Another season, another city, another CSI. Another middle-aged parser of clues partnered with another good-looking younger woman, abetted by another team of younger doctors and detectives. Another number from "Who's Next" -- the Who actually performed for advertisers at the CBS "upfronts" last May, and the mind reels -- to get your blood moving under the credits.
It's "CSI: NY," ladies and gentlemen, premiering tonight on the Columbia Broadcasting System. With Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes ("Providence") in charge. "Baba O'Riley" is the theme this time, and one of no apparent relevance. Another hour of forensic fun from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a man at whose door Les Moonves must lay a basket of fruit every morning, the show is very much -- which is to say, exactly -- in the mode of not only the three "CSI" series but also Bruckheimer's "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace." It's also close cousin to "Medical Investigation," which applies a little CSI to the NIH, and "NCIS," which gives the enterprise a nautical twist. One day soon all of television will be nothing but spinoffs and imitations of "CSI" and "Law and Order" -- and reality shows, of course.
Sinise, a real movie star and the co-founder of Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, is a fine actor, and so are they all, all fine actors. But none has much to do here -- the dialogue makes "Dragnet" seem positively chatty. Sinise's Det. Mack "Mac" Taylor -- I don't understand the nickname, either -- is buttoned up beyond inflection; we understand that something is eating him, because we see him sitting in a church as the series begins, and Kanakaredes asks him later if anything is wrong, which means that something is. (Kanakaredes, whose face does unexpected human things, is a welcome bit of light in the moody darkness.) We will learn what that something is before the night is over, as Sinise is finally allowed to speak more than two sentences consecutively. (And though on the whole it's nothing you haven't heard before and does not redeem the rest of the hour, his monologue does contain one lovely image -- regarding breath and life -- I will long remember.)
As to the backup (Carmine Giovinazzo, Eddie Cahill, Vanessa Ferlito and Hill Harper), they come in different shapes and sizes and colors, and each has a part to play in the giant pageant of big-city mayhem.
The basic appeal of these shows is understandable and old. We like puzzles, and their unraveling, perhaps especially when their solution is tethered to the idea of payback, of justice. When Sinise steps up to the dead body of a woman -- young and good-looking, naturally -- lying supine (as he correctly notes) in the weedy banks of the East River and begins a close reading of the scene, his eye falling on clues you did not even know were clues, he's Sherlock Holmes and every intelligent detective since. Unfortunately, between Conan Doyle and now, David Fincher made a movie called "Seven."
The "CSI" house aesthetic, which owes that hyperstylish movie much, is essentially to apply the icy sensibility of a fashion shoot -- a late '80s fashion shoot -- to the police procedural. If nothing else, and there is not much else, these shows are technically unimpeachable, polished to a high, high gloss; no other shows on TV are remotely as "cinematic." The problem isn't that the style is empty, though there is certainly more here of style than of substance, but what it's applied to -- the torture of women in tonight's opener, the cuts and bruises and bullet holes and failing organs and body parts and blood that are the franchise's stock in trade -- makes for a product that is fundamentally pornographic. Like the C.B. DeMille biblical episodes of old, "CSI" sells you exactly what it pretends to condemn. It's clear from the ratings that people love this sort of stuff, and giving the people what they want is of course the backbone of commercial television -- which is the best thing and the worst thing about it. But as is proved every day, in so many ways, what the people want is not always, or even usually, what they need.
When: 10 to 11 tonight
Rating: TV-14 D,V (may be unsuitable for children under age 14, strong dialogue and violence)
Gary Sinise...Dr. Mack "Mac" Taylor
Melina Kanakaredes...Det. Stella Bonasera
Carmine Giovinazzo...Danny Messer
Vanessa Ferlito...Aiden Burn
Hill Harper...Dr. Sheldon Hawkes
Eddie Cahill...Det. Don Flack
Executive producers, Jerry Bruckheimer, Anthony E. Zuiker, Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue, Jonathan Littman, Danny Cannon, Andrew Lipsitz. Creator, Zuiker, Mendelsohn, Donahue. Writer, Zuiker, Director, Deran Sarafian.