Is David Caruso Too Good to be True?

Life is good among the dead. Just ask the red-haired man.

He's happy standing next to the body on the beach with the jagged gash in its neck.

Why shouldn't he be? He was dead himself, or almost, not too long ago. Anyone who gave him any thought at all would have figured it that way.

But now, standing in the blistering sun, his pale skin whiter than sand, eyes bluer than the ocean, he's cool ...

It's like a dream. Any moment now someone will say, "Cut!" and "New deal," and the man with the gash will get up and there will be smiles all around. Except, when they do, the fantasy will end, but not the dream. The cameras will stop, the fictional story will cease; but the red-haired guy's story will go on. He is, of course, David Caruso, back from the brink of oblivion, star of the hottest new show on TV -- CSI: Miami. Caruso plays Horatio Caine, a character who believes that -- as the actor puts it -- "Evil is."

"There is this intricate kind of almost obscene chess game going on in our society," Caruso says, "between the perpetrators of this evil and the people who try and come between that evil and the citizen. And that's where Horatio Caine lives."

He's given it a lot of thought. Caruso has an elaborate "philosophy of evil" -- about man and murder, and "horrific events," and the insidious magnetic power evil has for attracting even more mayhem: "Anybody that's capable of the events that we [forensic unit] deal with on a daily basis," he says, "is a shark; a great white shark. Meaning: The concept of reason and humanity is no longer a factor in their decision-making process, and now they are self-expressing through this series of horrific events that they are perpetrating on people's lives. And it's a fascinating and yet terrifying world, because there's this disconnect away from their humanity. They make a choice to embrace evil as their engine, evil as their rationalization, their mindset and identity."

Portentous, plus it got him the part. And, he seems to have successfully incorporated Caine into Caruso. Or is it the other way around -- the Boleslavsky acting notion that you extend your real personality out to subsume facets of your undeveloped self, recognizable in seeming opposites -- Gregory Peck as the great Daddy Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and as the mad, dark Ahab in Moby Dick (1956). So Caine is Caruso -- they're so intricately intertwined, it's hard to see edges ... But then this is Miami, the modern Casablanca, at the edge of the Bermuda Triangle, where everything is simultaneously real and unreal, and where those who lose a grip on the difference invariably lose it all ...

What better place for David Caruso to make his TV comeback than in his new hometown? It had to be Miami -- where what you see reflects mirror-like, and endlessly.

Like this:

The shooting of the first episode that CSI: Miami characters appeared in began on South Beach in April, at the Shore Club, 19th and Collins.

Caruso's co-star, Emily Procter (Calleigh Duquesne in the show), came to town a week early, her first time here, and took walks to get to know the city. Her impression of Collins Avenue was, "Gosh, it really stinks! It smells like garbage."

Then, on a sparkling Wednesday in the second week of April, with a crisp breeze snapping flags on poles, Procter, out for a walk, saw patrol cars and police and figured she'd join the crew on set. As she started to scoot under the yellow crime scene tape, a cop stopped her. "It's OK," she told him. "I'm with the show." He said, "I don't know what you're talking about. This is a crime scene."

Turns out she was five blocks away from the Shore Club, at 14th and Collins, where Miami Beach parking officer Delroy Ireland had caught a whiff of something foul floating from the trunk of an abandoned white Mercury Sable with three parking tickets clipped under its windshield wiper. Inside, police found the body of Zaida Rootes, missing nearly a week, dumped there, they later said, by the roommate who confessed to murdering her.

When Procter put two and two together, she realized what the smell had been.

Welcome to Miami.

The real-life body-in-the-trunk crime scene was just one block from the seventh-floor beachfront condo where Caruso climbed out of bed that morning, then trotted off to become Horatio Caine -- in an episode where a woman's body would be found in a trunk!

What compels Caruso is "what we deal with on a daily basis -- there's an interesting question: [Is the murderer] still a human being?"

