August 5, 2012

EJO Review: CSI Miami, Episode 7.4 "Sangre por sangre"

The first piece in my series on Edward James Olmos talked about his baffling appearance in the cinematic train wreck The Green Hornet. Shifting gears, let's talk about a television disaster: the lumbering behemoth of suck that is the inexplicably successful CSI franchise.

Now, television dramas on the Big Three networks have long been the bottom of the entertainment barrel. Anything interesting on television has been on cable for at least the past fifteen years. But really, this CSI thing represents a new low. I find myself mesmerized by the sheer ineptitude. The original series has been on for thirteen years despite being badly written and acted, and lacking anything resembling tension or drama. It's hard to decide what's worse--the writing or the cast. The cold open--usually a bloody crime scene--often does a fair job of getting the viewer interested in the mystery, but without exception the reveal of who did the crime and how is disappointing, and it's usually simultaneously absurd and lame to boot. Far too often, the death is accidental or a suicide or attempted suicide, which just feels like a cheat after it happens seven times in a row. The cast are somehow both one-dimensional and thoroughly unlikeable, played by shockingly unappealing actors (including that horrible gap-toothed woman with the pinched-in face and the giant-chinned palooka on the original show). I remember one show the alcoholic gap-toothed woman was pulled over for DUI but the cop let her off because she's a CSI. Now I'm sure this sort of corruption is commonplace in police departments throughout the world, but the CSI people don't raise an eyebrow at it. Aren't they supposed to be the good guys? And here's a chance for some real drama, with one or more characters struggling with whether to do the right thing and report this abuse of police power, but no, the characters are so unlikeable that they're all completely fine with police corruption as long as it protects their alcoholic friend. That's entertainment!

I confess I'm completely baffled by the notion that one hour a week of this schlock isn't enough for people so that this show has not one but two spin-offs. Actually, they're not spin-offs because they're exactly the same show. They all center on a moody, mysterious but brilliant forensic scientist who has unspoken and unexpressed sexual tension with the sexy older female who serves as his right-hand woman, the two of them surrounded by a series of much younger interchangeable nobodies from Central Casting who do the grunt work that allows the male lead to make the scene and intuit the solution to the case.

Thus, the tolerance factor of each series depends entirely on who is cast as the male lead. It's hardly any surprise then that the least terrible of the franchise by far is CSI:NY, blessed as it is with a fine lead actor in Gary Sinise. I have to wonder how much influence Sinise has over the portrayal of the character, since his "Mac" (really?) is the only one of the CSI male leads that doesn't come off as an insufferable prick. This can't be due entirely to Sinise's performance. It must owe something to the writing, so I can't help but think that behind the scenes he is also reining in the writers' genetic programming to make the male lead an insufferable prick. Which is the perfect phrase to describe Gil Grissom, the lead of the original show. Now I've seen actor William Peterson give a decent performance (in the 1996 film The Skulls, about the only thing decent about it in fact), so the fault isn't all his. Grissom is so arrogant and irritating that it would be a challenge for Morgan Freeman to make him sympathetic. Still, the Grissom character isn't done any favors by Peterson's lack of charisma and appeal in the role. He seems better suited for character work rather than lead roles, particularly when the role demands a level of charisma to overcome the character's personality flaws. (The problem, I think, is that the writers don't see Grissom's insufferable arrogance and condescension as flaws.) At the bottom, naturally, is CSI:Miami, which is saddled with the boat anchor of David Caruso(!) as its lead. Here is a man who never should've been given an acting job. I laugh heartily to know that Caruso, after the (undeserved) success of NYPD Blue, got it into his head that he was a real actor and quit that show at the height of its popularity to pursue a career in the movies. After starring in a few crap films--including Jade, the worst Basic Instinct rip-off that doesn't star Madonna--he realized he was a complete and utter failure, tucked his tail between his legs, and went back to shitty TV dramas. And here he is in the lead of another terrible cop show. With his forced gravelly whisper and silly head tilt--entirely failed attempts to make him look tough--he is a charismatic void. He's so bored and uninterested in his role that every time he stops talking you wonder if he might have slipped into a coma. (I don't want to shock you or anything, but at the time of this writing, Miami is the only CSI series that's been cancelled.)

I remember watching an episode of the original show in which some of the jokes were actually funny, the main cast was mostly sidelined to setting up punchlines for the likeable and talented guest stars, and the resolution wasn't as lame and stupid as, well, every other CSI resolution. I immediately knew something was up. I mean, an episode of CSI that was watchable--perhaps even, dare I say it, decent? There had to be an explanation. Sure enough, a few minutes of Internet "research" turned up the answer: This episode ("Two and a Half Deaths", if you must know) wasn't written by the CSI writers but by the writers of Two and a Half Men. Now Men is itself hardly an example of fine programming, but one of the writers is Chuck Lorre, co-creator of The Big Bang Theory (the only funny sit-com made in the last twenty-five years), so with a couple of Lorre regulars added to the charisma-free main CSI cast, it was an enjoyable waste of forty minutes.

This long digression about the massive suckitude of CSI is a result of my not having much to say about Edward James Olmos's appearance on CSI:NY (2010). I'm sure he picked up a nice fat paycheck, and in his wisdom he appears on the least crappy of the CSIs. Unlike his appearance in a nothing role in The Green Hornet, I can see what drew him to this material. Olmos plays Luther Devarro, founder of the (I presume) fictional Puerto Rican gang El Puño. Shortly after Devarro's release from prison, several members of El Puño are murdered. Mac, seeking to avoid a gang war, goes to Devarro to get his guarantee that El Puño will not retaliate but instead allow the police to investigate the murders. Devarro is an old school gangster and doesn't truck with all this a-shootin' and a-killin', so he gives his word that he will at least give the cops a window to act before he brings the pain himself. The violence continues, though, despite this promise. Is Devarro breaking his promise to Mac? Or is he perhaps no longer in control of El Puño? Or is it something else? (Spoiler: It's something else, something that thankfully keeps up the CSI tradition of being both utterly lame and titanically stupid.)

There isn't much more to say. The CSIing of the CSIs in this episode doesn't really figure into solving the case. The CSIs come to entirely the wrong conclusion and only understand what's happening when the person responsible for fomenting the gang war explains everything to Mac before Mac fatally shoots him. The only scenes that work at all are the conversations with Devarro and Mac discussing the generation gap between Devarro's term as leader of El Puño and what has become of the gang since his incarceration. In these scenes, Sinise and Olmos are allowed to strut their stuff, and they're fun to watch even if these scenes don't really have much impact on the story. These scenes are also undoubtedly what drew Olmos to the role, as Devarro defends the gang, at least in his day, as a necessary community to protect his poor Hispanic neighbourhood. As in the only other watchable episode of CSI I've seen, the main cast is kept largely off-stage in favour of a talented guest star. Since the main cast boasts a fine actor in Sinise, CSI:NY can successfully pull off a watchable episode by hiring a decent guest actor to go toe-to-toe with Mac, but the rigid format of the show pretty much hoses any chance of creating even a solid episode. All things considered, "Sangre por sangre" is a pretty unremarkable forty minutes of television, a effort more to be appreciated than loved.

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