"CSI is a franchise. Law & Order is a brand," said Dick Wolf this summer, speaking to reporters about the impending 15th season of his venerable police procedural. I'm not sure my business-speak is fluent enough to grasp the precise distinction there, but Wolf's point is clear. The rapidly proliferating young forensics drama is an Olive Garden in a strip mall, while the aging cops-and-lawyers show is a Chanel bag with a logo. CSI is glitzy; L & O is classy. CSI's spinoffs are cheesy; L & O's spinoffs are ... well, they're cheesy too, but at least they've been around awhile. The two shows went head-to-head last night in a simultaneous season-opener standoff, throwing down the gauntlet for fans of prime-time network crime shows. Will your Wednesday nights be spent scrutinizing corpses with Gary Sinise, or carping at judges with Sam Waterston? There was only way to decide fairly: Watch them both at the same time, switching back and forth, and subject each show to a battery of simple tests:
Theme Song: CSI:NY tries to cop the original CSI's great usage of the Who song, "Who Are You?" by opening with the Who's "Baba O'Riley," better known as "Teenage Wasteland." But they missed the point: "Who Are You?" is the perfect CSI song because it's the perfect question to ask of a John Doe corpse. "Teenage Wasteland" would only work if the new show was called CSI: 90210 (actually, that pilot's probably already in development at CBS.) L & O's trademark "bong bong" opening theme, with its inevitable suggestion of the slamming down of jail bars, wins this one by a mile.
Hold 'Em Tactics:Law & Order started strong by kicking off the season with two new episodes back-to-back. Anyone who's lost an entire evening to L & O reruns on TNT knows how hard it is to resist consecutive airings of that show. But CSI's grabby visuals and lurid plot twists all but freeze your fingers on the remote control. Resistance to Bruckheimer is useless.
Semi-Cynical Deployment of Still-Raw National Traumas: Well, L & O managed to build stories around, respectively, Abu Ghraib and the 9/11 widows (who were portrayed as either needy psychos or cold-blooded gold-diggers—so much for Sept. 11 nostalgia.) But then, it had two separate episodes in which to do so. CSI managed, in a single hour, to interweave the exploits of a Silence of the Lambs-style serial killer with a subplot about the collapse of the World Trade Center. Final shot: Gary Sinise clinging mournfully to the scaffolding at Ground Zero. Tastelessness trophy goes to: CSI.
Appeal of Crime-Solving Team: Gary Sinise has the requisite mien of a CSI investigator: pasty, sleep-deprived and grim, like Miami's David Caruso or Las Vegas' inimitable William Petersen. But Melina Kanakaredes, late of the NBC family series Providence, seems too roseate and dewy to be hanging out at morgues. She always looks like she's about to adopt a Korean orphan. On L & O, no living mortal could replace Jerry Orbach as a partner for Jesse L. Martin, but Dennis Farina's suave take on the good cop looks like it has at least a season's worth of mileage in it. CSI takes this one, for Sinise.
Grossout Factor: Not even close. L & O offers the odd peek at a murder victim's gently contused midriff, but CSI has singlehandedly reinvented gag-me television with its signature closeups of icky pulsing membranes and maggot's-eye-views of putrefying flesh. If you had a tiny camera lodged beneath your skull, what would it see? Cue Braincam!
Best Out-of-Context Line: L & O: "I'd put panties on every head in Abu Ghraib prison if I thought it would save one innocent life." CSI:NY: "GHB's dead as disco. Fry sticks are the new date-rape drug of New York City."
Is there really any contest here? L & O's entry should become the Bush administration's new campaign slogan. But I'm not attending another social event this season without flippantly announcing that "GHB is dead as disco."
Final score: CSI:NY, 4; L & O, 2. Looks like I'll be spending Wednesdays in the morgue with Gary and Melina. Oh, well, there's always—and I mean always—an episode of Law & Order showing somewhere.
Monday, Sept. 20 , 2004
Tony Soprano—DISSED! Last night's Emmy awards were very, very good to The Sopranos, but not to James Gandolfini. The Sopranos' mob boss failed to win the Best Actor in a Drama Series award that he 's taken home for the past three out of four years (in 2002, The Sopranos was not nominated, since no episodes aired during the allotted Emmys timeframe). This, despite the fact that his show took the first award for Best Drama Series ever given to a cable show, along with Supporting Actor and Actress trophies for Michael Imperioli and Drea de Matteo, as well as the one award that I actually begged for on my wish list back in July: Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, which went to Terence Winter for "Long Term Parking," the season's chilling penultimate episode. When the name of the Best Actor winner, ThePractice's James Spader, was announced, you could track Gandolfini's response in three separate beats: pre-rehearsed modesty during the announcer's articulation of "James," an almost imperceptible moment of shock upon registering—somewhere mid-"Spader"—that this was a different James, and then a self-mocking laugh as he realized his own mistake and genially applauded the victor.
Maybe after five seasons of attempting to decipher every nuance of Tony Soprano's expressions, I'm too inclined to read subtext into the slightest twitch on Gandolfini's face. But there was no question that Big Tony was not happy in the last few moments of the live telecast. After The Sopranos took Best Drama Series, the cast and production team trooped up to the stage and milled about (which itself made for good watching—there was something funny about seeing Paulie Walnuts in a tuxedo). Creator David Chase emerged from the onstage chaos to stumble through a rambling thank-you speech as Gandolfini loomed large behind him, shifting his weight impatiently as he consulted the notes for his own. As Chase finished, Gandolfini stepped commandingly to the mic, folded speech in one hand, the other raised to silence the in-house orchestra. And the musicians—who had maintained a hushed, respectful silence during Al Pacino's thank-you speech for Angels in America—KEPT PLAYING! Did they have no idea who they were messing with? Were they really more afraid of Michael Corleone than Tony Soprano? Gandolfini, having none of it, rolled his eyes and bellowed at the musicians to "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!" But it was too late: host Garry Shandling was already wrapping up the broadcast, encouraging everyone to "pray for peace," as a visibly disgruntled Gandolfini remained standing at the mic. It was the kind of public humiliation, a subtle loss of alpha-male face, that frequently happens to Tony on The Sopranos, and usually presages a whacking. If I were Shandling, I'd have avoided Tony Soprano at the HBO after-party.
Along with its Serious Quality Juggernaut, every awards show needs its sweet little-engine-that-could story, and at this year's Emmys that was Fox's freshman sitcom Arrested Development, which barely survived its first season despite critical acclaim and a small but passionate following. It was only through a change of rules in this year's Emmy nomination practices, aimed at broadening the scope of nominees outside the usual favorites, that such a fledgling show got nominated at all. Except for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy (that one had to go to Frasier's David Hyde Pierce for sentimental reasons), the misanthropic newcomer won every award it was up for—directing, writing, and Best Comedy Series. (When that last award was announced, supporting actor Jeffrey Tambor's jaw fell open in complete, untelegenic astonishment.) The camera kept cutting to executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, sitting side by side kvelling like proud parents. It was enough to give you a warm and toasty feeling about—of all things—Fox Television, for giving the show a chance to overcome its initial low ratings. Even though I stopped keeping up with Arrested Development after writing on it early in its first season, I always liked knowing it was out there, doing its thing, like a quirky, talented cousin you wish you were in better touch with. Maybe when the second season premieres on November 7, I'll take the advice of the show's writer and creator Mitchell Hurwitz, who, accepting the award for Best Writing in a Comedy Series, said to the audience: "You know what? Let's watch it. You wanna?" 10:55 a.m.