSI: Crime Scene InvestigationThe Complete First Season lies in the 17 hours' worth of compelling stories it tells so well.—WP