overthinking the idiot box

March 13, 2006

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
The Detective With a Thousand Faces

by Andreanna Ditton

First of all, I want to lay the blame for this week's column solely on Don McKellar and the new CBC One radio show "High Definition." I don't know Mr. McKellar personally, so blaming things on him is somewhat less satisfactory than blaming things on my mother, or my roommate or my best friend or my cat, but for the time being, it'll do.

You wouldn't think that radio would be so straining for the eyes.
So, last week, "High Definition" — a Canadian show about television — debuted; the "pilot" episode concerning itself with CSI because it is not only the top-rated show in the U.S., but apparently in Canada as well. The producers, clearly scanning the globe for people willing to talk ad nauseum about television, stumbled across SMRT-TV, and ended up with me as a fannish voice in favor of the show. So talk I did. And all that talking transported me back in time, a veritable TARDIS ride of a journey, to when I actually talked about things other than TV and had legitimate sources to back myself up. Being your traditional Anthropology/English/Classics major, all that thought lead me to one person: Mr. Joseph Campbell.

Now keep in mind, I was a feminist, post-modern anthropologist, but I was a Classicist too, so while I may want to smack Campbell, I still have a sort of reverence for him (it's the same way you sort of love Franz Boaz and Malinowski even though they ignored anything that didn't fit with their own personal world view). In Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell examines the mythologies of the hero, the way in which Western Culture and canon tells versions of the same story over and over again, and the ways in which individual "readers" put themselves in the narrative as the hero takes his journey (and sigh, yes. This is Campbell. The hero is always a he. This applies more to modern TV than one might think.)

However, CSI is not an arc based show. Hell, it's not even a character driven show. So if we turn to the hero story to repeat our mythology, if all of our media is really a retelling of this mythology, a retread of the journey tales which represent our journey's through life, how do we end up with a show like CSI as the most popular show in most of the world?
So we have these hero stories. We have the stories of journeys taken, of conflict between fathers and sons, of women as tricksters and destroyers. We love the heroes and we love the stories,we follow them and we repeat them generation by generation. Star Wars is a classic example (so classic that Lucas actually worked with Campbell to deconstruct the tropes and myths he was creating and elaborating on). Right now, at a minimum, four shows — LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1, & Stargate: Atlantis — are deliberately following in these footsteps (some more transgressively and excitingly than others), and a half dozen other arc-based shows are dancing their own variations. However, CSI is not an arc based show. Hell, it's not even a character driven show. So if we turn to the hero story to repeat our mythology, if all of our media is really a retelling of this mythology, a retread of the journey tales which represent our journey's through life, how do we end up with a show like CSI as the most popular show in most of the world?

The original CSI is a show about the aftereffects of humanity. It is not about our tropes and journeys, it is about what happens when our humanity is over, when we die. We're not a culture prone to examining the vagaries of the afterlife, certainly not in metaphysical ways and not on TV. The shows that actually do explore these questions tend towards the worst case scenari — unexplained deaths, deaths requiring answers, the other side of the forensic coin, avenging the soul, not simply the body, but still using a formula and a medium of translation. No one talks about the possibility of reincarnation, of there not being an afterlife, of the role ritual plays for those left behind. We leave those questions alone. So a show like CSI that centers around death but not dying expresses more about our culture, and our relationship with media within that culture, than we think. In the world of the CSI crime lab, there are no ghosts watching as their bodies are cut open. Once the victim on CSI dies, his or her role is over. The victim remains central to the narrative, but only as a motionless representation of the absurdities and horrors and moments of pathos in life.

Note that the beard is not mentioned as helpful to solving crime. Please. Seriously. Note it.
It's not about reverence for the dead. It's about the dead as symbol, the dead as anything but revered. The dead aren't even representative of death, but of humanity's absurdity. Again, in death, the worst case scenario. The show is not about mythology, it is about building a concept to revolve around. Grissom (and his lesser clones) are representatives not of the hero, but of blocks of meaning. Grissom is justice, he is knowledge, he is order. He represents the things that we as a society fear that we are lacking. He's the stable unifying force offering us those higher concepts, even if he can't offer any meaning to death beyond the recognition of it. As a scientists on the fringe of social acceptability, he's able to represent both the sticky, revolting aspects of justice through his bug fixation, through his distance-providing quips; and the best of who we are through his kindness, his intelligence and his perseverance.

