Monday, June 22, 2009

CSI: Miami and color

Bored on a Monday night, in the mood to be couch – what’s a lazier tuber than potatoes? yuca? – we were being couch yucas, grazing through our basic cable channels, we landed on CSI: Miami, as we often do.

Often, because in our house police procedurals rate a bit higher than most reality shows and all sitcoms. As police procedurals go, CSI: Miami is pretty lame, but it’s not completely useless.

We’re unrepentant fans of the Vegas CSI. Not regular viewers, but we’re always happy to run into a rerun. I think Dana Stevens nailed Grissom’s appeal, and the show’s in general. The characters are pleasantly wry, even when they’re skating over deep waters, and Grissom’s bemused but sympathetic acceptance of all human behavior is a pleasant relief from the reactionary tone of most cop shows. Even with him gone, the show’s still doing alright: Morpheus is holding his own.

Such as is displayed on the Miami and New York CSIs. The NY one I’ve only managed to sit through a handful of times. There’s nothing remotely interesting on it; it lacks the pithy writing of the original, and the striking visual style of the Miami branch. All it has are some tired and annoying New York stereotypes, and these aren’t enough to outbalance the sheer banality of setting the show in New York. A huge part of CSI’s appeal is its unconventional Vegas setting; Miami wasn’t quite as original a choice, but as a setting it’s still nowhere near as overworked as New York.

What CSI: Miami really has going for it is the most inventive visual style I’ve seen on a television drama. It’s all about color. And I mean that literally: you can ignore the story altogether (I usually do) and focus on what they’re doing with color, and have yourself an intense hour of viewing.

It didn’t start out that way. For the first couple of seasons they were presenting the show in a slightly more saturated version of the Vegas show’s steely blues and blacks. But then they got wise to the potentials of their tropical setting, and ever since it’s been a wonderland of cool candy colors.

I’d love to sit in on their planning sessions. Sometimes it seems like they pick a specific color to focus on for an entire episode, and everything will be coordinated around it. The detectives’ shirts and ties, the backlighting in the labs, cars, scarves, flowers… The episode I’m currently half-watching, for example: everything is organized around splashes of yellow. But I’ve seen them do lime green episodes, ocean blue, lavenders, oranges.

I sound like either a stoner or an art critic when I say this, and I’m neither, but I’ve never seen anything quite this visual on tv before. It’s not like, say, Ugly Betty, using bright primary colors to create a comic or comic-book atmosphere. CSI: Miami is gauzier than that: instead of brightly colored things, we often get almost abstract floating patches of color. And because the overall tone is more realistic, it gives the radical color-coordination an almost surrealistic dimension. Really: have you ever seen detectives dress that sensitively? Have you ever seen a police station with lighting that artistic?

It’s mesmerizing enough to keep you from noticing how awful the writing is.

I mean, just boneheaded. Take the viewer by the hand and lead them through the plot awful. Some of the storylines evince a little ambition – the South-Florida-requisite drug gangs and amoral nouveaux riches – but the dialogue is so baseball-bat-to-the-head obvious that it kills any potential interest these plots might have.

Which leads me to what we currently love about the show: Horatio Caine’s koans. David Caruso has become justly famous for his delivery of these one-liners, his desperate longing to be Clint Eastwood saying “make my day.” But Caruso can’t claim all the credit. The writers do their bit, too.

Take this one, selected at random from the rerun we were just watching. He’s interrogating a Miami madam, and she muses about how the risk of murder is an occupational hazard for women in her line of work. It’s time to cut to commercial, so Caine draws himself up and says, “Don’t I know it.” Ooh! Zinger! He sure shut her up, didn’t he? But wait – what can he possibly mean by that? How long has Caine been a prostitute, that he can speak of his firsthand knowledge of the violence facing sex workers? What does he know, or don’t? What can he know? Nothing.

It’s not just Caruso’s overacting that makes these bon mots so delicious: it’s the fact that they make no sense. Like I say, they’re koans. Ponder them long enough and I’m sure you’ll reach some kind of enlightenment.

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