This critically acclaimed awward-winning drama series has sometimes
been criticized for being too formulaic. While its writers
and producers have defended this by arguing that the formula is less
important than the specific elements of each case presented in the
various episodes, it is hard to deny that there is certainly a formula
in place and that anyone familiar with more than a few episodes is
probably very much aware of it.
The anatomy of a typical CSI episode
episodes start just prior to the crime that will form the basis of that
episode. We are often introduced to someone who is about to become a
victim or, sometimes, when the writers want to switch things up a
little, otherwise uninvolved citizens discover a body or crime scene.
When the viewer does witness the crime, the details provided are
sparse. The show does not make extensive use of dramatic irony, and
viewers typically learn of new developments as the investigators
When the episode opens with a soon-to-be-victim in
the moments leading up to the crime, it is also common to not see the
crime actually occur. We often see the seconds just before the crime,
then a quick cut to after the crime has taken place. After the "jump,"
the CSIs are usually just arriving at the scene or have
been there for a very brief period of time. They frequently interact
with David, the coroner's assistant, who provides information regarding
time and cause of death. The CSIs/detectives on the scene then make
some observations regarding the crime scene, and one of them (usually
superviser Gil Grissom) makes some kind of remark that sums up the
scene, usually involving some kind of pun.
credits are then played. Unlike the majority of other television
shows, they always come after the scene that sets the tone for the rest
of the episode, even when the rest of the episode deviates from the
standard CSI formula. The credit sequence features clips from previous
episodes accompanied by the Who's "Who Are You?" ("Baba O'Reilly"
in CSI: New York and "Won't Get Fooled Again" in CSI: Miami).
main actors are given prominent billing in the main credit sequence.
Supporting actors, including those with recurring roles, are billed
during the secondary credits shown over top of the episode's next
scenes. Recurring actors are billed first, then all other supporting
actors are billed afterwards. The lone exception to this is when very
famous people (think Faye Dunaway) guest star on the show; they are
often billed before the recurring actors. (It should be noted, however,
that when Roger Daltrey guest starred on the show he was credited
after later-to-be-main-actor Wallace Langham as a "special guest
The scenes following the main credits are also often
formulaic. There is often further analysis of the crime scene,
featuring the introduction of preliminary suspects and the procuring of
trace, DNA and fingerprint-related evidence, which is sent to the
lab's various technicians to be analyzed.
It is common practice
for the investigators to begin suspecting the most
"obvious" suspects early on in the episode; this is often (but not
always) an indication that the person is actually innocent. These
suspects are interrogated and maintain their innocence and are rarely
believed by their investigators until one of them, or one of the lab
technicians seen throughout the show, provides test results or
evidence that exhonerate that suspect, sending the investigators back
to square one.
It is rare for every CSI to be involved with one
case. More often than not, three investigators work on the "main" case
(known to some fans as the "A plot") while the other two work on a
secondary case that usually has nothing to do with the
main case (the "B plot"). The two plots are presented simultaneously
(that is to say that one case isn't solved long before the other), with
scenes from each presented interchangably.
Most episodes often
see the CSIs having to return to the crime scene to re-evaluate the
evidence they've collected, or to search for more. Among the show's
regular themes is that of changing one's initial theory as new evidence
comes to light. Sometimes the two plots are connected, but more often
than not they have nothing to do with each other.
As the evidence
comes together, there is usually one bit of information -- most often
DNA-related -- that breaks the case open. It is, naturally,
discovered towards the end of the show and usually leads to the
questioning of someone you never really
thought to suspect. In many episodes, this person confesses during
interrogation; in others, he or she maintains his or her innocence but
it is clear that he or she is guilty.
The typical final scene of
a CSI episode is often (though not always) more light-hearted,
sometimes allowing us a glimpse into the personalities of the
characters. It also often revolves around the circumstances involving
that particular case, with the characters sometimes reflecting on what
they would have done had they been in situations similar to the
victims or even the assailants.
episodes get as far away from this formula as you can get. These, often
involving big cases, rarely involve a secondary plot and often see the
entire team investigating one case or may even revolve around members
of the team testifying at the trials of those charged
with crimes based on the evidence they gathered.
there are episodes intended to further character development as well.
The fifth season episode Nesting Dolls included several seasons
providing information about Sara's family history. While
character development is most often included in the more formulaic
episodes in bits and pieces, some episodes break away from the formula
in order to teach viewers more about the characters. Other examples of
this include The Unusual Suspect, where the entire team (or, at least
those who appear in the episode) is focused on one case and we learn
more about the characters than we might in most other episodes.
episodes are "two-parters," where the case goes unsolved in the first
half and is eventually solved in the second half. Examples of this
include the seventh season finale Living Doll and the eighth season
premier Dead Doll, where Sara is trapped under a car in the desert by
the Miniature Killer; Grave Danger parts one and two (directed by
Quentin Tarentino) sees Nick kidnapped and buried alive
while the other CSIs work tirelessly to save him (and not on any other
cases) is also a two-part episode. Unlike Living Doll and Dead Doll,
both parts aired at the same time. At the end of season six, Brass is shot while trying to diffuse a hostage situation.
seventh season featured a number of episodes dealing with a psychotic
serial killer who placed extremely detailed scale models of the crime scenes at the
crime scenes. This storyline involved several victims over several
episodes and therefore didn't fit the generic formula, though the first
few episodes that dealt with these cases were in that format (with a
secondary case, etc.). This was the show's longest storyline to date,
spanning from the first episode of season seven to the first episode of
Is any of this surprising? Not
really. Murder mysteries have always been reasonably formulaic, and
CSI is really just a murder mystery series with lots of science. The
idea that the murderer is always someone you least suspect is as old as
time itself, and was just as prevalent in shows such as Murder She
Wrote and so forth.
Furthermore, formulaic plotlines have also
been an element of TV shows for years. Full House episodes are just
as formulaic. The challenge for the writers is to make the content
of every episode as different and interesting as possible, which may in
fact only be possible because they often use a set formula.
CSI seasons 1-7 (DVD).