Anthony Zuiker, the 34-year-old wunderkind creator of CSI and its Miami spinoff, the two top-rated dramas on CBS, wanted to pass on Caruso when the actor's name first came up as a possible Caine: "I'd heard about the NYPD Blue thing," he says sourly. The NYPD Blue thing -- code for Caruso's rep as one of the industry's infamously explosive egomaniacs, prone to notoriously divalike outbursts (he once stormed in, kicked a wastebasket, and barely missed Dennis Franz's head during the shooting of a scene) and his eventual flaming walk-off four episodes into the second season.

Now there was a moment: David Caruso, head swollen with a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of NYPD Blue's sensitive, soulful Det. John Kelly, and armed with an offer of one million dollars for a movie role, climbed up on the Hollywood high dive and did a phenomenal belly flop for all the world to see. He quit over a very loud, very public, and bitter contract dispute, saying, "NYPD Blue will not be successful when I leave." Wrong. The show not only survived, it flourished. His movies, on the other hand -- Kiss of Death, Jade, Session 9, and other even lesser-known efforts -- bombed. He scurried back to the safety of television, and flopped again. Michael Hayes, his 1997 return to the tube, died after a single season. He became a sad South Park joke: One of the cartoon kids, inciting his brother to take a dive off a high perch, says, "Do your imitation of David Caruso's career!"

Even Caruso acknowledges the profound impact of NYPD Blue. Sooner or later, every interviewer brings it up. "If I had it to do over again, would I do it differently? Absolutely," he says. "Would I have stayed with the show? Absolutely. If I could have had a fantasy version of it, it would have been that I got the motion picture attention two years in, so that at least I would have had some foundation for the whole thing.... But that's not how it happened."

So when Caruso's name came up for the Miami spinoff, Zuiker says, "I sort of jumped in and said, 'Naw, I don't know about this guy. The show's tough enough to get off the ground and I don't want to walk into any problems.'"

But here they were, executive producers Ann Donahue, Carol Mendelsohn, and Zuiker, racing headlong toward shooting the first Miami episode with the first CSI: Miami crew -- hell, CBS president Les Moonves had already announced in January that there was going to be a Miami extension -- and still trying to figure out who would play the lead. "It wasn't until we sort of, like, at the eleventh hour, really started to look at our options as to who was going to play Horatio," Zuiker says. "And we revisited Caruso. And we said, 'Yeah, we'll have him come out for dinner, see what he's about.'

"And, all of a sudden, twenty seconds in, y'know, we're kicking each other under the table going, 'This is the guy.' I mean, he was such a true gentleman. And such a reformed man. And such a gentle, simple man -- who was so intelligent talking about the philosophy of evil until one in the morning. He was just like fucking mind-blowing. I'm like, 'Oh, my God!'" Hollywood types talk like that.

If it's difficult to separate the actor from the role, it would hardly be the first time people have found Caruso and his characters meshed. One of the things that impressed Zuiker at the dinner with Caruso was the story he told "about how, on September 12, he'd get phone calls from people in New York City who would say, 'What are you going to do about this thing that happened on September 11?' They were still looking to him. He had such a rapport and bond with America that they were actually [expecting him to deal with] the World Trade Center disaster. They were used to him making things OK on NYPD Blue."

So, in the new millennium, we look for our heroes in the same place we find our villains. We see bin Laden threatening on the nightly news, and it's only natural that we seek our savior a channel or two away. TV has become our mind's eye on the world, a dual conduit inundating us with both information and entertainment. And somewhere between Vietnam and Afghanistan, even the newsmakers recognized the need to merge the two. Anchors are chosen for audience appeal; high-tech graphics and special effects put sizzle on that boring news beef, with sound bites and video doled out as fixings around the commercials: "More on the war in a minute, but first this word from Eggo!"

