No one was more surprised than I when the producers of the most popular TV show in the world asked me to join their writing staff.
The only people who could have been more astonished, had they heard the news, would be any of a few now-retired fellows who valiantly tried to teach me science at Owen J. Roberts High School.
You see, the TV show is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Every episode deals with the use of science in law enforcement. And I was never very good at science.
On the occasions when I really could grasp a scientific concept and run with it, I first had to turn it into something that better engaged my imagination. I remember how my tenth-grade science teacher, Mr. Gerber, charged us with conducting genetics experiments through breeding Drosophila (fruit flies). Genetic traits, such as eye color, could be mapped over numerous generations in the course of a semester because the Drosophila bred like, well, flies.
While other students in the class followed Mr. Gerber’s instructions and identified their generations of flies by letters and numbers, I bullied my lab partner into instead giving our first male and female the names Edgar and Fanny. Their descendants and offspring were given equally romantic names. At the end of the assignment, all the other lab teams dutifully filed their final reports as sequences of tables and conclusions. Meanwhile, I spent day and night in a creative-writing frenzy, turning in a fruity novella I titled The Saga of Edgar and Fanny. Mr. Gerber loved it. Though it was a prose effort, I got the science right. (“Fanny was heartbroken at having four white-eyed grandchildren; Edgar remained stoic, predeceasing his devoted spouse having never voiced his own profound disappointment.”) It was the only A that I would ever receive in a high-school science class.
Perhaps not so remarkably, today I tell science stories on TV. Mr. Gerber and his colleagues would never have dreamed I’d be conversant in DNA analysis, the chemistry of fingerprints, the GC mass spectrometer process, environmental factors in the rate of human tissue decomposition, sodium rhodizonate testing to detect vaporous lead, the modified Greiss test for nitrite residues, and more.
Prior to writing for CSI, my work as a dramatist was almost exclusively in theater. My only science writing was a play titled The Ice-Breaker. (That play premiered in March 2006 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, made possible in part by assistance from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.) In the play, two paleoclimatologists meet, clash, and craft a relationship that’s informed by their experiences studying climate history and global warming.
One of the reasons I wrote the play was that I liked the metaphor of ice-core drilling: Two people’s making discoveries about one another is a kind of drilling process. In ice cores, one discovers layers of cold and warm climate cycles; in the play these are metaphors for emotional distance and intimacy—my imagination run wild with Edgar and Fanny taken to a higher literary level.
CSI executive producer Carol Mendelsohn read the play at the urging of the show’s star, William Petersen, who wanted to see what a playwright could bring to the storytelling on the series. Petersen, the star and an executive producer of CSI, is a Chicago theatre actor. He got in touch with the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, which is run by friends of his who had formerly been associated with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The Geffen had produced my work, and thought I’d be a good fit with what Billy wanted for the show, which was then beginning its fourth season. Calls were made, and my agent sent some of my plays, including The Ice-Breaker, to Carol. She liked my handling of science and its role in the larger story. And that’s how the high-school science dunce got the job.
At the time of this writing, there are eight writers on the show, only one of whom has a formal science background: Executive Producer Naren Shankar, who holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Cornell University. We’re all there because we’re storytellers, not scientists. An on-call team of researchers, clinicians, and generalists provides technical accuracy.
When CSI: Crime Scene Investigation made its debut on CBS in 2000, science as TV entertainment was still the province of PBS and cable channels such as Discovery and National Geographic. Executives at the major networks thought that this sort of programming lacked mass-audience appeal.
What CSI creator Anthony Zuiker did—and this is the brilliant creative stroke that made the show immensely popular and has kept it at the top of the TV heap through six seasons and two spinoffs—was to put the science at the visual forefront of a good old-fashioned crime story. For the first time on TV, the science was as lurid and vivid as the mystery itself.
Bored by TV cops standing over gunshot victims, theorizing where the bullet came from, Zuiker took the same ideas and, through flashbacks and what the scripts call the “CSI shot,” showed the viewer more. Now people can watch as a bullet spirals out of the barrel of a gun, shreds a hole through the victim’s shirt, burns through the skin, chips ribs, devastates capillaries, pierces the heart, and slams into spinal tissue, a deformed, splayed glob of lead.
Suddenly, biology and chemistry were not only elements of crime-solving, they were sexy; the CSI shot functioned like a kind of macabre porn, and became just as popular. With the viewer’s involvement in a fresh new element of the story, the old-fashioned murder mystery was thus reinvented.
Working on CSI, I quickly learned that unlike the poetic medium of the theater, where scientific ideas can be expressed through metaphor and imagery, television demands a more literal depiction.
On CSI, this begins in the initial story discussions. A technical adviser joins the writers in a conference room, offering input as the plot of an episode is debated and outlined. (Another technical adviser is also on the set during filming to maintain the accuracy of the lab work, forensics processes, and law enforcement procedures depicted.) For more specialized research, CSI engages two talented full-time researchers.
We do make a few cheats, and they’re consistent. The most egregious of these deals with time. Our DNA results are available almost as quickly as a Xerox copy. The GC mass spectrometer processes take minutes, not hours or days. Another cheat: Our video-image-enhancement capabilities are beyond anything currently possible in law enforcement or espionage. In an upcoming episode, our AV lab tech is able to enhance a surveillance video to read a two-dimensional bar code. The CIA would kill to be able to do that.
As a storyteller, it’s enormous fun to have such tools at one’s disposal. Adding to my enjoyment is the utter unexpectedness of it all-that I of all people now make a living telling stories through science. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t find it unexpected at all. Perhaps, as in tenth grade, I’m simply telling science through stories.
David Rambo’s plays include God’s Man in Texas, The Ice-Breaker and The Lady with All the Answers.