On March 4, 2015, CSI: Cyber, the crime drama that features Federal Bureau of Investigation sleuths cracking down on cybercrime, broke a world record by simultaneously broadcasting its premiere episode in over 150 countries. The event was not entirely unexpected. Once branded the most popular show in the world, the CSI mothership, together with its spinoffs, was the sort of guilty pleasure that makes discerning audiences squirm even as it sets the cash registers ringing.
It comes as no little surprise that CSI: Cyber has been cancelled. Its producer, CBS, has decided not to renew the only remaining spinoff of the procedural drama for a third season. This also brings the series, which inspired a movie and countless novels, video games and comic books, to a close.The original show, which was set in Las Vegas, ended last year. Created by Anthony Zuiker, CSI : Crime Scene Investigation introduced a refreshing new template for the crime drama by pivoting its investigative momentum around the then-still-nascent field of DNA testing. While DNA testing had been used in criminal investigation in the United States of America since 1987, when a Florida man became the first person in that country to be convicted of rape based on DNA evidence, it did not become a crucial aspect of television crime drama until CSI came along.
The show’s team of crime scene investigators solved murders by gathering and examining forensic evidence, though their remit generally went further. They also questioned witnesses and apprehended suspects, marking a glaring break from reality in which the work of the crime scene investigators is limited to scoping the scene of the crime.
The poor correlation between CSI and real-world investigation went beyond inaccurate depictions of the “procedural”. The more germane matter of the viability of some of the forensics depictedon the show has also been commented upon.
For reasons of narrative expediency, several unlikely scenarios were allowed to pass muster. Investigators on the show considered DNA and fingerprints as the Holy Grail of cracking a case, and the series derived its rough and tumble from this chase. In real investigations, DNA and fingerprints are hardly obtainable readily, and when they are, they take weeks or months to process.
Yet, such irritants did not affect the show’s popularity. At its zenith, CSI attracted a weekly audience running into tens of millions. The show became the hunting ground for stars who were unknown at the time, such as Jeremy Renner and Dakota Fanning. Series regulars like William Petersen became household names.
While the show benefitted from crisp scripting and overall sound direction, its success has been attributed to broader factors. CSI’s run coincided with a changed security landscape, launched as it was a year before the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. As terror turned into an external, nebulous threat, the crimes featured on CSI – murder and sexual assault – were the sort that could be solved with deft investigation. In bringing closure to its roster of criminal activity in sharp, one-hour-episodes, CSI may have offered comfort to an embattled public.
Its success occasioned the launch of three spinoffs, CSI: Miami (2002-2012); CSI: New York (2004-2013); and CSI: Cyber (2015). While Miami and New York were standard crime dramas, Cyber reflected the changing nature of threats in a post-Snowden world. Helmed by Patricia Arquette as an FBI agent, the series received mixed reviews in spite of handling such buzzworthy topics as hacked-into power grids and Bitcoin heists.
The show’s demise may have been hastened by the changing nature of what audiences are now consuming in the crime genre. The past year, for example, has turned the spotlight on true crime. Netflix’s Making a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx, docudramas about old criminal cases that have refused to close, were hungrily lapped up. In Netflix’s case, in particular, the possibility of downloading all episodes and binge-watching a season offers a dramatic shift in the way content is watched.
CSI’s cancellation brings its cultural influence into sharper relief. Its success engendered what came to be known as the “CSI effect”, a perception among large swathes of the American TV-watching public that the show closely mirrored the reality of crime scene investigation. Such was the show’s impact that many studies examined whether jurors sitting in on real-world trials were influenced by the detailed forensics on CSI, and whether this, in turn, affected their estimation of the efficacy of the investigation placed before them. However, no study has established a conclusive link.
The show’s popularity also triggered politically sophisticated critiques. A Washington State University study from last year found that the show, subliminally, sent out the message that “women are burdened with protecting themselves against sexual violence”. The researchers blamed the franchise for promoting “the traditional power differential between men and women in sexual relationships” and thus shifting, if only partly, the burden of responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim.
For all its faults, though, CSI, together with its rival series, Law & Order, brought gravitas to the crime drama genre. Even when it sexed up the often dull work of criminal investigation, CSI introduced Americans to the minutiae of a job that is both imperative and disturbing.