Today I had the pleasure of sitting in on a conference call with Marg Helgenberger (lead actress) and Richard Lewis (Producer and Director) of one of the best shows on television, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Both Marg and Richard were extremely personable and very energetic about the show in general, and about the special 90-minute episode that airs this Thursday (2/13/03) at 9:30 pm ET on CBS!
In addition to their comments, I figured I'd add my own thoughts along with the celeb ones. (in italics)
Q&A from the call:
(paraphrased in some instances)
Can you talk a little bit about sweeps match-ups and your thoughts on pitting CSI against ER this week?
Marg: I haven't really given it a lot of thought. The placement of the show is a network deal and I'm just here to do the best I can.
Richard: My goal is to make good television and do the best we can.
My thoughts - The show rocks and can stand up against any other show on TV today. Hell, put them on every night of the week and they'll win in any time slot.
Do you believe that airing the show later allows you to explore more adult themes?
Richard: We're always pushing the envelope and want to explore to the point where it's entertaining and interesting. Adult themes come with tongue in cheek.
As long as Nick and Warrick are involved, I'm all for adult themes.
Are you concerned about the explosion of reality series programming and competing with them?
Marg: I understand why the networks choose to put them on. The public can't seem to get enough of them. I'm grateful and fortunate to be on this great show with the people I work with in fiction, and to be informative and entertaining. I really don't think about it a whole lot, though.
Richard: Writers, directors and actors have said they are threatened, but there is always a place for fiction and drama.
Quality is quality, regardless of whether it's a reality show, drama, or comedy. Make quality shows and hope the viewers are smart enough to recognize them.
This episode is 90 minutes. Was the extra 1/2 hour added specifically to compete with ER?
Richard: This is a more emotionally based episode where characters explore new realms, instead of process, science and the case itself. We delve into the personal lives of both Catherine and Gil in this episode. That's the "ice cream" of this episode, or the "whipped cream," and we needed the extra 1/2 hour for that.
Make it 2 hours next time - more is better!
To Marg: were you excited for the opportunity to explore a more personal side to your character?
Marg: Yes, I was thrilled at the opportunity. As Richard was saying before, we usually deal with process and science and the case, and this pushes the plot forward. Acting challenges are different. This was more loose and free form (that's how I like it). It's freeing because you get to deal with a person's emotional life and histrionics and how Catherine relates to her daughter and ex-husband.
Have you found the role stifling as an actress in the past?
Marg: I try not to think of it as stifling, but as a challenge and how can I keep making this interesting and deeper. Ultimately what we are doing is showing our thought process, our point of view of a particular case, victims and evidence.
Was this exploration a one shot deal or is this a change in path of the series (in the sense of continuing to explore forensics, but focusing more on the personal lives of the characters)?
Marg: I would welcome that as would the entire cast. Because the show is ultimately a mystery show you don't want to reveal too much of the character. It makes the show richer and the fans are so attuned to the characters that they want more. The trick is how you do it without turning it into a soap opera.
Richard: CSI is not meant to be a serial. I like to use the analogy of opening a faucet. You let some water out and then a little more. There a balance that we are still trying to find about that.
To Richard: Were you told to tone down the gore? If so, where did this come from?
Richard: That was an internal decision. We want to push the envelope and when we go a little too far, we pull back a little. The show was becoming a little sensationalistic. Everyone has a different "gore gauge." Sometimes what you don't see...but rather what is inferred, is much grosser than anything shown.
Isn't the "gross-out" factor part of the appeal of the show?
Richard: Definitely. We're not removing it, it's just a matter of levels.
Just don't plan on eating dinner while watching.
Will the death of Marg's onscreen hubby be brought up as well as the resentment with Jorga Fox's character?
Marg: (laughter out loud)
Richard: (in background) Stay tuned - all this and more will be revealed!
Marg: It's very tricky when you have a show that is not a serial, and when each show is what I like to call a "mini movie." That's why it's so popular -- because people are satisfied at the end. There is residual though. I'm not revealing too much because you have to tune in to see what happens!
La-la-la. I hate spoilers, so I don't even want to know the answer to this question.
How do you find a balance between the focus of the show being character-driven or procedural? Obviously procedural has been very successful. How do you introduce personality without alienating new viewers?
Richard: That's a good question. It's back to balance. Our characters being mysterious is intrinsic to our success. As much as they (the audience) want to be slack-jawed over the evidence, they really want to know about the characters. The unique part is the actors work in this small box. We can tell things about them as people with the little details they reveal in the show. I think the acting in CSI is some of the best acting I've ever seen (Marg: "Thank you!" --in the background). They reveal little character tidbits as they go. My feeling is that as we move forward through the series you'll know more and more, but there will never be an onslaught of it. That's the lifeblood of the show.
Marg: It's what makes our show unique and different from other "procedural" shows. There is a chemistry between characters and is one of the reasons the show is a hit.
I agree. The actors make this show great. This is why I watch CSI religiously, but won't watch the Miami version.
Richard, talk about the character the dominatrix. We saw her last year. Why are you bringing her back now?
Richard: This was more the writer's decision. She was a popular character and got a great response last year. The character was provocative in so far that if any character transmogrified Grissom it would be Lady Heather. She was the fuse of the bomb that would light his personal life. And that was the main reason.
Anyone that can transmogrify Gil gets an 'A' in my book.
On the subject matter of this show - how much freedom do you have? Did you have to content with censors, standards?
Richard: Did you think it was out there? <laughs>
Once you add a campy vague notion of satire it's not always meant to be a true representation of reality. Tongue in cheek helps straddle the line.
Marg: I'm glad you used the term campy. That's another reason our show is successful, intriguing and provocative.
Richard: Humans, when pushed to the limit, are absurd and the show tries to capture that.
Marg: And Vegas is such a surreal place. It's a bizarre place and lends itself to the tone.
Paulie, have you been writing to CBS again?
Did you run into trouble from standards?
Richard: No. We paid attention to the violence and stay away from stuff that feels too out of line. CBS did not give us any trouble.
If Fox can put a show like "Temptation Island" on the air, I hardly think there are many standards left in television. CSI certainly doesn't need to be watched closely on that matter.
It seemed that this episode is actually less risque than original? Did you feel after that one you had to reign it in?
Richard: Yes, the original was much more risque. And I didn't want to use the same tone. The focus of the content here is not the S&M but the relationship with Gil and Heather.
I'm leaving that one alone.
Marg, when you do this type of emotional show, is something like this harder to achieve than the procedural stuff?
Marg: For me it's easier because I find it to be energizing, stimulating and inspiring. It's great material and a great arena.
Tune in and don't miss this week's show on CBS!
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
"Lady Heather's Box"
In the first, Grissom discovers that the murders of a party guest at a nightclub and a man who was working out in his apartment are related. The deaths were similar and both victims were employees of Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke), a dominatrix who penetrates Grissom's cold exterior to reveal his vulnerability. The second case involves Catherine's ex-husband, Eddie (Timothy Carhart), who vanishes after his car crashes while he's traveling with their daughter. Sara leads the investigation, but Catherine quickly becomes displeased with the way it's being handled.