February 12, 2007 Jill

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.

First shot: Night time Vegas sky line, all lit up,

Tease (4 beats):
Shots of night time Vegas intercut with someone loading a gun. Voice-over of a man’s suicide “note”. Gunshot. (B-story — fake suicide)

Then exterior night, crime scene, a cop says “here comes the nerd squad.” Meet: Captain Jim Brass. Meet: Gil Grissom. (character and premise)

Inside crime scene, guy dead in bathtub. Grissom begins his investigation as Brass theorizes that it’s a suicide. Science of maggots gives time frame. (B-story)

Grissom listens to the recorded suicide note with the upset family: not my son’s voice. (B-story)


Act 1 (11 beats):
Car pulls up outside Forensics lab. Woman heads inside: Holly Gribbs. (A-story: new girl’s first day)

Holly enters Grissom’s weird office, looks around. Grissom sneaks up behind and scares her, welcomes her to Forensics. He needs her blood. (A-story)

Meet Nick Stokes and Warwick Brown, competing to see who can get to 100 solved cases first and get promoted to CSI 3. Warwick is a gambler. Nick, a good guy, wishes Warwick luck. (Character)

Grissom explains gig to Holly who already knows it. Character beat: Grissom feeds her a grasshopper. (Character and premise)

Captain Brass leads roll call: Nick lands a trick roll, Warwick gets a home invasion. (C- & D-stories)

Meet Catherine Willows pulling up late for work, saying goodbye to her daughter. (Character)

Brass is tough on Holly. And he establishes the unit and the mission: Number 2 crime lab in country, solving crimes most labs render unsolvable. Grissom talks to Brass like they are equals. (Character and premise)

Warwick and Catherine arrive at home invasion crime scene. Get 411 on crime: drunk guy who was living with the couple is dead. Husband admits to killing him, says it was self-defense. Warwick thinks he’s lying. Shoe tread science. Shoe/foot clues. (C-story)

Holly’s first autopsy. It’s not a suicide, it’s a homicide: Science of gunshot animation. Holly freaks out and leaves autopsy. (A-story)

Holly wanders into wrong room, pukes, finds herself locking in a room full of corpses. (A-story)

Grissom rescues her. Calls the corpses assholes What a warm and funny guy! And what a soft curtain to the act! (A-story)

Act 2 (10 beats):
Nick investigates the trick roll. 411: Out of towner lost his wedding ring to a hooker who drugged him. Flashback to what happened. Nick empathizes, swabs gums. (D-story)

Grissom delivers Holly to a robbery crime scene and leaves her there. (A-story)

Warwick in lab examining hair fibres: science of hair. Signs of struggle. (C-story)

At the robbery crime scene, the victim is hard on Holly. (A-story)

Warwick in the interrogation room with the husband from the home invasion. In flashback, the husband revises his story. (C-story)

Holly calls for backup, the victim is holding a gun on her. (A-story)

Nick with chemist checking on his swab. Character banter. Swab is no good. No evidence. (D-story)

Catherine rescues Holly (Catherine carries a gun.). (A-story)

Grissom hits a model head with a golf club to check out science of blood spatter (Holly’s blood runner). In comes Warwick to discuss his home invasion case. Grissom advises: concentrate on the evidence. (C-story)

Warwick takes another look at the shoe. A long (60 seconds) nearly silent (there’s music and two lines) scene of Warwick sitting at a table looking at a running shoe. It almost feels like science when he finds a toe nail and it warrants a special effect. Knows the husband is lying. (C-story)

Act 3 (7 beats):
Tape recorder from Grissom’s suicide case: the science of a too perfect fingerprint, possibly planted. There’s also lecithin and latex. Sexy banter (Grissom had a bad date with the lab tech.) We leave the lab tech searching for a print match. (B-story)

Holly and Catherine in a restaurant talking back-story. Is Holly cut out for CSI? Catherine loves her job: it’s a puzzle. We do the important police work. (A-story)

Warwick appeals to Brass for help getting a warrant. Brass blocks him because he believes the husband’s story instead of the evidence. Brass is an ass. (C-story)

Nick on the scene of a car accident. The victim has discoloration in her mouth, but Nick sees nothing criminal here, sends her to the hospital. (D-story)

Warwick in his car outside judge’s house. Judge will trade a warrant for a bet. (C-story)

Detective interviews guy about a staged suicide — his fingerprints were at the scene. Grissom stumbles in. Guy’s job gives him access to latex. (B-story)

Guy’s job: makes latex body parts. He made a latex hand that made the fingerprint on the tape recorder — that means the killer is proficient at forensics. (B-story)

Act 4 (16 beats):
Nick at the hospital to ask about trick rolls. Prostitutes who’ve been mysteriously knocked unconscious and have skin discolouration on their nipples. (D-story)

Nick with prostitute from car accident. Takes a look at her nipples and concludes: whatever the trick roll ingested got onto her nipples and knocked her out too. So give back old man’s belongings and tell me what you’re using. (D-story)

Lab: lab tech explains contents of bottle. Essentially knock out drops only he makes it sound like science. Flashback: prostitute puts drops on nipples, lets out of town man got at it. He passes out, she robs him, takes off and then she passes out behind the wheel of her car. (D-story)

Grissom goes back to not-a-suicide victim’s family. We’re ruling out suicide, we believe it was a homicide. Mother is relieved. Grissom doing good heart warming work. (final beat of B-story)

Catherine at hospital. She has to investigate a little girl who was molested. She feels terrible. (Catherine character runner)

Brass takes Warwick off his case because he went to the judge behind his back. Now he has to shadow Holly as punishment. (C-story)

Grissom reams Warwick out for thinking about anything but the case. (C-story)

Warwick drops Holly at crime scene while he runs an errand. (A-story)

Grissom goes to investigate the husband in the home invasion. He has a warrant for his toe nail. Lots of cool science to get the toe nail. (C-story)

Catherine takes a break: goes to visit her daughter just to say I love you. (Catherine character runner)

Matching toe nails under a microscope: science. Bingo! (C-story)

Warwick does some gambling. (Character scene)

Husband under arrest with Grissom and Warwick watching. Flashback to what really happened. (C-story)

Holly dusting for prints. Interrupted by a man with a gun in his belt. (A-story)

Nick brings the out of towner with everything he lost to the hooker. (D-story)

Nicky gets his CSI level 3 badge in front of the whole team. But Brass turns up to throw cold water on the party: Holly’s been shot. They don’t think she’s going to make it. And Warwick is in big trouble for leaving her. On Grissom, upset. (A-story)

Cut to black.

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.

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