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Exquisite Corpses

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Everyone at CSI is quick to give British director Danny Cannon credit for making the franchise the best-looking thing on television, especially the stunning establishing shots of each city. The New York series, he says, “will be more desaturated, colder in winter, oppressive, muscular. Less gloss, less glamour.” But my favorite visual element is the one coordinated by producer Bruce Golin: “the CSI Shots,” painstakingly composited from 2-D and 3-D computer images and models, in close collaboration with Emmy-winning designer John Goodwin, and shot with motion-control cameras through a snorkel lens. These shots illuminate subtle forensic points for which verbal descriptions are inadequate. To illustrate, for example, the mechanics of specialized sabot ammunition, Golin created a simulation of a bullet leaving the barrel of the weapon and shedding its casing in slow motion; the quality is so good that I tell Golin I’m thinking of using it in my lectures on gunshot wounds.

The forensic principles expressed in the series are generally solid, but also highly stylized, the result of technical advisers who are crime-scene investigators, not lab pathologists. For example, one of my favorite CSI moments involved a badly decomposed body. Since there’s no tissue left, CSI Warrick Brown must take maggots for analysis; this makes for a great scene as actor Gary Dourdan, face grim as Socrates gripping his mug of hemlock, places a single maggot under the microscope and begins to dissect. I found that hilarious: I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that, in real life, the procedure involves a cupful of maggots and a blender.

Most of the show’s distortions involve quickening the pace, from the fast turnover of lab results to the fact that each CSI performs the real-life work of many specialists. There are other minor irritations—when she’s doing an autopsy, the Miami M.E. looks like she’s trying to devein a shrimp hidden somewhere in the chest cavity, and X-rays are often stuck the wrong way on the viewing boxes (this latter is a TV pandemic, reaching its zenith with Scrubs, the title shot of which is painted on a backward chest X-ray. This left-right chest-X-ray dyslexia has always confused me; in many murder victims, stab wounds are centered on the left side of the chest, leading me to the conclusion that pretty much everyone except set dressers knows that the heart lies toward the left).

I’ve heard plenty of forensic scientists scoff at the show, the general sentiments being distilled into an essay published by Claire Shepard, a CSI in Georgia, in the newsletter of the Young Forensic Scientists Forum in January 2001. Shepard praises CSI for elevating the status of the investigator, but whinges on about how unrepresentative the show is, attacking everything from the state-of-the-art equipment to the fact that the CSIs never get dirty. She mutters darkly that she suspects that CSI focuses on glamorous murders because it doesn’t want to show an America in which drug- and gang-related violence predominates. Finally, she flings up her hands and wails, “Where is the reality in this show?”

I’m a lot more willing than Shepard to give the producers artistic license. 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. And at its heart, the show really nails the true nature of forensic investigation—the elimination of false leads, the winnowing down to the provable conclusion. Basically, though, I enjoy seeing my profession sexed-up; it’s a bit like the ending of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, where Pee-wee watches himself played by James Brolin in a Hollywood version of his life.

The fact is that most murder is pathetically trite, lives snuffed out over money, or drugs, or jealousy. Few cases turn on fiber evidence or alternative light sources; some killers get away with it. Indeed, the only TV show in which I’ve seen death investigation accurately portrayed was ABC’s NYPD 24/7, a documentary mini-series that ran early this summer. I caught only a few episodes (and know some of the personnel involved), but the depiction of the realities of death investigation—the yawning chasm between the blood and sweat of the street and the sterile cool of the lab, the way leads fizzle out, prosecutions are dropped, cases remain unsolved—all rang completely true. Because, of course, it was.

On a typical day, the three pathologists on autopsy duty in the Manhattan medical examiner’s office will perform perhaps six autopsies. Unexpected natural deaths, accidents and suicides fill up the roster; homicides, the purring engine of the forensic drama, are in the minority. It takes junior pathologists a while to grasp that, no matter how thorough we are, the question “Who killed you?” is rarely answered in the morgue. In real life, we accept the limitations of the evidence, acknowledge the ambiguity of what we are seeing; the moments of heroic insight are relatively few.

On CSI, in contrast, the lab machines are fetishized—in the precise movement of a sampling pipette through a cohort of vials, the whir of a mass spectrometer spitting out its verdict, there is an implication that the yield is perfect truth. That’s very much the way we want the world to be—clean, neat, unambiguous. And to an extent we are moving toward that ideal; the 21st century will be the century of DNA. At the New York medical examiner’s office, the original 1959 facility occupies eight cramped floors, while our DNA department is to be rehoused in a new, ultramodern seventeen-story building, allowing for four times the space. The science is difficult, but the promise is immense.

At the end of the day, I suspect that what irks forensic professionals who are CSI naysayers is some vague sense of jealousy that they weren’t involved in creating the program, a proprietary feeling toward their field. Of course, some forensic scientists are taking the matter into their own hands, becoming celebrities on the entertainment circuit. This week, someone slipped a photocopy under my door that highlighted this bizarre turn of events: an article from the Globe tabloid, titled “The 3 Sleuths of Las Vegas.” This spring, three of the most prominent forensic scientists in the country—Michael Baden (host of HBO’s Autopsy series, O.J. defense team), Henry Lee (Court TV’s Trace Evidence, O.J. defense team), and Cyril Wecht (Fox’s Alien Autopsy, JFK conspiracy theorist)—mounted the stage at the Rio casino in Vegas. Clad in Sherlock Holmes–style deerstalker caps and tweed capes, the trio regaled the audience with tales of high-profile murders, accompanied by a slide show and six dancers from the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera who pantomimed the killings. To many forensic pathologists, these tell-all shenanigans are an embarrassment. My office is particularly straight: On the margins of the page, an unknown hand had scrawled one of the chief medical examiner’s favorite aphorisms: “Character is destiny.”

The past few years have tested the characters and contorted the destinies of almost all of us in New York City. But PTSD notwithstanding, I can still see the glamour in my own profession, and I’m pleased that it is Zuiker and his crew who are going to try and capture it—Pee-wee-style. I shall savor the M.E. nobly managing his emotions in the cool CSI: NY morgue, a pristine chapel in white subway tile and crotch-vaulted ceilings that looks for all the world like a Tokyo nightclub for medical fetishists.

And rewatching Cannon’s vision of New York in last year’s finale, the CSI: NY crossover episode—punctuated with flashes of Manhattan that were, to use Zuiker’s word, beautiful: silvery buildings and silvery air, the city a grid of pale skyscrapers and dark canyons—I’m reminded of something CSI: NY’s co-showrunner and senior writer Andrew Lipsitz had said when we were talking about the differences between New York and Las Vegas and Miami: “All cities are fantasies, made up of the dreams of individual inhabitants. New York is its own fantasy—it’s the great fantasy of anyone who came here from another country. It may or may not be more real, it may or may not be baked in the sun, but it’s an amalgam of everyone’s dreams.”

And that, I would say, is accurate.


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