From the opposite side, networks found success in the heavily massaged reality TV shows such as Survivor, where the outcomes were known in advance and episodes were carefully edited to build dramatic tension. Dramas pumped "realism" into their shows -- as in Law & Order's "ripped from the headlines" storylines -- and found a tantalizing new way to hook viewers. Flipping through the proliferation of channels on cable and satellite TV, it became harder and harder to discern the difference between the realities of Biography and Boomtown.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it wasn't just the viewers who turned to Hollywood for help. In a bizarre recognition of the impact of fantasy on our new post-9/11 culture, army planners actually huddled with screenwriters and asked them to concoct ways terrorists might attack, so that the military could prevent them, according to the New York Times and Variety. Among the scribes at the secret brainstorming sessions was Steven E. de Souza, the co-writer of Die Hard, the immensely popular 1988 action flick in which Bruce Willis battles a band of suspected terrorists who take over a Los Angeles skyscraper.

Americans keep the TV on seven hours a day, on average, almost as much time as they spend sleeping. So why shouldn't our dreams derive from television and movies? We each have a lifetime of experience seeing solutions in 60 minutes or less. Our heroes find love, killers commit crimes, get caught, etc. It's only fitting to want neatly wrapped conclusions to life's real dramas.

And Caruso is perfect for the part of avenging angel. "Are we OK with this?" he asked us repeatedly in his role as Det. John Kelly. When we weren't, we wanted him to fix it. That's the persona he has carefully cultivated -- our suffering savior from the streets, with a leather sap and a crucifix. All his characters, villains and heroes alike, share a similar pre-modern morality, a 1950s clarity about right and wrong. Including his latest. "Horatio Caine, his grounding, I believe, comes from a deep sense of morality," Caruso says. "He will do what he believes in, but he will also do what is necessary."

Caruso pours himself into every role, a white-hot core of righteousness seething just below the surface. He's anything but handsome by the standard definition of movie-star good looks, yet it's almost impossible to break eye contact once he walks into a scene.

Caine, he says, is an "amalgam of a number of characters that I have played," and one that he has been building toward since he started out as an actor, making $25 a pop to appear as a criminal in police lineups at New York's 112th Precinct. He's played many cops along the way, chasing Christopher Walken in King of New York, partnering with Robert De Niro in Mad Dog and Glory. Even Michael Hayes was a former cop turned prosecutor. Now Caine.

Every time, he went in hoping he would pull it off with such "authenticity" that we would forget we were watching David Caruso the actor and focus on the character he was playing. That intensity, and, probably, the red hair, has caused repeated comparisons with legendary film icon Jimmy Cagney, which Caruso clearly enjoys.

"You gotta remember that he wasn't a redhead when I discovered him," Caruso says, "because he did black and white films. I was attracted to Cagney for the reasons of electricity. I mean this guy ... I think the best quote is Billy Joel, when somebody said to him: 'Are you aware that people think you're trying to sound like the Beatles?' And he goes, 'Of course I'm trying to sound like the Beatles!' I think that is a brilliant answer to that question. So, y'know, who isn't trying to be like Jimmy Cagney? I mean, how can you not? If you're an actor you're trying to be like Jimmy Cagney."

Like Cagney, Caruso pushes with all he's got. But it can backfire. That connection with the audience, that bond he forged so well as John Kelly, contributed at least in part to his downfall after he left NYPD Blue. His audience felt betrayed. This man they had grown to trust and care about just walked out on them one fine day -- in search of a fatter paycheck. (He wanted $100,000 an episode, as opposed to the $20,000 per he got in the first season.) Early feedback Zuiker got indicated the audience still felt resentful and might reject Caruso again. "Some women, before it was airing, were telling me in Las Vegas and California they weren't sure about David Caruso, they still had that sort of weird feeling about it," Zuiker says. "And I was like, 'Oh, shit.'"

But when the show aired, it went through the roof, just as the first CSI with William Petersen did. The first episode of CSI: Miami got the highest rating of any drama premiere since ER, with 23 million viewers. It's hovered near there ever since. "When the episodes started coming in, the same women were saying they loved Caruso. They find him sexy. And they feel when he comes into a scene, he's going to make things OK," Zuiker says. "And that's a big thing. Women need to feel comfortable and [safe] as they watch the show. And that's what he's done."

