Is David Caruso Too Good to be True?

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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.

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Matthew Alman