In an era of continual low-grade fear and suspicion, of the threats of terrorism, and violation of civil rights and liberties, of nature turning against us, these shows offer a weekly — sometimes daily — doling out of the worst possible endings. Think death by terrorist act is bad? Try being the girl who hitched a ride under the bus and became pieces-parts along the highway. Not so fond of your in-laws, your actual laws? Be glad your family isn't made up of incestuous abusers. If science can answer chaos with justice, then perhaps the world to can be made safe for us. And yes, going in, we as viewers know it's a false mythology. We know we're creating monoliths of false hope, and yet we watch anyway. We come to the shows en masse. It is a relief to occasionally not follow an arc, not invest in the journey of a hero who will be bloody, bruised and battered before the end. It is a relief to see justice served, an end revealed, and protagonists left whole at the end of the day. It is comfort to give death an absurdity, to make it comedia delle arte, to laugh and squirm and cringe in it's face, without fearing that it lingers outside the door.

And just to prove my point, that the show is a reflection of our needs and fears more than it's a show about crime, CSI itself went meta just this week.

"I Like to Watch" — A Case Study

So in order to prove that it's kicking the ass of reality programming, CSI filters this week's episode through the lens of a Reality TV camera crew.
I myself have said that I'd rather watch any amount of stylized violence than watch reality TV (and yes, I exclude Project Runway from this caveat). So in order to prove that it's kicking the ass of reality programming, CSI filters this week's episode through the lens of a Reality TV camera crew. And the meta explodes all around, starting with the opening tag: asked about the wealth of forensics shows on television by the camera crew, Grissom replies, "There are too many of those shows on TV."

He can afford to say that. CSI is at the head of the pack. The crime show alpha dog.

The case itself is particularly nasty, and representative of every criticism CSI garners - a sexual assault, multiple rapes with a fetish theme committed by a faux fireman. It's violence committed by those assigned to protect, complete with smoke bombs that can be made from internet directions. The victim is betrayed by someone posing as a representative of the system — false hope and false justice.

So we've got women as victims, exploitation, foot fetishes, firefighters as rapists, smoke bombs, forensic science as false cognate, and the camera taking it all in.

The detective in charge of the case, disgusted by the camera's invasion of the victim's privacy snarlingly asks what they think they're doing. The cameraman answers, completely without irony, "Putting a human face to the crime."

The entire episode is shot in this weird watery light so that you have to pay close attention to tell when people are being filtered through the on-air camera lens. All of the lighting offers a false glimpse of these people and their work, showing the very thin separation between Truth, Fiction and Media. And we're watching a fiction of a fiction that's pretending to offer truths about our reality. It's sort of awful, and sort of genius. A double filtering of media and story, we see video clips being watched by the CSI's being watched by the crew and it's the great meta state of viewer as voyeur as translator.

And now we move on to annoying scientist dude riffing on the science being shortened for the show on the show — the procedure going from 6 hours to 30 seconds, and that playing out in glorious CGI Technicolor like a bad pun come to life, answering further criticisms from real scientists, and poking fun at their concerns while recognizing them, saying "Hey guys, it's just TV."

My own meta says that George Eads seriously needs to have a WTF conversation with his hair because he's not Luke Wilson, and even if he were, he still shouldn't do that to his head. It's beyond unfortunate.

Now sadly, the meta ends here until the end when Catherine Willows shugs her locker door and tells the camera that anything can happen to anyone, and it's a lesson we the viewer already know, filtered through the lens of our cultural perception, and through the metaphorical filter of a TV show claiming it's place, announcing it's triumph over the false reality that reality tv offers. A virtual smackdown, a visual Ha!, and proof that self-awareness only takes us so far. Apparently it takes us all the way to the bank, but it still leaves us with a hollow fortress instead of a flesh and blood hero.

CSI went meta to prove a point, to turn the mirror to the audience and reinforce their voyeuristic fantasies, but it also used the device to show why we tune in, why we watch, why we're content with virtual, visual monoliths. Because anything can happen at anytime, and the monolith gives us something to grasp, something to huddle around, just as the hero gives us the vision and skill to journey free.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 12.