Caruso recognizes the damage he did to himself with "the NYPD Blue thing," and the Archbishop Molloy High School graduate from Queens, New York, proclaims his mea culpas loudly and often as he talks about "the journey I'm on of rebuilding that trust" with the audience, and his employers.

"I think that I'm just in a better place to appreciate what this opportunity is all about," the older and supposedly wiser Caruso says. (He's 46 now.) "It was almost ten years ago, and I've had a lot of time to learn about what the job really entails, to understand the industry from a different perspective." ( The abrupt departure of Kim Delaney as Caruso's co-star this fall -- she lasted only ten episodes -- was attributed by some to Caruso's resurgent temper whiteouts: "Before [the show] aired, David tried to be humble," a set insider said. But the moment CSI: Miami hit big, he reportedly began acting like he was responsible, demanding script rewrites, screaming that he had "to do every fucking thing myself!" CBS issued a statement saying only that Delaney's character "was becoming less integral to the series," and so she was written out.)

In any case Caruso seems proud of his portrayal, and considers the new character significantly more complicated. "Horatio Caine can handle himself on the street and he's not a person to be messed with. He's not to be taken lightly because he will take care of business and will meet you on your level if you force him to. But he's also a very sophisticated man.

"The difference between the character on NYPD Blue, for instance, is he was, y'know, a man that I admired, but he was a vastly different man [from] Horatio Caine; [Kelly] was a street detective with a limited arsenal of tools at his disposal ... he's simpler. And he was wearing his heart on his sleeve. You knew who John Kelly was -- a character people admired. They felt for him. But there was a limit."

With CSI: "I do believe in the [more complex] function of people like Caine, the necessity of people like him to exist independent of the fiction we're creating," Caruso says. "In the real world, they are the stopgaps. They are the protective layering. And the truth is, you'll never know how many terrible things have been prevented from reaching you because they are so good at their jobs."

So Caruso's working-class hero-worship seems heartfelt, and yet another glimpse of that anachronistic moral sensibility that he imparts to his characters.

"I'll give you an example," he says. "The other night we're coming home very late from a location. We're on a real dark stretch of highway. And I saw this officer standing at the window of this very scary-looking vehicle, with three really scary individuals sitting in it. I'm passing by, I'm looking at this guy with his flashlight and his hand on his gun. This might be the last moment of his life. And he deals with that every single night.

"We don't know who he is. We'll never know his name. He'll never be paid enough to compensate him for what he has to deal with every day ...

"These are the guys like Horatio Caine and the people from CSI and Miami-Dade investigators and so on. These are the people holding society together behind the scenes. Because the people who have no regard for your life or my life number in the thousands. If these people are not kept in check and pursued and dealt with, the situation in this country will fall apart overnight."

From the beginning, Les Moonves, the CBS president, wanted to cash in on the phenomenal success of what is now the top-rated show on television, CSI; he wanted to do it with the clones working so well for the various Law & Orders proliferating on rival NBC. Moonves himself came up with the idea to locate in Miami. It was brilliant. The original CSI is set amid the glitzy neon and casinos of Las Vegas. What better counterpart for the Sin City in the desert could there be than the Sun City on the ocean? They're flip sides of the same con. They're supposed to be. Watch carefully: Both shows revolve around the world of forensics and rely on computer-generated closeups to zoom into body cavities and race along arteries, and both use the Who in their lead-ins ("Who Are You?" in CSI; "Won't Get Fooled Again" in Miami). In Vegas, almost everything in CSI happens at night, while Caruso is constantly having to duck under sun umbrellas between takes.

"You go to Vegas to escape," Zuiker says. "You go to Miami to be seen."

