How I was very very wrong about the success of ‘CSI’

Earlier this week, IndieWire's Sam Adams interviewed me, Mo Ryan, and Tim Goodman about the increasingly strange and outdated practice of reviewing new shows based just on the pilot episode. At one point, Sam asked what was the wrongest I ever was about a show's quality based on the pilot episode. 

I didn't have a great answer for that one, since I have a pretty good Spidey sense about when pilots aren't to be trusted (case in point: “Studio 60”), but I did think of an answer to a related question: What show was I most wrong in predicting its commercial success based on the pilot?

The answer to that one's easy, and timely, because the show in question is airing a series finale special Sunday night at 9: “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

It's not that I was predicting its outright failure or anything. I actually found the pilot interesting when I first watched it in the summer of 2000, particularly in its visual style and its focus on forensic science, after most '90s cop shows had dwelled on interrogations as the best method of solving a case. But I was convinced that CBS's other new Friday show for that fall, a remake of “The Fugitive” starring Tim Daly as Dr. Richard Kimble, and Mykelti Williamson as Lt. Gerard, was going to be the hit of the fall. It had a well-crafted pilot, I liked Daly a lot, and it felt like the world had changed enough from the original TV show (and even, to an extent, from the '93 Harrison Ford movie) to make it seem like something new. I thought for sure it would be a hit, especially for the CBS audience.

Now, I wasn't the only one who thought so. 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.

And that was still more optimistic than the executives at ABC who originally developed “CSI.” Think about it: Disney lost a fortune on “CSI” not once, but twice: first when the network didn't order it to series, then when their in-house studio decided to give up their ownership stake in the show, rather than throw what they felt was good money after bad. “CSI” wasn't likely to become a hit on the ABC of the fall of 2000 (a network that had fallen apart after the “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” bubble collapsed), but owning a piece of another network's monster hit (and its long-running hit spin-offs) would have been awfully lucrative.

The first inkling I had that the conventional wisdom was wrong came that summer, when a local high school student did a mini-internship in The Star-Ledger's feature section. When it was my turn to play mentor, I handed him the videocassette containing the “Fugitive” and “CSI” pilots, told him to go home, watch both, and come back the next day to write a short review of whichever one interested him, so I could give him pointers on being a critic. I figured for sure he'd go for “The Fugitive.”

“Actually, I liked the other one a lot more,” he told me. “'Fugitive' was okay, but it felt kind of old-fashioned. I thought 'CSI' was really cool, though.”

He'd seen it immediately. I hadn't.

“The Fugitive” was good, but a relic of the past. “CSI” was the future: a show that spawned three spin-offs, countless imitators and spiritual cousins, whether other shows from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, like “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case,” or non-blood relations like “NCIS.” Five years earlier, O.J. Simpson had been acquitted in part because the jury hearing his case didn't understand or care about DNA evidence; “CSI” quickly became so popular that the curve swung too far the other way, as prosecutors began complaining of the so-called “'CSI' effect,” where jurors now knew about DNA and other aspects of forensics, but would only convict if presented with the unrealistic mountain of evidence that Gil Grissom and his fictional colleagues gathered every week, with equipment and budgets that would make real police scientists weep.

It's been suggested that people watch procedural cop shows like the “CSI” and “Law & Order” series not for the characters, but for the stories and the formula. That's never been entirely true. The original “Law & Order” only really slid into irrelevance after the show failed to adequately replace Lennie Briscoe, while “SVU” is humming along in its 17th season thanks to the continued presence of Olivia Benson.

And with “CSI,” there was definitely a big let-down when William Petersen quit to go back to the theater full-time, and Laurence Fishburne's Raymond Langston proved an unpopular replacement for Grissom, whose cool detachment had helped define the series at the start. The arrival of Ted Danson's kindly grandfather figure D.B. Russell in the wake of Fishburne's exit brought stability back to the show, and kept it on the air a few extra seasons. (Unsurprisingly, after Sunday's two-hour original recipe “CSI” finale – featuring the return of Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, and some other old friends – Danson will be moving over to “CSI: Cyber,” even though Russell isn't a computer expert; the franchise doesn't want to lose a character the audience likes, even if the show he's on has become too old and expensive to stick around.)

If you had told me 15 years ago that “CSI” would be a hit, I wouldn't have been shocked, but only because it was airing after “The Fugitive,” which I assumed would be successful, and lead-ins mattered a lot more then than they do now. But if you had told me that “The Fugitive” would end after a single season, that “CSI” would quickly team with another surprise phenomenon in “Survivor” to seize Thursday supremacy away from NBC's Must-See TV lineup, that “CSI” would become a global phenomenon with over 300 episodes (not even counting all those hours of David Caruso putting on his sunglasses on “CSI: Miami,” Gary Sinise looking sad on “CSI: NY,” or Patricia Arquette trying to scare your parents about the internet)? Well, I'd have said you were nuts.

And I'd have been very, very wrong.

Though still not as wrong as all the executives at ABC.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at