In New ‘Quality TV,’ Dark Is New Light: CSI-ing of America

012207 article ron In New ‘Quality TV,’ Dark Is New Light: CSI ing of AmericaDid you realize that, according to the BBC, CSI: Miami—the one starring David Caruso—is the world’s most popular TV series? It features on more Top 10 ratings lists in more countries than any other show. This seems to me a phenomenon worth investigating. Especially since I’ve recently fallen under the spell of the show through copious A&E reruns and I’m trying to figure out why.

I must admit I feel a certain satisfaction in discovering that—for once—the entire world affirms my affinity. But what is it about the worldwide appeal of CSI: Miami? Watching a 13-hour marathon recently (I love the recent trend toward all-day marathons of shows like the Law & Orders) sufficiently heightened my awareness—or deranged my senses—to the point where I’ve developed a theory about the strange universality of CSI: Miami’s popularity. A theory involving Zoroastrian theology, which requires some explanation, which I promise will be forthcoming.

But first we must contextualize CSI: Miami in the light, so to speak, of The New Darkness. Long-form “quality TV” Darkness.

Now I have nothing against darkness; I’m dark. You know—dark as in pessimistic, as in things are always going to get worse, as in worst-case-scenario dark. But I’m not nearly as dark—in the sense of portentously poorly lit—as “serious” TV these days, where it seems requisite that indistinct characters drift through a swampy visual murk that makes shows like the Law & Orders, The West Wing, 24 and Rome seem like they were shot at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal.

I know I’m not supposed to use this trope anymore, but I can’t resist: On “quality TV,” Darkness is The New Black.

Darkness has become a signifier for deepness, for deep seriousness—most often a substitute for it, alas. I mean it works for me on the Law & Orders, the permanent midnight lighting, but it became a virtual joke on The West Wing, where the murky shapes of the smug White House yuppies sailed through a sea of gloom whose darkness was meant, I suppose, to make their labored witticisms seem “bright” by comparison.

You know, I’ve been in the West Wing (as a reporter), and the East Wing too, and it just ain’t that dark. They use bulbs brighter than 40 watts! The dim bulbs are the people.

And don’t get me started on 24. They seem to have abandoned incandescent light entirely. The whole supposedly fearsome, high-tech “Counter Terrorist Unit” seems lit by flickering aromatherapy candles. Ooh, scary, kids! All those terrorists might blow out our lemon-and-ginger-scented counterterrorism candles! (No wonder they were in the dark about this season’s nuke.)

Actually, it’s better not to cast any more light on the darkness of 24, since its painfully contrived, phony cliffhanger plot devices couldn’t stand the light of day.

24 is another instance in which darkness signifies—but fails to deliver—“stylishness.” So noir, dude! Can’t you tell it’s, like, more cinematic than other TV?

It’s the cheap way of distinguishing “quality TV”, “long-form TV” from Old-Style TV cheesiness, and the game-show/sitcom bright lighting associated with most of the tube’s product. You don’t necessarily have to make the drama better, just darker.

Because dark is profound; you know that, right? Dark is deep! Were I not above childish wordplay, I would be tempted to dub the new faux-serious quality TV “PooTube.”

But you know the one place that darkness really works for me? CSI: Miami. “CSI: Miami?” I can hear some say dubiously. Yes! It’s famous (sort of) for its luminescent colors, its orange sunset light, David Caruso’s orange head of hair. Not for its darkness. But it is dark.

It’s been all too glibly—and mistakenly—conflated with the light and colors of Miami Vice, the neon, fluorescent peacock pinks and emerald ocean greens. But if you look at any given moment in any given episode of CSI: Miami, what you’re likely to see is darkness—much of the time, most of the surface of the screen is virtually black. It’s a way of highlighting the light, yes, you could say that, but even the light is different.

Shadowlands

If you see light, even in daylight, what you are likely to see is glimpses, gleams of light in a virtually all-dark screen, a deeply shadowed or chiaroscuro-patterned background. Sunset light. Dying light.

There’s a line in Robert Stone’s luminescent new memoir, Prime Green, in which he describes his experience aboard a Navy ship cruising down to Antarctica. He depicts the refracted illumination down there amidst the massive, gleaming ice floes as “strangely referred light.”

I love that phrase, “strangely referred light.” That’s what makes CSI: Miami so mesmerizing to watch, the infinite variety of “strangely referred light” they deploy. It makes Miami Vice’s light seem garish, obvious and pedestrian—quotidian—by comparison.

On CSI: Miami, all you see is glow, pale fire’s reflection rather than direct solar gleam. CSI: Miami is the moon to Miami Vice’s sun, the occluded, luminous incandescence to its glaring fluorescence. Reflected, refracted, indirectly shadow-sculpted light. Escaped light. Fugitive light. Light that makes the darkness even darker than the knee-jerk darkness of “quality TV” darkness.

