Everybody loves a good mystery. But Ann Donahue, co-creator and executive producer of CSI: Miami, believes what people really love is a definitive solution to that good mystery. That's been the key to success, she says, not just for CSI: Miami, but for all three forensic crime dramas in the CSI franchise.
"People want to know the truth," says Donahue, who teamed with Anthony Zuiker and Carol Mendelsohn in 2002 to create CSI: Miami. "It's always, 'Who kidnapped Lindbergh's baby?' People still talk about that. 'Who shot Kennedy?' People still talk about the O.J. Simpson trial. People want definitive answers. And the brilliance of what Anthony found [when developing the CSI formula] is that these tiny things like DNA and fibers can tell you definitively who murdered whom and when and how it happened. People love that."
Obviously, they do. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, and CSI: NY are more than just viewer favorites. They have created a cultural phenomenon while exponentially raising awareness of police forensics. We chatted with Zuiker and Donahue about the show. Here's what we uncovered.
Practically everybody knows what the letters "CSI" mean today. But that wasn't the case in 2000, when the original series premiered. True?
Zuiker: "When I was researching CSI, the Las Vegas crime lab was called Field Services. The application ratio [from people wanting to do this work] was around 200 applications per year. After CSI launched, it went to over 5,000 applications per year. And they renamed Field Services 'Crime Scene Investigation.'"
Donahue: "I was lucky enough to meet Anthony when there was this new show called CSI, and I couldn't remember the name. I kept calling it 'CIS.' Now 'CSI' is part of the lexicon."
Zuiker: "All over the country, criminal-justice departments in colleges and universities are having a separate avenue of study for crime scene investigation. There's the CSI effect of jurors having preconceived knowledge about forensic science before they walk into the courtroom. It's snowballed into something quite big. I think the reason is, when you're watching these shows, you're learning. People had an idea about what forensic science was, although they were a little confused at the O.J. trial. We found a way to make it sexy and educational and fun. And people now know what DNA and blood spatter are."
Taking CSI from Vegas to other cities has proven to be a good idea. But when you cooked up the first spinoff, CSI: Miami, did you have any misgivings? Any fear that you might be taking on more than you could handle or watering down the overall franchise or offering the audience a new cast they might not like?
Donahue: "We didn't. And I think that's why it worked. We don't have time to hand-wring. Les Moonves [entertainment president of CBS] said, 'We're going to do a new show; pick a city.' Then [executive producer] Jerry Bruckheimer said Miami. And we just ran with it. It took all our energy, but we never looked back. And we knew our cast was solid from the start. I think we hired Emily Procter [who plays Calleigh Duquesne] first. And we never had a doubt."
Zuiker: "We believed in the show from the very beginning. Every time we do a script, every time we do a show, every time we launch a new version, it takes absolutely everything out of us. I think that's what makes it so successful."
David Caruso, who plays Lt. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami, has such an amazing, larger-than-life presence on-screen. What's it like working with him?
Zuiker: "We sat down with him, Ann and Carol and myself, after he flew in to talk about CSI: Miami. I think within the first 20 seconds of him talking, Ann and I were kicking each other under the table going, 'This is the guy!' He just has such self-awareness about his position in the world and his emotional connection with the viewer. My mother watches CSI: Miami and she just feels so very safe with David as an actor and with that character."
Donahue: "David approaches his character as if he is going to be the last voice for the victim and he's not going to let anything get in the way of that. The family can cry and the neighbors can wring their hands, but he will not allow himself to do that. He needs to be focused on who the killer is."
Zuiker: "It's so much fun to write for David Caruso. Not only to write for him, but work with him. It's a joy to watch David Caruso on-screen. But when they yell "cut" and you have a chance to talk offscreen is when you learn so much about the business and about life and about philosophies. He's constantly teaching and educating the second he drives on the lot."
Donahue: "There is one more thing about his dedication. David, during the week that we were filming our crossover [last season with CSI: NY], was doing three episodes at once. And David's son was born that week. He would shoot in the morning, then be on his cell phone with his lady to find out when he would have to leave. He had a beautiful baby boy. It was while we were shooting."
Zuiker: "And he never missed a beat."
Speaking of the Miami-New York crossover episodes, was it intended as an inside joke (given Caruso's rocky history with NYPD Blue) when Horatio said he had lots of memories of New York and they weren't all good ones?
Donahue: "I have to tell you I never even thought of that. We really go to his character and we don't deal with John Kelly [his NYPD Blue character] or David Caruso. It's really Horatio Caine. And he had a backstory in New York."
Any chance that slain CSI: Miami investigator Tim Speedle (played by Rory Cochrane) might somehow turn up in a future episode?
Donahue: "It's always open. We love him. And we kicked it around, different ways to go. We have it written into his deal. Never say never."
How much do the three CSI series consult with one another to prevent overlaps?
Zuiker: "The shows have amazing partners. We check in as much as we possibly can to make sure we're not doing consecutive story lines or having conflicting science. On that level, we speak very often."
After all these years of doing shows with dead bodies and extreme murders, is there anything left for you to be squeamish about today?
Donahue: "A lot of things in real life gross me out. But I know the blood on the show is chocolate syrup. I know it's not real. I always say that writers are passionate cowards. Many things gross me out, but not on this show."