Or to hide. While it's true that Vegas is a place for every brand and variety of fun, Miami also is a place to run. "It's always been that way," says Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald crime reporter and mystery novelist Edna Buchanan. "Because even when Miami was a sleepy Southern resort city, it was the destination for people [fleeing] from all over the country -- people running from the law, from each other, from bad experiences.... And if they ran long enough, they'd wind up [here]. It's like the last jumping-off place."

Zuiker grew up in Vegas. He'd never been to Miami until he and the other producers came to research the show. They went for a ride-along with Miami-Dade Police and wound up in a room with the badly decomposed naked body of a man, dead on his bed for three days and grossly swollen from body gases, with porn playing on the TV. A cop lit a cigar to cover the stench, which Zuiker and the others thought was very cool. Then somebody yelled, "Stand back for the piercing!" And Zuiker and the others watched as the man deflated, making a farting sound.

"It was a rocking good time," he says. "Yes, it was."

And those only-in-Miami scenes, like the one where cops find a body in a trunk that's been sitting for days right on Collins Avenue just blocks from where actors are filming a crime show, came to be expected.

"It's hard to write fiction in a city where the truth is stranger," says Buchanan. "There's something about being down here at sea level. It does something to people. The barometric pressure drops, the full moon rises, the temperature soars, and all hell breaks loose."

Cameras and crime come together in strange ways in Miami. In the Eighties, during the filming of the movie The Mean Season with Kurt Russell, the crew gathered one dawn to shoot a scene on the beach at Matheson Hammock in South Miami. Edna was there. "Just a couple of hundred feet down the beach there was a [real] murder scene where this young couple had been down on a lover's lane," she recalls. "Some guy [came] and claimed he was a policeman, and when they opened the door for him, he beat the guy to death with a baseball bat and kidnapped and raped the girl. It was horrible. Then he drove around for a while and dropped her off downtown." So far, merely a tragic coincidence. But when the cops brought the girl back to the beach to get her eyewitness account, she saw the commotion farther up and asked what was going on. The cops told her they were making a movie with Kurt Russell. "And," Edna continues, "here's this sobbing, hysterical girl who just saw her boyfriend beaten to death and just got raped. She said: 'Kurt Russell? Do you think I can meet him?'

"Kurt Russell, nice guy that he is, the cops came down, asked him. Kurt goes trudging up the beach and he sits with the girl and sort of talks to her for a while and counsels her. You know, it's like Kurt Russell, rape counselor."

Another true incident:

When attorney Ellis Rubin relied on television to zealously defend Ronnie Zamora in 1977, he claimed the teenage boy couldn't be held accountable for brutally beating an elderly woman to death during a burglary due to "insanity by reason of television intoxication." Effectively, he argued, the line between reality and fantasy in the boy's mind had been so blurred by TV that Zamora couldn't tell right from wrong. The jurors didn't buy it. They convicted.

Rubin may have crapped out on Zamora, but he was right about television. The line between fact and fiction is increasingly opaque. In fact a huge part of CSI: Miami's success may be due to the demanding realism with which it probes the arcane aspects of forensic investigation. Zuiker loves it. That's what first attracted him to the possibility of a "forensic procedural drama," after his wife called him over to watch Forensic Files on Court TV one day. He wound up spending five weeks with Las Vegas crime scene investigators before writing the pilot for CSI. "The thing that freaked me out about this was when I was researching the human body in terms of forensics," he says. "It was just the perfect specimen. It would tell you what happened in every respect. The whole body is designed to talk to CSIs. It's the freakiest thing. Whether it be hair follicles, blood, DNA, whether it be bones.... You know, if you saw someone's leg off, it'll actually have the striate marks on the bone so you can match the actual tool that cut the bone off. I mean, the entire body is designed to nail the bad guy."

And America in 2002 seems to share his grotesque awe of it all. Plodding around bug-infested corpses, examining blood spatters and brain matter has made The FBI Files the top-rated regular program on the Discovery Channel, and given birth to The New Detectives on the same network. The phenomenal popularity of Forensic Files has helped propel the growth of Court TV. And it has put CSI and its Miami-based progeny firmly atop (or near the top) of CBS's sweeps.

