Monday, February 12, 2007

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Pilot

And now for something completely different…

As much as I love and admire The Wire, it’s not a useful model for most of us. So let’s go now to the opposite end of the spectrum and look at a much watched and completely accessible hour long drama: CSI.

The pilot (which has no name other than "pilot") was written by Anthony Zuiker. I have watched it five or six times now. It is actually the first of a two parter, but we’re going to only look at the first hour now. And you’ll notice it lays down more neatly into acts.

You can read the beat by beat breakdown here.

Although CSI doesn’t feel like a fast paced show, it uses 48 beats in this pilot which is a lot. At least eight of those beats are there mostly to establish the series premise and build the characters of the leads. The remaining beats drive quite a few interwoven stories which form the A, B, C and D stories.

The pilot breaks down into a tease and four acts. The fourth act is long long long at 16 beats. Normally episodes of CSI are the expected tease, four acts and a tag with the tease and tag using 2 beats each and the acts ranging between 7 and 11 beats each – about 40 beats in all. And although the pilot has the squad looking into at least three different cases (the suicide that’s a homicide, the home invasion and the trick roll) as well as following Holly through her first day with includes other cases, a regular episode of the series only features two cases.

What I’m calling the B-story here is the first plot line up. We follow Grissom through his investigation of the suicide that’s really a murder. The plot is only 7 beats. Presumably we start with this minor storyline because it allows a hyped up tease with gunshots and a bloody crime scene. Something to hook you into the series. But after the tease, this plot is pretty much ignored until act 3 where there are a cluster of beats. And the storyline doesn’t truly resolve; the murder is never found, but Grissom brings relief to the family when he informs them that it wasn’t a suicide but a murder (but of course they knew that at the tease curtain when they told him that that wasn’t the victim’s voice on the tape recorded suicide note.)

The A-story is Holly’s first day on the job. It takes 14 beats, dominating act 1 and being the cliff hanger that closes the show. This story plays out quite strongly in every act and involves three of the regulars emotionally (Grissom, Catherine and Warwick). The instinct with pilots is to start at some kind of beginning – the formation of a unit, a first day of school (Veronica Mars), the first game of the season (Friday Night Lights), etc. In this case, the unit is well-established but a minor character is introduced and it is her first day on the job. The audience learns about the world through her. Unfortunately for Holly, she’s dead at the end of the episode.

The C-story is all about Warwick and his home invasion case. It’s a big one with 12 or 13 beats depending on how you look at it. It wraps up with a murderer under arrest.

Finally, the D-story, Nick’s trick roll case is 8 or 9 beats long by my reckoning. It is intro’ed in Act 1, but we never come back to it till Act 2 where we get two more beats. Then another one in three and it really heats up in Act 4.

By Act:
Tease: A, Character, A, A
Act 1: B, B, Character, Char/Premise, C/D, Character, Char/Premise, C, B, B, B
Act 2: D, B, C, B, C, B, D, B, C, C
Act 3: A, B, C, D, C, A, A
Act 4: D, D, D, A, Character, C, C, B, C, Character, C, Character, C, B, D, B

We can see that the beats for some stories appear in clusters and others weave through the entire episode. The A story occurs almost entirely in the Tease and Act 3, while D is focused in Act 4.

It’s amazing that as jam-packed with plotlines as the episode is, there’s still lots of room for scenes that are entirely about the series premise and the characters. And don’t forget, there are also little science scenes and four flashback scenes which help us to understand the theories about what happened and what really did happen. Plus a scene that lasts a full 60 seconds which is just someone looking over a running shoe. It’s quite amazing for a show that feels relaxed in its pacing.

The pilot has four re-enactment/flashbacks and about 9 moments devoted to science, many of them accompanied by some sort of special effect. Regular first season episodes keep up this pace.

The pilot has a number of sexual and violent references to hype it up. There’s the trick roll story line in which a prostitute’s breasts figure quite prominently so to speak. The flashbacks suggest quite strongly that the victim’s face was mashed into them (and he seemed to enjoy it). There’s a scene in which a young girl has to point out what body parts the molester touched and her dolly has a band aid on its crotch. Grissom hits a dummy head with a golf club and blood splatters everywhere. There’s an autopsy with some gruesome cutting and a scene with a lot of corpses in the morgue. One of the lab techs wishes that Grissom would pin her up against a wall. All of these and a few others, send the message that this is going to be a series with a lot of jolts.

One final thing we should touch on are the act breaks. Usually you expect strong cliffhanger curtains, is that what we get here? The tease ends on what we’re calling the A-story and the discovery that it’s not a suicide, but a murder. That moment has to hold your interest for a long time, because we aint coming back to that particular story for another two acts. Act 1 has a soft character curtain. It’s a B-story beat. Holly’s just been scared silly by dead bodies at the morgue and Grissom makes a joke by calling them assholes. End of Act. Act 2 ends with the examination of the running shoe and Warwick’s conclusion that the husband is lying. At the end of Act 3 we’re back on the long lost A-story. Grissom concludes that the killer knows his way around forensics. This is a false cliffhanger if ever I heard one, since we never revisit this question in Act 4. And the episode ends on the team learning that Holly is dead and Warwick is in trouble. We go to black on Grissom’s concerned face. In all these aren’t the hard edgy curtains we expect from mystery series.

Over all, I’m surprised by how many story balls this episode is able to keep in the air, how much time it takes to develop character and the series premise and by how soft the curtains are. The pilot is definitely quite different than a normal episode, offering more stories, more beats, more violent and sexual references and fewer act breaks.

And that is how one of the most successful of the recent tv franchises launched.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

its Warrick Brown, not Warwick. Just so you know.