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Exquisite Corpses

CSI:NY extends television’s love affair with death, transforming the forensic pathologist into the hottest new TV hero. A city medical examiner weighs in on the glamorization of his profession.


Top: CSI: NY cast, with Zuiker (second from right); from left, Hill Harper, Melina Kanakaredes, and Vanessa Ferlito.  

When I was in medical school, I visited Luxor in upper Egypt on holiday. One afternoon, climbing up from the Nile, onto the Corniche, I came across the scene of a fatal accident: A truck loaded with sugarcane had hit a horse-drawn cab, killing both the horse and its master. A woman sat on the curb, arms stretched wide, wailing. Men were covering the horse and the slick of blood around it in sand, burying it completely, hiding it from the crowd that had gathered. The man’s body was already gone.

Death always attracts a crowd. At some level, it probably attracts you: You’ll be driving along a highway, and the traffic slowly becomes ensnarled; you’ll slow down ever so slightly as you reach the flares, take a glance, and feel a flash of guilt. It’s a morbid curiosity, and it’s only natural: You are a human being, this is death, it will happen to all of us, and in our culture, we do our best to hide it.

Movies and TV shows let people look at death and not turn away; prime time on many nights is wall-to-wall death. Increasingly, though, that death is mediated through the lens of forensic science, a mediation that sanitizes and protects. The new forensic shows owe less to Quincy, M.E. than they do to the 1995 O. J. Simpson trial, which focused unprecedented public attention on forensics. In 1996, the Discovery Channel began airing The New Detectives, dramatizing real-life murders; nearly a decade later, it’s almost impossible to turn the channel without landing on a forensic show, from glossy dramas like CSI, Crossing Jordan, and Cold Case Files to cable documentary series like Autopsy or Body of Evidence—not to mention death-drenched series like Six Feet Under.

But it was The New Detectives, a 60-minute show filled with earnest men in bad suits talking about ballistics, that ushered in this new era, if only by the coincidental fact that it was one of CSI creator Anthony Zuiker’s wife’s favorite shows. Seven years ago, Zuiker was a tram driver at the Mirage in Las Vegas, planning his break into casino middle management. In one of the industry’s great Cinderella stories, a speech Zuiker had written as a teenager caught the attention of an agent, and a few head-spinning months later, Zuiker found himself in Hollywood, pitching to producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman, Bruckheimer’s head of TV production. Zuiker told the producers that he wanted to do a fictional variation on The New Detectives, a new spin on the cop formula where the heroes would solve crimes with smarts and microscopes rather than fists and guns. His script for the pilot of CSI—his first TV script—was made almost exactly as written.

Now, several years on, CSI and CSI: Miami are comfortably ensconced in the Nielsen top ten, and last June Zuiker’s three-year contract with CBS Productions and Alliance Atlantis netted him, according to Variety, “between high seven figures and low eight figures.” With CSI’s ad rates averaging $350,000 for 30 seconds of airtime, and huge international and merchandising sales, the investment seems a sound one. And the franchise is about to expand locally: CSI: NY premieres on Wednesday, September 22, going head to head with the venerable Law & Order.

I first met Zuiker in February, when he was doing research at the office of the chief medical examiner, where I am a senior forensic pathologist. He’s an unassuming kind of guy, a slightly louche take on a frat boy, tan and sleek, with Mephistophelean goatee, tinted lenses, and tattooed forearms. I didn’t realize who he was and managed to rant on about something that bugged me: I said I loved the original CSI—I’ve seen every episode—but CSI: Miami rubs me the wrong way, particularly the medical examiner’s habit of talking to the bodies. As luck would have it, that was Zuiker’s idea.

I like to be entertained, and I find the aestheticized approach that TV and movies bring to my field highly entertaining: CSI works not so much as forensic science but as forensic science fiction.

But it really did rub me the wrong way. There’s a forensic saying that “there is only one honest witness to every murder”—the victim. And we talk about the Five Questions: Who are you? How did you die? When did you die? Where did you die? Who killed you? But we don’t ask those questions out loud. Watching Khandi Alexander caress and murmur to the bodies creeped me out, both for its bedroom-level sensuality and its tacit New Ageism. Aesthetic issues aside, that sort of sentimentality is just not an option if you’re going to stay sane doing this work. It’s a luxury to be able to shut down emotionally and to just proceed, viewing the victim as a technical challenge, a bearer of clues. Indeed, one of the accuracies of the original CSI is that the shows are more intellectually than emotionally engaging.

This might change with CSI: NY. “With New York,” says Zuiker, “we’re going to attempt to be more character-driven, have shorter scripts, have more music, and play more beautiful character moments and really capture the essence of human drama by showing American heroes who work very hard to bring peace of mind and closure to survivors.”

Zuiker has built his cast around Gary Sinise, as senior CSI detective Mack “Mac” Taylor—a former Marine whose wife died in the World Trade Center. Providence’s Melina Kanakaredes plays his foil; Hill Harper the M.E. (who, in the aftermath of 9/11, finds himself withdrawing from life and sleeping at the morgue); and Terry Kinney (who co-founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company with Sinise 30 years ago) has a recurring role as the D.A.

Zuiker clearly doesn’t like interviews, nor does he like to stay still; during a break from shooting the series opener in Times Square on an absurdly hot July day, we walk back and forth between Broadway and Eighth as he talks. He stays absolutely On Message, each answer a dense paragraph that seems committed to memory. He uses certain sound bites repeatedly, stringing them together like a toy train; in later conversations with his team, they repeat the same phrases. There are lots of references to “American heroes”—his mantra for the CSI shows is “Real CSIs bringing peace of mind to survivors, and doing it from a scientific point of view.”

Zuiker is particularly passionate about the city. In CSI: NY, he says, “our goal is to capture the quintessential New York. New York as a melting pot of beautiful people, of hard-working heroes.” He says this without irony, and he says this about 100 feet from the wedge of asphalt on which the Naked Cowboy is signing autographs.

Zuiker hints at some of the story lines that will show up in the New York series. “We’re doing an episode about sandhogs, the men who build the tunnels. A Central Park rape story. We’re doing a serial killer for the opener. Some stuff about Port Authority, Wall Street. A rat-that-eats-evidence story.”

For a guy who savors stories about rats and murder, Zuiker tosses the word beautiful around as if it were a Frisbee. Everything is exciting, exhilarating, extraordinary; at some point, suffused by his enthusiasm, I begin to wonder what he’d be like on ecstasy. “Every time we park ourselves in a location, it’s something interesting,” he says. “Times Square is fantastic! The park in Brooklyn was just amazing yesterday, the garbage barge down in the Navy Yard was beautiful! The great thing about New York is that no matter where you hang your hat, it’s something that’s authentic and beautiful and will just look gorgeous on film.”

And that is exactly what makes his work so strong. Sure, he’s spraying out seed messages in his own brand of corporate-speak, but he truly means them. His writing for the show is clever and involving, droll and astute. As a member of an office that has continued to deal with the burden of 9/11 for the last three years, I tend to be wary of anything that reads as potentially 9/11-exploitative, but there’s something disarming about Zuiker’s faith in science as intrinsically noble. And just as he recognized before anyone else that this was forensics’ golden moment, he has intuited that the drama of forensics is visual, not verbal; the science must be even sexier than the cast.

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