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Patricia Arquette and cyber crime prove perfect combination for CSI series pilot

Patricia Arquette is powerful as FBI Special Agent Avery Ryan in "CSI" episode "Kitty," pilot for what's hoped is a "CSI" Spinoff.
Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for MOCA

Just when you’d grown comfortable and quasi-content with “CSI” in its regular Wednesday slot, on April 30, 2014, CBS shared a reason to be truly excited about “CSI” once again. The "CSI" pilot, “Kitty,” the newest hopeful entry to the family of CSI procedurals, “CSI: Cyber” was shown last night—without much promotional fanfare. Compared to the intense hype and buildup given to the “NCIS: New Orleans” pilot, the audience who discovered the “CSI” episode, perhaps accidentally, last night simply lucked out.

Season 14’s episode 21, entitled “Kitty,” introduced Patricia Arquette as FBI Special Agent Avery Ryan, with the basic plot description: “The FBI’s Cyber Crime Division works with the CSIs as they investigate the murder of a prominent casino owner’s wife.” Less is more in descriptions, but the plot summary should have read: “Patricia Arquette will blow you away by introducing audiences to how the FBI handles cyber crimes and teaches the LVPD about the deep dark world of the 96% of the Internet that no one sees. Film at 10.”

With the energized combination of writers and show co-creators, and Emmy winners, Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue and Anthony Zuiker, “CSI: Cyber” looks to be the strongest drama pilot entry for next season to air so far. This pilot far surpassed a supremely personal favorite, “NCIS” with their New Orleans spinoff two-part tryout. In the “CSI” offering, the story line was on target, the casting perfect, the acting rock solid, and the episode’s direction by Eagle Egilsson made all the difference in the world.

Torrey DeVitto was convincing as Susan McDowell, a brave young wife and mother who was outraged to learn her face and video chats were unknowingly purveyed and twisted for ulterior profitable, evil motives. Add to that Gil Bellows as Lee Berman giving an intense portrayal of a tremendously successful casino owner with a mean, dark side to him. Although only on camera briefly, Cheyenne Jackson was a perfect deranged creep as the penultimate cyber criminal we finally get to see near the progam’s end.

Casting was solid, but so was the writing that brought all these people together for a storyline. In an interview clip on the CBS web site, Mendelsohn says of Ryan’s character: “Along the way she teaches our CSIs and opens their eyes to cyber crime and what it takes to really make an arrest. It feels like the very beginning of the franchise.” That’s the secret to the energy in creating the “reason to watch” the new show. It’s all brand new CSI after the original has become like a favorite book you reread, even when you know what’s going to happen.

With just one episode, “Kitty” has the same level of “excitement and ability to relate to” factor that you got from watching Marg Helgenberger and William Petersen, or Gary Sinise, Melina Kanakourides, and Carmine Giovanazzo, or even David Caruso, Emily Proctor and company. Arquette and Elisabeth Shue saw some good onscreen dynamics, even if Shue hasn’t been thought about as someone who could easily jump ship and fit right in to bring a little of the “old” CSI to the new. Then again, that’s just one person’s opinion.

Back to the interview clip on the CBS web site, of Arquette’s talents, Zuiker and Donahue nod in complete agreement. Donahue adds, “She’s a star and that’s a commodity that you can’t describe, but you know when you see it.” Executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer says, “The world has changed in the 14 years the series has been on the air. There are all kinds of new criminals and all kinds of new crimes out there.”

Arquette’s character draws a quick sketch as she explains to the CSIs, “This iceberg represents the internet and believe it or not, the world only uses this top 4% (pointing). I work down here in the 96%, in the deep web, where criminals are anonymous and money is untraceable.” Bruckheimer notes: “There’s the dark net (Internet), which is underneath. That is where our new CSI is going to be looking for criminals.”

Even Ted Danson has to add, “I think it’s what CSI was 14 years ago; people were not aware of forensic mysteries and how DNA and all of that stuff plays into it.” The understated but talented Anthony E. Zuiker contributes, “For me, it’s been incredible. CSI was the first script I ever wrote, and then I had to learn television by fire from the greatest. And I’ve learned it from Carol (Mendelsohn) and I’ve learned from Ann (Donahue), and they taught me what television is, and story construction...and all the great lessons.”

Zuiker continued, “Coming back the second time, it’s like we never left each other. It’s just a blessing to be together. It’s really a lot of fun and the work shows it.” Behind the scenes stills are welcomed extras on CBS’ web site, showing Arquette and Shue laughing between scenes.

At first announcement of a possible spinoff was heralded in the trade papers, beginning February 18 and a little more in March. Yet by April, you’d almost forgotten that a new “CSI” pilot was in the works. In case you missed it last night, watch it back on You’re really going to want to see it.

To give you just a taste, in the opening scenes, you see a woman being killed in her own home. Next, you see the CSI brass coming into the crime scene, as a whole host of producers’ names crawl across the screen, and you get the idea that it’s just another “okay, we’ve got a shooting in Las Vegas, tape off the crime scene, shoot the pictures, take the body to the lab, yada yada.” But that preconception quickly disappears. Watch for Patricia Arquette’s eyes lighting up as she receives a phone call that announces a break in the case she’s been looking for.

