by Heather Havrilesky

Words to the wise: Never leave spent bullets lying around, because if a hurricane were to blow through, the winds could hurl a bullet through your neck and kill you. Always keep your dog away from firearms unless you want him to blast your head off. And if you ever decide to wear a big gray raccoon suit, make sure not to drive out to the country, or a local farmer might mistake you for a coyote and shoot you.

Such cautionary measures might seem excessive to some, but viewers of the informative CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its cousin CSI: Miami recognize that death lurks around every corner.

And the producers seem to have figured out that if you can't beat the gritty realism of NYPD Blue and Law & amp; Order, why not replace reality with pure fantasy? Replace the bluesy theme song with a classic rock anthem by the Who. And trade in those domestic disputes and drug-related crimes for complicated murder mysteries involving dominatrixes, bank heists, evil magicians, incest, grocery store massacres and fallen porn stars.

Who else but Jerry Bruckheimer could make working at a crime lab look like a head-spinning rock 'n' roll fantasy? The flashy, fast-paced formula may not produce believable stories, but this little detail seems to concern the average viewer about as much as it concerns the average blockbuster-movie-goer: With as many as 30 million viewers each week, CSI is the highest-rated drama on TV and the third-most-popular program overall, behind the two weekly American Idol episodes. And, in a testament to the enduring popularity of the CSI brand, CSI: Miami, which debuted in 2002, is currently ninth overall in the ratings, and CSI: New York, starring Gary Sinise, is set to launch next fall. With such rapid expansion and popularity, CSI seems to slowly be replacing Law & amp; Order as the dominant crime franchise.

Pretty impressive, for one of the silliest shows on television. While CSI: Crime Scene Investigation compiles lurid subjects, absurd twists and lots of swagger into a tawdry mess that manages to entertain as long as you're not paying too much attention, CSI: Miami is a tangle of over-the-top stories that only clumsily mimics the original show.

Alexx: [to the dead body of a bikini-clad female] Welcome to spring break. How'd this happen, sugar? All you wanted was a week of fun in the sun. Good times, hangin' out with your friends...

Horatio: Should've been the time of her life, Alexx. [Puts on sunglasses] Instead of the end of it!

The opening scenes of CSI: Miami have swiftly joined the ranks of the cheesiest moments in television history. Each time medical examiner Alexx Woods (Khandi Alexander) leans over the corpse du jour and coos her sincerest sympathies, and Horatio Caine (David Caruso) slips on his sunglasses and growls his angry one-liner, you can almost hear Tattoo yelling "De plane!" or Hannibal from The A-Team saying, "I love it when a plan comes together."

While CSI: Miami is clearly the Baywatch Nights of the franchise, that doesn't keep CSI from veering into moronic territory occasionally. On one episode, Gil Grissom (William Petersen) and Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) investigate the apparently lurid death of a couple who recently attended a "furries" convention.

Gil: Well, Freud said that the only unnatural sexual behavior was to have none at all. And after that, it's just a question of opportunity and preference. And evidently, many prefer the feel of fur to the texture of human skin.

Catherine: Well, I like hairy chests, but I'm not about to bop a six-foot weasel!

You see, a dead guy in a raccoon suit was found at the side of the road next to a dead woman in a wrecked car, and the experts suspected foul play. As it turned out, though, raccoon boy got out of the car to throw up, and a local farmer shot him, thinking he was a coyote. He stumbled out into the road, where his girlfriend ran over him in her car, then hit a truck head-on and died. Plausible, no?

But, while Petersen and Helgenberger occasionally interact in unexpected ways and with mildly interesting characters, the dialogue of CSI: Miami is about as nuanced as the chatter in most video games.

Horatio: So the kid is dealing for you?

Maurice: He's my best retailer -- got a growing client base. You know how crazy those junkies get.

Horatio: Yes. Crazy enough to kill!

How does TV this bad draw an audience? Look no further than the countless episodes of The Love Boat and The Dukes of Hazard ingrained in your memory. Ridiculous stories will always sell as long as they're packed in a flashy exterior.

CSI lead Petersen has been outspoken about his opposition to the creation of further spinoffs, which he argues dilute the quality of the original series. In a recent interview with Playboy, Petersen griped about the inferior quality of "CSI: Miami" and openly insulted his collaborators. When asked whom he'd like to see on the show as "guest corpses," Petersen said, "The big three would be [CBS chairman] Les Moonves, [Alliance Atlantis Entertainment Group CEO] Peter Sussman and Jerry Bruckheimer, all of whom are getting filthy rich off this show."

CSI: Miami plays on Monday nights at 10 pm on CBS. The original CSI plays on Thursday nights at 9 pm.

Publication date: 03/25/04

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