'CSI: NY' turns 100
EmptyIt's a flawless October afternoon in Brooklyn, N.Y., warm enough for ice cream -- and almost too warm for the dark separates "CSI: NY" (CBS) showrunner Pam Veasey has on as she darts from the docks overlooking lower Manhattan to a waiting water taxi, keeping tabs on star Melina Kanakaredes (Det. Stella Bonasera), who is walking through her scenes.
Yet despite the slice of Hollywood in their front yards, locals are likely to be pointing their cameras at something else -- the skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, or even Olafur Eliasson's public art installation: a mammoth waterfall tumbling over scaffolding under the bridge itself.
Kanakaredes recognizes the competition. "New York is a character in itself," she says.
That statement is key to understanding not just "CSI: NY" the show, but how it pulled itself out of an early slump, and why it is hitting its milestone 100th episode tonight. New York City is as much a star in the show as are its leads, Gary Sinise (Det. Mac Taylor) and Kanakaredes, which prompts the show to relocate a few times a year from Los Angeles to shoot crucial location scenes like the one they're doing today.
"When we come here, we make big giant meat of it," says Veasey. "We start early every day and get as much for a series of shows as possible."
This particular trip will provide meat for a good portion of the series' fifth season, but today's footage will be used to flavor that 100th episode, called "My Name Is Mac Taylor." Such a milestone confers a level of legitimacy and veteran status to any series, but when you're the third iteration of a successful franchise (and not necessarily the breadwinner in the ratings), it carries more weight.
"We call ourselves 'the stepchild,'" laughs Veasey. "But lovingly! Any third of a franchise has to stake its claim and be very distinct. But the beauty of being this stepchild is being it in New York."
Establishing itself in the "CSI" family -- the mothership debuted in 2001, "CSI: Miami" followed in 2003 -- was fairly simple. Less than two moths removed from its September 2004 premiere, "CSI: NY's" rerun rights went to Spike TV for nearly $1.9 million per episode -- at the time the largest syndication sale ever. Then it managed to shove NBC's warhorse "Law & Order" out of its traditional Wednesday 10 p.m. time slot (though temporarily).
For the 100th, Veasey wanted to do something special, and lit on the idea of sending Sinise's Taylor out to investigate crimes whose victims were also called Mac Taylor. The juiced-up guest cast includes Rumer Willis, Chris Daughtry, Scott Wolf -- and the waterfall, which provides the primary forensic twist. Namely, in spring (when the episode takes place), why is a leaf covered in sea salt?
"I saw the waterfalls, and I thought they were beautiful," says Veasey. "How could we show New York and not include them?"
In the show's inaugural season, the overall look was more New York subway, circa 1970 than gleaming modern-day Big Apple. "Gary and I used to joke that we would light each other with the Maglites we used to look at evidence, because there was no light," says Kanakaredes.
Network brass suggested a change. "They redid the set for the second season, and everything was all glass and clear and you could see the skyline," recalls CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. "Then -- in finding those stories that are ripped from the headlines but a little Page Six-y, and in finding that New York humor and attitude -- they really established their own voice."
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Finding that voice was a key factor in the show's eventual success, as was overcoming the appearance of having staff stretched too thin to do a third show justice.
"The creative staffers thought there would be an additional burden (placed on them), but we had a strong bench of writers that had been working on both (of the first two "CSIs"), and once they thought they could pull it off, they did," says executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who works with all three shows.
|MURDER BY NUMBERS |
How "CSI: NY" stacks up against its sister shows in the ratings
|CSI: Crime Scene Investigation||16.5||15.6||12.2||10.1|
|Source: Nielsen Media Research|
In moving the city to center stage, story options widened exponentially. "We really mine New York City and try to make every episode very New York specific," says executive producer Peter Lenkov. "A story on 'CSI: NY' can't be told in (the Vegas or Miami versions)."
On factor that makes "NY" unique is weather. "We're the only show in the franchise that gets to do winter," says Veasey. And that means more than just different background shots. "That means we get to do snow science. We also get a different cultural diversity than Vegas or Miami, and New York has old buildings with history."
True to Life
Veasey is the scribe behind "My Name Is Mac Taylor," but she didn't write the script alone. A "product of the writers room," she says she looks for everyone's input after a first draft. "It's essential for everyone to contribute to make it better."
"Everyone" includes Bill Haynes, a former LAPD forensics specialist who now serves as a writer and technical consultant on the show. "One of the biggest challenges we face -- and specifically me, as the science guy -- is what we haven't seen before as far as trace evidence," says Haynes. "You can't keep relying on ... the staples. So what else is out there that is weird and will pique our interest?"
Often, says Veasey, ideas for stories come literally from looking through photos of New York City. "I had this beautiful picture I took many years ago when I worked in Bayonne, N.J., and it was of a piece of land that (featured) the Statue of Liberty, and I said, 'I want this in my show!' So we're very much picture-motivated." She adds that when they come to the city, they take a lot of photos of mundane items or events, like the way people chain their bicycles to any standing pole or post, to inject an extra dose of authentic detail.
This distant re-creation of a very particular city generates a version a bit askew from reality -- the visual equivalent of English spoken with a thick accent. Crimes are regularly committed within spitting distance of major landmarks, as if to reassure the audience that it's really New York City. Case in point: As a nod to the milestone, the 100th episode will open on the 100th floor of a skyscraper, which means they must be in the Empire State Building because New York City has no other buildings with 100 stories.
Small details aside, the series is obviously doing something right, as approximately 11 million viewers tune in each week to see a version of New York found nowhere else on the dial. And that's fine for "NY," which has no interest in competing with television's other big cop franchise for audiences. "'Law & Order' is a different type of show completely," says Veasey. "We are grounded in the science of the case."
Meanwhile, the show continues to grow. Kanakaredes is even set to write an episode, which thrills her.
"With the 100th episode coming up, it seems like a rebirth," says the actress. "People are really excited about taking the show to the next level. 'CSI' and 'CSI: Miami' are storming towards their 200th and 150th episodes, respectively, with no sign of slowing. If that's any indication, this may only be the beginning for us."