THE genius of CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" lies in its paradoxical approach to what, for many of us, is the ultimate taboo: the autopsy.
Forensics investigator Gil Grissom (William Petersen) and his team retrieve corpses in frightful states -- crushed, severed, bloodied, partly decomposed, often (this seems a favorite of the producers) with the lifeless eyes open and fixed in a thousand-yard stare. A medical examiner's table seems as cozy as a layout in a glossy shelter magazine. Backlighted and color drenched, producer Jerry Bruckheimer's crime drama looks fantastic, so instead of switching the channel in disgust, the fascinated viewer can watch a "CSI" pathologist saw open a murder victim and exclaim, "Cool!"
Yet this season, its seventh, "CSI" is trying to avoid getting filleted itself. Once the unrivaled No. 1 scripted show on television, the Thursday series is up against its biggest threat ever in ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," a sexy soap set in a fantasy hospital where runaway flirting is perhaps the biggest health hazard. In two airings, "Grey's" has peeled away roughly one-fifth of the adults ages 18 to 49 from "CSI," although last week the latter hung on to a slim edge among total viewers (23.8 million versus 23.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research).
The "CSI" producers aren't taking anything for granted. In this season's premiere, shocked fans debated a twist that involved the apparent rape of CSI supervisor Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), a former stripper and recovering cocaine addict whose troubled past keeps resurfacing. Meanwhile, an ongoing subplot involving a serial killer and painstaking miniature models left behind as tantalizing clues at crime scenes will last at least through the middle of this season, according to executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. That's a rare nod to serialized storytelling for "CSI," which usually depends on the "closed-end" procedural format, in which the crime is investigated and solved in 44 minutes.
And if all that's not enough to keep fans from straying to "Grey's," the "CSI" writers are also hedging their bets with stunt casting. The two-part premiere found Helgenberger and costar George Eads swaying to a performance by Grammy-winning singer John Mayer, while Danny Bonaduce and Sean Young, both known for their operatic personal and professional lives, turned up as a murdered rock star and his ex-wife.
What viewers are seeing is the culmination of planning that began in March, when CBS executives got an inkling that ABC might import "Grey's" from Sundays to take on Grissom and the gang (the move was not officially announced until May, when the networks rolled out their fall schedules to advertisers).
"You start to hear the buzz," CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said of ABC's scheduling move. "So we sat down creatively to talk about Season 7 of 'CSI.' The producers really started challenging themselves."
The sustained effort to keep "CSI" strong speaks volumes about the show and the particular pressures networks face these days. In addition to anchoring CBS' Thursday nights, "CSI" has also spawned two successful spinoffs, "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY." With the "Survivor" reality franchise showing unmistakable signs of cooling, "CSI" and its progeny will largely determine how CBS fares this season among the young adults whom advertisers seek.
The ratings war
Executives are well advised to spend time fortifying their current hits because, with the exploding variety of original programming on cable outlets and broadcast networks, it's become tougher than ever to launch new shows. Many industry veterans are already shaking their heads over low initial ratings for several heavily publicized fall dramas, including ABC's "Six Degrees," CBS' "Smith" and NBC's "Kidnapped."
The danger to a long-lived show like "CSI" is that in a bid to stay fresh, the producers try so hard to jazz up episodes that longtime fans get turned off. After Thursday's conclusion of Catherine's night out, when it was revealed that Helgenberger's character hadn't been raped but was drugged and photographed nude as part of an extortion plot against her morally conflicted casino magnate father, Sam (Scott Wilson), one person at the fan site Television Without Pity lamented being "just plain sick of Catherine drama."
"Television writers often try to top themselves rather than reinventing themselves," said TV historian and Lifetime Television research executive Tim Brooks. "That's the definition of 'jumping the shark.' "
"CSI" creators insist that won't be the case with their show. Mendelsohn, the executive producer, points out that fans already know about Catherine's shady past, so the latest developments seem in keeping with her contradictory nature. In an episode from Season 5, for example, Catherine flirted with a man who became physically aggressive with her and later emerged as a murder suspect.