Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads : Jeffrey Toobin’s “The CSI Effect”
December 7, 2011, 11:14 am
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Having seen the Forgetting Sarah Marshall spoofs of CSI-style shows before ever actually watching CSI, I can’t help feeling some shame in the month I’ve blown watching CSI: New York. (But what else could I do? I didn’t have internet, I had a lot of free time, and I’d somehow gotten hold of a season on DVD.) This is a show that doesn’t reward long-term viewing; the murders get more ridiculous each episode, the romantic entanglements among the modelesque lab staff more dramatic, the evidence less and less believable. (Among evidence leading to the guilty criminals: chips of paint, grains of pollen (this seems to come up at least once or twice a season), an “Albanian” accent [yet more proof that no one knows anything about Albania: the Slavic accent assigned to CSI‘s Albanian criminals], stomach contents, sunflower seeds used in bird feed.) The crew over at CSI: NY rarely has anything more than, say, one strand of hair to link a person to a murder, but in TV-land that’s enough to convict someone of a crime. No need for eyewitnesses or more substantial evidence here! The task of Mac Taylor (seriously, I can’t believe I know these names…I’m sorry, Internet) and his team of detectives and lab assistants, who spend a lot more time running around crime scenes and tangling with criminals than you’d expect for people who spend their days examining pieces of skin and hair under microscopes, is aided by the fact that each and every criminal, confronted by the forensic evidence, confesses before final credits roll.

Jeffrey Toobin’s “The CSI Effect”, then, may prove a disappointing read to anyone who believes, as Seth Rogen’s character in Superbad once did, that “everything” is covered with semen and other forensic evidence. It’s not! And even when forensic evidence is found and links someone to a crime scene, it shouldn’t count for much unless there is a DNA link to back it up. Still, it’s fun to hear someone like Lisa Faber, who supervises the hair and fiber unit of the NYPD, talk about CSI and the ways the world of that show is not quite the same as the world of her lab.

There is something captivating about watching a bunch of scientists solve crimes, which I guess is why CSI has so many spin-offs. (You’d think there’d be some limit to how many types of forensic evidence could link a person to a murder [and that there’d be some limit on the crazy level of murders shown on TV], but there isn’t! Not if you work for CBS, anyway.) Toobin quotes Carol Henderson, director at the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and Law, as saying, “People are riveted by the idea that science can solve crimes.” Totally true! But I’d also like to know if other people watch CSI with a sort of quiet horror, as I do, praying that they are never linked to a murder investigation because they had the poor luck to own a German shepherd at the time that a German shepherd hair was found on a victim. (And to take this a step further: as readers, we are royally screwed when it comes to establishing an alibi. Fortunately, Mac Taylor and his team could probably open up one of our books and establish the precise time we turned each and every page based on how much oily residue remains from our hands. Man. I need to stop watching this show.)

Read Jeffrey Toobin’s “The CSI Effect”


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I used to watch the original Vegas series, until it just got too ridiculous to follow. I liked it but I do remember watching it with a friend that used to work in a forensic science lab and she hated the show because it was so unrealistic.

Comment by Alley

It spawned a whole sub-genre of crime fiction called “police procedural”. While it’s very cool, I can’t help but cringe when I see them explain to each other what their work is every time.

Science helps solving crime, true. But you know, the depiction of it they make in CSI is a bit stupid. It doesn’t look anything like what they do.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

haha, i would love to talk to someone like alley’s friend and find out what REALLY goes on in a crime lab. the first few episodes of CSI i watched, i thought i’d never get into the show – it’s so obvious that they’re taking this work and almost sexualizing it; not just in the look of their detectives, but in the way they deal with the bodies, in the nature of so many of the crimes. On the plus side, a show like CSI helps me better appreciate what is so well done about a show like The Wire, which never appears to romanticize police work.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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