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I’m sure by now you’ve all heard of the mega-hit CBS series called CSI. For the rock dwellers out there, I’ll sum up the pitch. In the gritty streets of Sin City, USA—otherwise known as Las Vegas—a group of CSI detectives (that stands for Crime Scene Investigation, rock dwellers) fight murder with science. Occasionally they fight murder with more murder, but usually it’s with science. Utilizing an armoury of tools and tricks, they can track down any killer, anytime, anywhere. They never fail. Ever.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete Fifth Season
In fact, it gets a little old after a while. Sure, there’s the occasional collateral damage or unnecessary victim, but for the most part they get their man, or woman, or in the case of one episode, man-woman. Somewhere along the line there’s sure to be an experiment montage, where our heroes (usually lead hero, Gil Grissom) analyze a piece of evidence with an array of elixirs and toys, usual set to a ‘hip’ song by the latest ‘happening’ band, or at least what the producers equivalent to such a band. These montages have more in common with Vegas Strip magic acts than actual hard science, but I’m sure that the results could stand up to a real life professional’s extreme scrutiny (end sarcasm here).

Stylistically, CSI is a circus side show, or freak show if you will. Full of candy-coated lighting, music video editing, and out-of-focus backgrounds, CSI’s chief distinguishing trait is its look, rather than its writing. I can see it now, producer Jerry Bruckheimer is sitting in his office pondering future projects when he realizes three important facts: he likes David Fincher movies, he wants to work in television, and that forensic show on cable is pretty popular. He speaks to other ‘creative’ types who simply nod to avoid a pink slip, and hires the best Fincher wannabes money can buy, and then burns all the wide-angle lenses and natural lighting in a hundred mile radius.

The ‘how’d-it-happen’ flashes would be the most innovative thing on television, if I hadn’t seen it done in Fight Club and Three Kings first. Still, computer generated extreme close-ups of evidence are pretty cool, especially when accompanied by whirring surround sound. I’m especially fond of any ECUs when it comes to knife-in-flesh action. The way over stylized, blurry crime flashbacks I could do without.

I do have to give most of the cast credit for making the best of what seems to be the same thing every week. Special notice should be made of William Peterson team leader Grissom, and the criminally overlooked Gary Dourdon as token black guy Warrick Brown. Both actors have been trudging their way through bit parts for years, and I’m happy they’ve found such great success as two of the most watched men in America. Their actual characters aren’t all that deep, unfortunately, and can be summed up pretty quickly; Peterson is the archetypal, literature quoting, cool-as-a-cucumber boss man (see: Morgan Freeman), and Dourdon is…um…the token black guy.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete Fifth Season
But I’m being unnecessarily mean-spirited here. CSI is not the worst show on television, in fact its popularity may speak well for the general American intelligence level. It’s a predictable show, but not a dumb one. I get the obsession, but don't share it in this case.

I found myself constantly shocked by the level and frankness of violence in each episode. The drippy, literally gut-wrenching autopsy sequences would be right at home in a low budget, Italian gore-quickie, and the claret haemorrhaging flashbacks would easily earn the series an R rating, had they been theatrically released. I’m not one to shy away from gore, inversely, bring it on, but there does seem to be a little problem with the FCC’s instance on censoring nudity and ‘dirty words’, while allowing such carnage in prime time without batting an eye (personally, and unrelated to this review, I’ve no problem with television being as violent and sexy as possible, I just have a problem with hypocritical censorship).

…And then I watched the Tarantino episodes. Everything changed. At first, I had assumed that Tarantino’s involvement with the two episode season finale would be nothing more than an amusing little gimmick, something that would be more fun than an average episode, but nothing earth shattering. I was wrong. Not only is the two part episode the best CSI episode I’ve ever seen, it actually manages to be an important edition to the director’s collective work.

I was a late addition to the Tarantino fan club. I don’t really like Reservoir Dogs, and think Pulp Fiction was one third great, one-third good, and one third mediocre. Even though I’m huge fan of Jackie Brown,it really wasn’t until I saw the Kill Bill series that I realized the man’s genius. After reading his enthusiastic interviews in publications like Fangoria, I realized he was twice the Grindhouse geek I'd ever be. With Kill Bill, he was able to visit all his (and my) favourite Grindhouse mainstays; Blacksploitation, Spaghetti Westerns, Revenge, Gore, Kung Fu, Samurai, and Yakuza, but one genre was only hinted at in one sequence, lurid Italian thrillers, also known as Giallos (for the yellow covers of such books). QT regularly states Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and second generation Giallist Brian DePalma as some of his greatest influences. Here, he finally has a chance to pay homage to them properly, and has completed his first proper Giallo.

