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THE FALL SEASON

'CSI: Miami' as Taut, Tantalizing as Parent

September 23, 2002|TIMES STAFF WRITER

"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" got famous being a perfectly calibrated hybrid of mystery and forensic science. Expect that, also, from its tropical offspring, "CSI: Miami," whose debut tonight extends a CBS franchise that may prove as deep and mint as many spinoffs as Dick Wolf's "Law & Order" mother lode on NBC.

In other Monday premieres, meanwhile, "Half and Half" is a humdrum (when not flat-out dopey) addition to the night's ghetto of black comedies on UPN.

Unlike their Las Vegas progenitors, Miami's crime-scene snoops are full-blown cops, led by hunch-driven Horatio Caine (David Caruso) and Megan Donner (Kim Delaney), a sucker for science. This convenient clash of attitudes is a bit artificial.

When it comes to storytelling technique, however, the new series packs as much weight as the original.

It turns out that elections aren't the only funny business in Florida, nor gators the fiercest predators, as Caine's unit is all over a jet crash in the Everglades that may overlap corporate fraud.

"We got the story right here," he says, surveying the strewn puzzle pieces before him as someone drops an arm into a plastic bag.

That story has many layers, of course, and "CSI: Miami" peels them back as tantalizingly as the original "CSI" has done for two seasons, deploying dramatic lighting, extreme close-ups and taut dialogue that has you focusing on clues instead of words.

"Any doubts, bag it," Caine orders his unit, which the widowed Donner headed until six months ago in a back story yet to be explained. Not that backgrounders are a priority here.

"She was on Prozac," someone observes about a body.

"Who isn't?" Donner says.

That's about it for character development.

Meanwhile, Caine wonders why a seatbelt is unbuckled and undamaged, why a briefcase is empty, why the body of one passenger turns up five miles away.

Step by step, it's all very fascinating and as well-produced as television gets, bolstered by the understated, capable work of "NYPD Blue" alums Caruso and Delaney. The ensemble cast also has Khandi Alexander, so extraordinary in HBO's "The Corner," as a coroner who talks to cadavers.

By all logic, "CSI: Miami" should be a big hit, even though Monday night also has fetching Jill Hennessy's competing forensics in NBC's "Crossing Jordan." Remember, bag it. And stuff UPN's "Half and Half."

Mona (Rachel True) says potato, Dee Dee (Essence Atkins) says potahto in this undistinguished comedy about competing half sisters who are both as vacant as spuds.

They share a father. Mona's mother, Phyllis (Telma Hopkins), is his former wife, and Dee Dee's mother, Big Dee Dee (Valarie Pettiford), his present wife. Mona's life was full of hard knocks; Dee was pampered. Mona is earthy and plain-spoken, Dee Dee full of pretensions.

They don't get along at all. Yet circumstances (a script) require them to live near one another in an apartment house owned by their father. That means they now bicker about men, including Mona's platonic best friend, Spencer (Theron "Chico" Benymon).

Much of "Half and Half" is about having sex, much of it infantile, and the parents, Spencer and Dee Dee, are cliches and complete idiots. Only Mona appears to have an IQ that would allow her to function in society, even moderately, and only True demonstrates any flair.

Meantime, the sisters fight, they bond. That's why they call it television.

"CSI: Miami" will be shown at 10 p.m. Mondays on CBS. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14).

"Half and Half" will be shown at 8:30 p.m. Mondays on UPN. The network has rated it TV-PGDL (may be unsuitable for young children due to suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg @latimes.com

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