Exquisite Corpses

Top: CSI: NY cast, with Zuiker (second from right); from left, Hill Harper, Melina Kanakaredes, and Vanessa Ferlito.Photo: Timothy White/CBS; Gale M. Adler/CBS

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.

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.

Exquisite Corpses