As I said in my review of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento’s first film, CSI owes just as much to the Giallo genre as it does to the ever-growing number of reality based forensic shows. It seems Tarantino recognized this when preparing his episode. The biggest queues are pretty hard to miss, if you know what you’re looking for. The killer bating Agent Stokes at the beginning of the episode appears out of nowhere when Stokes leans over to pick up evidence, a shot used most effectively in DePalma’s Raising Cain, and Argento’s Tenebre. The early flashback to an unrelated murder case involves a black-gloved killer, gleefully caressing weapons in extreme close-up, a common genre cliché. The buried alive motif is the bases of several genre classics, including Tarantino favourite, Seven Notes in Black. My personal favourite, and most cherished of these references is the employment of John Saxon as the bad guy, a legend of exploitation cinema, and star of some of Italy’s greatest scary exports. Also keep your eyes peeled for the drunken shlub in the ‘Fulci Lives’ t-shirt.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete Fifth Season
From the standpoint of the show’s development, Tarantino manages to make these painfully two-dimensional characters act downright human by putting one of their own in harm's way. No longer can these jaded death investigators hide behind their apathetic ability to separate themselves from the victim. Here, in these episodes, these great actors finally come to life. The Bruckheimer aesthetics are somewhat skewed in favour of longer takes, more graceful camera movies, and slightly less neon lighting, however, even Quentin Tarantino isn’t immune from the allure of a science montage, and the episodes have their fair share.

By giving the plot and editing some room to breath, and delving head first into the character’s humanity and fear, Tarantino managed to quell my initial intolerance and appreciate the other episodes on the disc, for without them, I wouldn’t have the proper anchorage to appreciate the characters. Good job, then, he made this non-believer enjoy the show on a much higher level, and made the best Dario Argento movie in about fifteen years.

Video


These DVDs look really, truly, quite good. This is as close as I've ever been to true HDTV, as I'm not willing to pay extra money to get it from my local satellite provider. The show itself tends to be intentionally grainy from scene to scene, but the crystal clear establishing shots that follow every commercial break are incredible. The gaudy colour pallet is intense and bright without much blooming or vibrating. Dark levels are deep with out too much grain, and almost no low-level noise. The grain itself is even sharp, and never veers into noisy, even during the Tarantino segment, which is almost certainly the roughest. There was an issue, made clearer to me as I view my screen caps, with the black levels. For the most part the series looks fine, but on higher quality television sets this problem is prevalent.

I'm assuming the show is recorded for HD broadcast, which coupled with its recent vintage, makes for one of the smoothest DVD transfers I've ever seen, and far and away the finest TV on DVD transfer I've ever seen. The only discs in my collection I can think of with finer (as in detail) transfers are of the Pixar and Star Wars prequel verities.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete Fifth Season

Audio


Matching the spectacular video is a spectacular audio presentation. Every episode is arranged into an aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Though the show itself isn’t the most action packed on television, the sound track still manages to pack a wallop. The super exaggerated sound effects, mostly utilized during the mind-bending, scientific close-ups, and other crime scene flashbacks are encompassing. The (usually obnoxious) music is evenly dispersed, if not a little too loud on some episodes, and even manages a few whip-smart surround moments, like the repeating keyboard effect found in The Who’s ‘Who Are You’, which is the painfully obvious credit song. If I were looking for something to bellyache about it’d be the occasionally low volume dialogue.

Extras


Like most television sets I've come across over the years, CSI's special features are pretty much only there to be advertised (‘Buy the seven disc set, bursting with extras, this Tuesday’, the sonorous commercial guy voice booms). What we get is a handful of limp featurettes and audio commentary on nine of the twenty five episodes. Grave Danger is not one (or in this case two) of the nine, which is unfortunate. The commentaries we do get are about as dry as the Sahara, and really meant for hard-core fans of the series (i.e.: not me). Most if the directors and writers sound pretty reluctant to be in the booth, and focus mostly on either obvious facts (‘we were trying to build tension here’) or technical jargon that I couldn’t really care less about. Honestly, I may have a bit of a skewed opinion here, because by the time I got to the commentary tracks, I was pretty tired of watching CSI all together.

The first two featurettes, CSI Season 5: A Post-Mortem and The Research of CSI: Maintaining the Accuracy, are basically throw away commercials for the series, though Maintaining the Accuracy does reveal some of the liberties the series takes with the facts, and reminded me of the documentary style cable forensic shows I enjoy more than CSI. It's nice to hear what the real, not so attractive investigators have to say about the series. CSI: Tarantino Style, was slightly more interesting, but mostly because I was personally most interested in seeing it. It recounts (shortly) how QT became involved, what it was like for the actors to work for him, and how the script was constructed. The final bit, CIS: Forensic Procedures on the Scene vs. on the Screen, is a collection of eight, even shorter featurettes that I found to be the most interesting of the set. These behind the scenes pieces are a solid glimpse into the tech of the show and its real life counterpart, and unfortunately infinitely more interesting than the characters or drama of the program.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete Fifth Season

Overall


I'm sorry CSI fans, this was my first contact with the show, and I'm not exactly moved. I appreciate the set-ups, actors, and loved the Tarantino directed episode, but couldn't see myself watching it on multiple occasions. The DVDs themselves are stellar, featuring the best video transfers I've ever seen from a television series, solid surround audio, and a decent collection of extras. In the end, I feel I've wasted my breath, as I'm sure all the most unyielding series patrons have probably already purchased this set. A note to series newbies: if see a recognizable actor in a small role, he or she is most likely involved somehow in the murder, and their role will enlarge by the end of the episode. Trust me.


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