Zuiker learned a lot during his research, including such nuggets as this: Forensics experts tend not to eat rice because it looks like maggots. Still no quality show gets made nowadays without a technical advisor, a TA in their lingo, to watch over the details -- make sure the illusion of reality appears as true as possible. CSI got Elizabeth Devine, the most experienced criminalist in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. By the time they met her, she'd spent fifteen years collecting and analyzing bloody clues, including the evidence that helped put the Menendez brothers behind bars in 1996 for the shotgun killings of their parents.

"The problem with television," she says, "up to the point of our show, is that people thought they knew what crime scenes looked like from [TV shows of the past]. You know, chalk marks around bodies. I mean nobody does that. They just perpetualized the 'look' of a TV crime scene by watching other TV shows. Ludicrous."

Devine started as a TA, but within a few months the show's producers convinced her to quit the crime lab and join them full-time as a writer.

"In order to make the story interesting we do have to twist and turn it a little, but in doing that we never compromise the reality of the science," she says. "And that really is something that I'm very proud of. So we can say that it takes two minutes to do DNA on the show -- I don't care about that. Of course we're not going to do DNA in real time or we'd still be solving the first case at the end of the first season. But I'm adamant that we not make up any science. It's not X-Files."

The show's producers also insist that writers do exhaustive research to develop story ideas, read forensics until their eyeballs extrude, and steep themselves in the minutia of solving crimes. The goal: make the episodes not only compelling, but intelligent.

"I think the audience likes the fact that we treat 'em as if they're smart," Devine says. "And I think the audience is rewarding us for that. There may be things that they don't understand, but I'd rather have them go, 'God, how did they do that again?' and have to rewind, than have it just be spoon-fed bullshit."

In that sense, both CSIs make up part of a wave sweeping television that seems geared toward "smartening up" the airwaves with involved storylines and complex character development -- even, in some cases, revolutionary storytelling techniques. Boomtown, for example, reveals its plots through multiple points of view; 24 evolves in real time; TV's longest-running current drama, Law & Order, splits its hours evenly between the intricacies of apprehending criminals and the challenge of bringing them to justice. Cable programs revel in their freedom, practically thumbing their noses at the suburban simplicities of such onetime hits as Hill Street Blues or Starsky and Hutch. The Sopranos broke ground and ratings records (the HBO program's season finale beat ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? two years ago) by delving into the dilemmas of a modern-day mob boss balancing the burdens of family life with Family life; and FX's The Shield challenges us to fix our individual moral bearings as it drags us into the squalid world of a deeply flawed cop.

Zuiker points to the success of those shows and both of his own as the dawning of a new "Golden Era of television," where programming schedules will be brimming with smart, high-quality mini-feature movies made for an audience that's "a lot more intellectual than some of the networks bargained for."

The key is realism. But what exactly is "realism" when you're talking about TV? Especially TV and Miami?And they don't even shoot the show here, except for a handful of exteriors.

People like Willard Delancy chuckle at the Hollywood version of "reality." He's a Miami Police CSI, who's spent 22 years picking up the pieces of bloody evidence buried in the aftermath of true South Florida tragedies. Carries a rosary in his pocket, which he touches to help him get through the really ugly crime scenes. "It's never a pretty sight," he says. "A room speaks to you as soon as you open the door ..." So will the body.

Delancy doesn't watch much television. He only watched CSI: Miami once. He didn't like it. After seeing what he sees all day, he prefers comedies.

"What they have on television is for television. It's entertainment," he says of his fictional counterparts. Not only do those guys on TV blithely cross jurisdictional boundaries in their shiny chrome Hummer 2s, they gather, sort, and analyze evidence; question suspects; and confront the criminals in 44 minutes flat. In real life, it can take years.

