December 14, 2006
A local television station broadcasts vintage reruns of Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I. It's interesting to see how far television has come in a couple of decade. In terms of cinematography, the one thing that gets me the most is how scared cinematographers used to be of the dark. Every time a character in Hawaii Five-O walks into a shadow, the gaffers haul out the floods fills and key lights and reflectors, so everybody's face ends up looking oddly radioactive.
These shows were shot with 16mm or 35mm film stock, and back in the 1970s the ISO for camera film was pretty decent. So why go to all the trouble of (over)lighting scenes that don't need to be lit? Perhaps the concern was about the video transfer, but I don't think television technology was so antiquated to make a little light contrast such a fearful prospect. Anyway, way back in the day, I remember watching It Takes a Thief and being bugged by the multiple shadows cast by all the flood fills.
Another thing. Even though these two shows were shot on location in Hawaii, the actors spend an awful lot of time on ticky-tacky soundstages that could be located on a Burbank backlot. You see a lot more of Miami on CSI: Miami, which isn't even shot in Miami. If you're actually on location, wouldn't a second unit be that much cheaper? It's amazing the extent to which a few seconds of processed second unit footage can enhance the pacing of the story. Had this not occurred to anybody twenty or thirty years ago?
And then there are the thugs and bad guys, who always show up right out of central casting, wearing the worst of mid-70's fashion and hair styles (and boy, were they awful). But Lord's conservative business suits and hair style (exactly the same as Caruso's) hold up very well almost thirty years later. Tom Selleck's too-short shorts and loud Hawaiian shirts definitely don't twenty years later. Even Magnum's early-80's Ferrari looks tinny and dated, while Nash Bridges' classic 1970 Barracuda doesn't.
And speaking of CSI: Miami, Jack Lord and David Caruso: distant cousins? Lord has a few inches and more of a chin, and Caruso a very red mop of hair, but they have the same sun-eroded profile, and both deliver their lines in either a deadpan, thin-lipped, heavily-lidded, husky growl, or--at the right melodramatic moment--a clenched jaw intensity. However, leading with his chin, Lord is more comfortable facing the camera directly, while Caruso prefers a three-quarter pose.
In terms of its own premise, CSI: Miami is undoubtedly the dumbest of the three CSI franchises, certainly dumber than Hawaii Five-O, which was really more a classic detective show (Mannix in Hawaii)--and often a better-than-Bond spy drama (rogue Chinese communists being the stock villains)--than Magnum (which has aged very poorly). No surprise that CSI: Miami increasingly tackles crimes from Jack Bauer's jurisdiction, and you almost expect to see Q lurking about its Star Trek-style forensics lab.
After all, once you've abandoned any pretense to cinéma vérité, the bigger and dumber the fantasy the better. CSI: Miami can certainly be thoroughly entertaining in its dumbness, a pure Tinseltown production that delivers high camp while skirting the low road. As Troy Patterson observes of 24,
You forgive [its] patent ridiculousness--you embrace it, in fact--because [it] has roughly the same aspirations as Die Hard With a Vengeance. It's a thriller; it thrills.
Besides, as Billy Crystal would say, CSI: Miami looks marvelous.
I don't mean all the surreally beautiful people occupying the surreally postmodern sets, but the cinematic look of the thing, shot through thick sepia filters and further post-processed to punch up the palette to unimaginable color saturations. This Miami is a 180-proof Hollywood Neverland, caught forever in the rich glow of an eternal tropical sunset, like a bee trapped in amber. It's Miami Vice at dusk, a bit thicker around the jowls, a golden world for baby boomers entering their golden years.
And unlike CSI: Las Vegas or CSI: New York, where the ostensible male leads tend to fade into the woodwork and concrete, like Jack Lord's statuesque presence on Hawaii Five-O, CSI: Miami is all Caruso, who, paralleling his post-NYPD Blue career, plays a washed-up, world-weary, B-grade film noir action hero, whose quest for simple justice is being constantly complicated by a never-ending supply of gorgeous femme fatales (half his age). It's tough being a cop in Miami, that's for sure.
So of course CSI: Miami is such a successful overseas Hollywood export, and all the power to it. In a world of 24-hour news, it is an unapologetically unreality show. It doesn't ask the world to view the United States through rose-tinted lenses. It supplies them itself.