When a writer refers to a moment in television as “seminal,” he or she is often employing hyperbole. After all, the medium is ever-changing — we’re currently in a cultural climate that produced more than 400 scripted televised shows last year and has been called an era of “peak TV” by the very people who make it.
But some moments simply are seminal. Not for lack of a better word; just because they are. Oct. 6, 2000, had one of those moments: The premiere of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on CBS.
On May 12, along with a spate of other shows, the final iteration of “CSI” — this one called “CSI: Cyber” — was canceled. With that drop of the guillotine, CBS has officially ended the “CSI” era, which lasted 16 years and produced some 800 episodes.
In a TV landscape in which breaking through the crowd is increasingly difficult, the success of “CSI” remains almost singular. The original ran for 15 seasons and spawned three spinoffs: “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: NY” and “CSI: Cyber” along with a generation of similar shows, such as “Bones” and the hyper-popular “NCIS” series. In its 16 years, the franchise featured stars ranging from David Caruso to Ted Danson to Patricia Arquette to Gary Sinise.
But the series didn’t always cast such a long shadow. Far from it, in fact.
The premiere almost never aired, and when it finally did, it was considered a black sheep, just a fun experiment while CBS focused on its real show, according to TV historian and critic Alan Sepinwall. Even then, critics certainly weren’t blown away. Sepinwall himself admits it was the show about which he was “most wrong in predicting its commercial success based on the pilot.”
“If you asked most CBS executives at the time, they would say that they were very high on ‘The Fugitive’ and weren’t quite sure how their viewers would react to ‘CSI,’ but that it seemed like an interesting experiment,” Sepinwall wrote.
He, and many others, guessed wrong partly because the show was different than most other easily digestible fare that aired during prime time, particularly the crime shows it was often lumped in with. While other crime shows focused on the more confrontational aspects of law enforcement – the arrests, the foot and car chases, the interrogation room — “CSI” dramatized the gathering of forensic evidence, the DNA testing, the science that would take place behind the scenes in those other shows.
That was 16 years ago, of course. That was before “CSI” became the most watched TV show on Earth and not for just one year but for five, The Huffington Post reported.
The show became so popular, it had real-world effects. According to “The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide,” it “stimulated a new generation of students to enter the field of forensic anthropology.”
In partnership with CBS, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History was granted $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation to create a forensic science exhibit, which opened in 2007 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, before touring the nation.
That’s not to say it didn’t also cause controversy.
U.S. prosecutors began complaining that the show had real-world effects in the courtroom. They claimed juries expected an unrealistic amount of forensic evidence. In the show, prosecutors are often armed with perfect blood matches and nearly indisputable DNA evidence nailing a perp. Real life isn’t that simple.
This was such a prevalent complaint that it became termed the “CSI effect,” NPR reported. The National Institute of Justice even investigated the effect.
“I think that ‘CSI’ has done some great things for medico-legal death investigations. It has brought what we do from the shadows — where people really didn’t want to know and didn’t care what we do — to the bright light of day,” Mike Murphy, the coroner for Clark County, Nev., whose office was the model for the original “CSI,” said in 2011.
In the past few years, the show had suffered declining popularity and, according to Metacritic, declining quality.
That downshift in quality is evidenced by the mixed reactions found on Twitter.
Regardless of how fans felt about the show at its end, one thing’s certain: It helped define an era of television, and the imitators it spawned will likely live on for many more years. There’s always a chance CBS will bring back one of the canceled spin-offs — or create an entirely new one.