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.