The show's producers dismiss these criticisms as a lack of understanding of the dramatic realities of TV storytelling. Audiences need to be able to follow the story, and while a native might know when Miami-Dade cops have crossed into City of Miami PD territory, having a bunch of different-colored uniforms running around would only serve to confuse viewers in Minnesota. So they fudge, to make it appear more real.

We ought to be used to it, especially in South Florida. We've been through this before, with the greatest groundbreaking Miami mythmaker of them all, Michael Mann's Miami Vice. Talk about blurring the line between fantasy and reality; NBC's flashy hour-long cop/rock video obliterated it -- with bold pastel strokes.

Miamians adopted Don Johnson's unstructured fashion look and reveled in the city's coked-out-in-the-fast-lane reputation. Miami imitated Miami Vice more than the other way around: When federal agents busted Jose "Coca-Cola" Yero for cocaine smuggling in the Eighties, they found more than 50 Rolex watches in his home, including a dozen color-coordinated to match his wardrobe.

With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is a mirror, reflecting society. With Miami Vice, we liked what we saw better than what showed in living color on Biscayne Boulevard or Collins Avenue every day. The proof that Miami had become Miami Vice was that people stopped ducking when real bullets began to fly.

When a drug sting went bad in 1985 and undercover cops shot it out with dealers at the Doral Beach hotel, innocent passersby continued nonchalantly going to Eckerd. "I think five people got shot and nobody flinched," Edna Buchanan remembers. "Someplace else they'd be running away."

The same thing happened during the bloodiest shootout in FBI history, when two heavily armed bank robbers, William Matix and Michael Platt, opened fire at 9:20 a.m. as morning traffic rolled by on 82nd Avenue near the Suniland strip mall; the firefight left five agents wounded, and two, Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, dead -- along with Matix and Platt. The two robbers, former Army Rangers, carried an arsenal that included a .357 Magnum Dan Wesson revolver, a Smith & Wesson 12-gauge shotgun, and a Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic assault rifle, "the workhorse," one agent said. As author T.D. Allman later described in Miami, City of the Future, passersby thought they were filming a Miami Vice episode. The cops actually had to hold their fire as "traffic continued to roll ... right through the gunfight." One woman the police tried to stop snapped, "I'm late for my tennis lesson!"

That happened April 11, 1986. (About sixteen years before CSI: Miami's Emily Procter stumbled across her first real body in her first real trunk.)

The result: Tourism boomed. Miami Vice's drug-infested and crime-crazed depiction of the area attracted tourists in droves, especially Europeans, and particularly Germans. "Do we think the tourists were coming here hoping to get shot by some drug lord?" asks Miami-Dade Film Commission director Jeff Peel. "No. They were hoping to come here and catch some of those great-looking women they saw, or get a tan on those beaches under the palm trees. Or whatever."

Except, then, vicious young robbers began murdering Germans in their rental cars. Reality finally bit. And terrified would-be visitors stayed away in droves. A media lull prevailed for awhile, from the late Nineties until recently. Sly, Madonna, Tyson, O.J., Michael Caine, and Gianni Versace had all come here to live when the Miami dream was registering a 90-share. All but O.J. are gone.

As a fantasy, however, "Miami" had gone nationwide. Proof came the same week that CSI: Miami premiered. The first episode aired September 23, the birthday of Euripedes, Mickey Rooney, Ray Charles, and Julio Iglesias; the same date Gene Tunney shocked the world by defeating Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title. There was a full moon that night, and the barometric pressure was definitely dropping. Hurricane Isidore squatted over the Yucatan like a fat tropical sumo wrestler taking a soggy dump; Tropical Storm Kyle staggered off Bermuda like a drunken sailor.

But that week, it wasn't Miami in the news; it was Norfolk, Nebraska, a small Midwestern community of 23,516, set 75 miles southwest of Sioux City. As marching bands from all around the Elkhorn River Valley region readied for the coming weekend's La Vitsef fall parade through downtown, all hell broke loose. Four men stormed into the U.S. Bank branch on South 13th Street with their guns blazing. Within 40 seconds, five people were dead, each with a shot in the head.