But what does this have to do with Zoroastrian theology and CSI: Miami becoming the most popular TV show in the world? Okay, it’s a tentative hypothesis, but here goes—here’s where Zoroastrianism comes in.

First, think about it: most popular in the world. That’s got to be both broad and deep interest. Lost and Desperate Housewives are numbers two and three on the BBC list, and there’s a Colombian soap opera at number four called Te Voy a Ensenar a Querer or I Will Teach You to Love.

By Zoroastrian appeal, I mean the way CSI: Miami seems to reach out and touch people on some deep, universal, perhaps unconscious level. Zoroastrian because the religion—one of the oldest in the world, now dying out, its dying light only worshipped by a couple hundred thousand people mostly in India and Iran—is the Persian sect that many scholars regard as a formative influence on both Western and Eastern religious visions.

There’s a little Zoroastrianism in all of us, according to a leading scholarly specialist in the subject, Mary Boyce, who wrote that “Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the revealed creedal religions, and it has probably had more influence on mankind, directly or indirectly, than any other single faith.”

And how does Zoroastrian theology see the cosmos? It’s all about Light, about the cosmic struggle between Light and Darkness. As I understand it, the cosmos was the product of a pure creator Ahura Mazda (yes, like the car—get over it), a god of Light. This creation, however, is then “attacked by violence and destruction,” just as the forces of light are constantly under attack on the mean streets of the L&O’s and the CSI’s.

Zoroastrians believe all beings can affect the outcome of this battle between the Forces of Light and Darkness by their good deeds and words. Those who fail to do their share for the Forces of Light “fall into darkness.” (Wikipedia makes it sound a little like Star Wars “religion,” I know.)

At the end, though, “the universe will revert to its pure state and all souls trapped in darkness will be released.”

It’s the cop-show religion! The show’s lighting effects thematize (as they say in the comp-lit departments) the moral drama. Creation is under such relentless attack from the forces of darkness that Light has to go into hiding—go undercover—and can only be seen in glimpses, mainly orange, burnt orange, reflecting the decline of the burned-out Sun at the end of the day.

The real drama of CSI: Miami has less to do with nailing perps through science than it does with the pervasive background drama of light versus darkness, of light literally trying to emerge from the dark, fighting a guerrilla war to illuminate some fraction of the world, or at least of the screen.

I know: You’re skeptical. But what else explains the universality of CSI: Miami, the fact that this particular American cop show has become, after four seasons, the most popular TV show in the world? I think it has something to do with some deep commonality that transcends nationality and sectarian differences. One that goes back to the original source, the river from which all the other spiritual streams branched off, the deeply rooted Zoroastrian preoccupation with the struggle between Light and Darkness. It’s a cop show, its superficial plotlines are no more profound than any other cop show, it takes place in super-trendy Miami—but on a deeper level, the one beamed to the collective unconscious, its real plot is a spiritual drama about Light versus Darkness.

I don’t want to downplay David Caruso’s role in the success of CSI: Miami. It’s true, many can’t abide him. But I always liked his New York detective Zen stoicism, in NYPD Blue, and the whole tough-guy compassion thing. (And I’ve got to be loyal because of redhead solidarity.) So don’t discount Mr. Caruso. You have to admit he invented something back in that first season of NYPD Blue with his whole “I want to reach out to you” act. He reached people, and I think he still does (plus his hair is now color-coordinated with the show’s orange sunset light).

Yes, CSI: Miami’s mandatory quirks can be parodiable. There’s a funny YouTube compilation of Mr. Caruso’s often-lame opening sunglass-donning wisecrack moments. But he’s gotten more philosophic charisma with age: He’s put on metaphysical as well as physical weight.

It’s certainly not the gimmicky CSI scientific forensics angle on things. I never got into the original Las Vegas CSI or the newest, New York–based CSI the way I have the Law & Order spin-offs: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and the new one, Law & Order: Extreme Parking Violations (kidding).

No, I think what has made CSI: Miami universal, trans-lingual, cross-cultural, are the spiritual and sensual factors: that drama of light and darkness, the drama at the heart of what many regard as one of the world’s first organized religions, Zoroastrianism, a common denominator of all faiths.

And the sheer sensual beauty of the images on screen. I have to admit I was mesmerized by the 13-hour marathon (brainwashed, some might say—but my brain was washed by such a succession of beautiful light-sculpture images). Yes, I know: Most of the show is shot in L.A., not Miami. But the directors of photography on CSI: Miami (Cynthia Pusheck, Robert Hayes) have taken TV images to a new level; they’ve given us a gloomy Miami of the mind. Not permanent midnight but permanent sunset. In the haunting words of the Dylan song, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”