Friday, October 15, 2010

CSI Don't See It

by Sheila Connolly

I watch CSI—the original consistently, and the off-shoots occasionally. I know they represent a non-professional’s fantasy of what forensic science is all about, and in the real world DNA analysis takes six months, not six minutes. But as long as I treat the episodes as fiction I’m fine.

But there was one thing about a recent episode that bothered me as a writer. In this episode, the victim was found draped over a barbed wire fence (I might question whether that particular fence was strong enough to support the dead weight of a body, but I could overlook that), and his head had been hacked off and was jammed on a nearby pole. All appropriately gory, blood duly spattered and dripping. Ray Langston (the character played by Laurence Fishburne) waxed a wee bit over-poetic when he said he could see the horror in the dead man’s eyes, which of course were open and staring.

And then Langston examined the head more closely, and lo and behold, a large insect climbed out of the victim’s mouth—an insect that I immediately identified as a long-horn beetle.

Let me say that my husband is a professional entomologist (although his job isn’t anywhere near as interesting as Gil Grissom’s was), so I’m attuned to insects. I suppose the average viewer wouldn’t know how many things are wrong with this scenario. Fact one: there was no earthly reason for that beetle to be inside anyone’s mouth, dead or alive (the victim or the beetle—take your pick). These are vegetarian beetles, if you will—they eat trees. No interest in flesh. Fact two: the victim had been dead only a few hours, and was killed late at night. This kind of beetle is active during the day. That beetle should not have been where it was—unless the writers were going for the “ick” factor. Lots of people go “eeew” when they see any bug, much less one crawling out of a corpse’s mouth.

I will concede that it was a very photogenic beetle—that variety is big (close to two inches) and has attractive variegated antennae that are longer than the insect’s body. They also move slowly, so they’re easy to film. They aren’t particularly dangerous to humans (they have pincers, but they can’t even pierce human skin), so Nick Stokes could pick it up easily (but why didn’t he bag it as evidence?).

It appears that the sole function of this vagrant beetle was to give Ray a chance to say “where’s the Bug Man when you need him?”—an oblique reference to the absent Grissom. Insider joke. Cute.

But that was the problem. This beetle was introduced up front, with plenty of face time. He was even given a name: Longhorn Beetle. And then he was never seen again.

It’s the Chekhov’s gun problem. Chekhov wrote "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Mr. Beetle is the loaded rifle in this case: since we met him in Act One, we expect him to show up again later, complete with an explanation (he bit the killer and provided DNA evidence? He is found only in the remote reaches of Borneo, and only one suspect had been to Borneo recently?). Around the penultimate commercial break, I turned to my daughter and said, “They haven’t explained the beetle yet.” I was waiting—and it never happened.

For shame, CSI: you have violated a fundamental principle of good writing. Explain your beetles!


Paul said...

Balderdash! I've never acknowledged Chekhov's dictum as binding on good writing. If it were then every little detail of tone and atmosphere would have to play a role in the plot. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud once said.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm with Sheila on the inappropriateness of the wrong beetle in the wrong time and place. But I'm kinda with Paul on the demise of certain rules of writing. In a foreword to one of Christianna Brand's Golden Age mysteries, she gaves a detailed description of the fair play plot, saying each and every character in turn must be suspected for a legitimate reason, and then it must be proved in each case that there's evidence making it impossible for everyone but the actual murderer to have done it. Today, that kind of meticulous plotting neither makes nor breaks a deal--with publishers or with most readers. Mystery writers are chronically miffed that they have to check every detail and CSI is allowed to get it all wrong--but people keep watching CSI. Not fair, but there it is. :)

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Fiction, folks, fiction! They aren't out to teach bugs or anything else (ok maybe not to murder). Just either enjoy he fantasy or watch National Geographic.

Paul said...

I do acknowledge, however, that the use of the beetle as you describe it was gratuitous and pointless. And the fact that they get the fact wrong is another black eye for the program that seems to be accumulating them. My only beef was with Chekhov's rule.

Laura Morrigan said...

Here's my issue.
Maybe the average viewer would not know what the heck the beetle was, but I was in Boston last week and this guy's picture was all over the place.
Because he kills trees.
there were posters on the subways and on buses asking people to report sightings. Apparently, this photogenic guy is invasive.
I'm no expert. It could have been a different beetle-- maybe a few folks in Mass. called the show...
But I say hey, if you're going to use a bug, use the right one or pretend it's the right one. (bugs need acting jigs, too)