A day later, Nebraska State Trooper Mark Zach realized he had stopped the gunmen four days before the bank robbery and could have prevented it all if he hadn't jotted down the wrong serial number of a stolen 9mm gun one killer was carrying. He decided he couldn't live with his guilt. He blew his brains out with his service revolver.

Nebraska, not Miami.

A week later, TV viewers across the nation witnessed the start of the deadly drama along the tree-lined highway exits of Virginia and Maryland surrounding the nation's capital, where a sniper with a modified Chevy would terrorize the public in a three-week-long shooting rampage that left ten dead and three wounded. Petrified people were bobbing and weaving while they pumped their gas, and stations -- one of the sniper's favorite targets -- draped tarpaulins over their pumps to shield patrons from view.

Washington, D.C., not Miami.

They were horrific events supporting Caruso and Caine's shared philosophy. "In my opinion, that is a manifestation of evil," Caruso says. "He [sniper] has absolutely no feeling for any life around him. And when man degenerates to this very primal, basic state of fear, that's when evil's powerful."

Still Miami is the rest of the country plus style and sex. As Les Moonves joked in July, you couldn't have a CSI: Toledo. "You have to locate it in a city where you can believe these things can happen," says St. Petersburg Times television critic Eric Deggans. "Miami still has the reputation of being a crazy place where crazy shit does happen."

It may be almost twenty years later, but the Miami Vice image remains seared into the world's consciousness. Miami is Gomorrah to Vegas's Sodom in the minds of Middle America. Hell, we don't even speak the same language. Which Horatio Caine himself noted in the pilot episode, when he roasted a Fed who couldn't understand what Caine and Calleigh Duquesne were saying to each other in Spanish.

"What did she say?" the bewildered Fed asked.

"She said you need to learn the language," Caine spit back.

That's actually one of the things that makes Miami so alluring as a setting -- that out-on-a-foreign-fault-line chic that Caruso loves so much. He's a cheerleader for his new hometown, some say to the point of wanting to shift principal shooting back here. Licking his wounds after Michael Hayes failed, Caruso came south in 1998 with his wife Margaret and was "welcomed in a way that I had never experienced before. And it made me want to do everything in Miami." They immediately bought a million-dollar condo on South Beach within walking distance of Lincoln Road and the family-run Italian restaurant where they eat so often "it's embarrassing." Then in March of this year, the couple teamed with friends to open Steam, an eclectic, high-fashion men's and women's clothing-and-accessories boutique with a deliberate St. Tropez feel, in the shadow of Sunset Place.

"It's the ultimate American city," Caruso says. "It's part Europe, part America, part South America -- truly international ... I believe it represents the future."

Miami, naturally, imparts a unique feeling to the show, but it's also yet another indestructible link between Caruso and Caine: "Miami is a very sophisticated, complicated city," he says. "Horatio Caine is riding the wave of all that [complex] energy."

So somehow, almost magically, the show has captured Miami's modern essence, its real-life bizarre plot lines -- planes down in the Glades, Colombian necklace bombings, bodies in sharks, and the whole "wet foot/dry foot" immigration debate -- but in a straightforward, thoughtful way that for the first time since Miami Vice doesn't mock the city. Its creators want to promote deliberation and discussion, without taking easy "moral" sides. Which is another reason, Zuiker concludes, why Caruso -- who has given so much thought to Miami, Caine, and the dilemma of real vs. fictional evil -- has proved so critical to CSI: Miami's success.

Despite industry rumors that Jimmy Smits, the actor who successfully replaced Caruso at NYPD Blue, has been hanging around the set as a kind of cautionary reminder that egotism doesn't pay, Zuiker says reassuringly: "I wouldn't trade [David] for any actor on the planet."

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Matthew Alman