There’s the gentle strain of a song you know that you know, which serves as the scene’s opening score, as Special Agent Ryan manages to reroute an FBI plan previously planning a Virgin Islands “up and back,” and puts a wise guy in his place with just two sentences. Women everywhere will love that dialogue exchange.

Next, Ryan breaks down her prime suspect with, “I’m a behavioral scientist. Eyes are a human lie detector.” The casino-owner husband sits across the table from Ryan and more brilliant dialogue is conveyed with looks and talent than with script, but that’s why you have seasoned actors in your pilots so they can make your words come alive.

If you were watching the show live, you saw that as the bottom right hand corner of the screen was continually interrupted by CBS’ promo credits run for “New” episodes of “Elementary” for Thursday and “Blue Bloods” for Friday underneath, it didn’t matter. We were busy watching four members of the Vegas CSI team, in a room with a computer and a big screen, notice it was not a computer lab. Danson is almost lukewarm as he says, “Everybody this is Special Agent Ryan, she’s a cyber-psychologist, specializing in cyber forensics, and I’m afraid I don’t know anything else.”

Sad to say, that’s not uncommon for Danson, in or out of character as D. B. Russell. He’s trying so hard not to be Sam Malone, still, that his reactions to everything, whether mass murder or child playing in a park get the same reaction: the Ken doll speaks. But his droning last night was for a good reason: he was watching a pilot brewing within his own series that could just easily eclipse ratings for his show. No wonder he’s not a happy camper.

Sadly, Russell’s biggest contribution to solving the case is initially dismissing “cyber hocus pocus” and watering his mushroom plants, with a comment that he is nurturing. Right, but then the hostility shows through, well:

D. B. Russell: “You come along, you tap a few keys and then you reduce our motive to a bunch of digital bits, so where does that leave me?

The obvious answer, D.B., is “in the afterburners of ‘we don’t care’ and ‘who are you, again?’” And the memories of some unforgettable notes were still playing along in our aural memory from that opening scene introducing Ryan, as we kept watching the story unfold. Elisabeth Shue as Julie Finlay was entirely comfortable and unthreatened; you’d almost like to see her jump ship over to “CSI: Cyber” if and when the time comes.

At any rate, Danson’s intense looks, without much going on in his head or personality, have dampened the joy of the CSI series for this writer, really ever since he’s been there. William Petersen is missed in front of the cameras, although he’s still behind the scenes as a producer. But, Patricia Arquette’s ability to bring Avery Ryan’s character, insight and intelligence in a package that is strong, but subtle, a “warm calm” that makes you just want to come back to “CSI,” even if you’ve been gone a while.

It’s key to note that this episode had some tremendous CGI and visual images to watch as Ryan was breaking into the computer to find the deep, dark portals into the programming that had been the center of the case. Not sure who to credit for this, but the amount of imagery was absolutely captivating, moved quickly, and gave you the cyber feel without all the typical cutaways you get when action revolves around a computer. It was, again, refreshing, visually pleasing, and just the right amount for the tech-savvy viewer as well as those newer to technology.

Add to that element, there’s brilliant writing and terrific acting, both of which additionally resonate with viewers. Undoubtedly the work of Mary Aiken as a cyber-psychologist (and show consultant) has already benefited co-creators Mendelsohn, Zuiker, and Donahue to be able to create the vehicle to launch the perfect show. An abundance of fresh, new intriguing cases abounds. Clearly this is the writing and acting team to make them come to life and entertain faithful television audiences.

Let’s not forget one important variable, an always named but sometimes overlooked genius in the flagship “CSI” mix is Don McGill, an executive producer alongside the aforementioned triumverate. Just watch every episode of “NCIS” and know that McGill was co-creator of that hit that came from the intelligent mind and generous heart of Don Bellisario. McGill’s talents help guarantee television magic behind the scenes, even if you never see him anywhere but on the credit crawls.

When Arquette was in “Medium,” she did unquestionably good work. Those scripts were solid, but for some reason, the “less is more” in this script’s dialogue and the basic nature of her character gave Arquette a real chance to shine. She simply “became” Avery Ryan to viewers, unquestionably, in just forty-seven minutes. That’s unusual, particularly for a premiere episode.

And one more nod to Eagle Egilsson, whose final scene was primo perfect. As Arquette’s Ryan hears Danson’s Russell (“So, this is goodbye, I guess, huh?”), smiling, she replies, “Well, for now.” He asks what’s next for her. She explains her next assignment, a bank robbery in Pittsburgh. “How much?” asks Russell. “Three cents,” Ryan answers. Russell: “Oh give me a break, talk to me, three cents?” Ryan: “Three copper pennies...from eighty million checking accounts, $2.4 million a week. Check your bank statements.”

Russell: “Okay, and they say there’s no such thing as a perfect crime.”
Ryan: “It’s not the perfect crime. It’s cyber crime.” And the driving drum beat begins in the music score that you now recognize in all its glory. A blast from the past of your classic rock sounds of every Baby Boomer’s lifetime.

You simply want to fist pump the air as Ryan moves assuredly, in slow-motion, to the FBI plane waiting to fly her to Pittsburgh. As she walks up the steps to the plane, the music swells in the background as she does the two-finger wave-off to Russell, as she bids goodbye to Las Vegas. Russell looks up to her, with a tightlipped gripped smile on his face, and returns the salute.

So what was the music building the moment at the end? Only the perfect choice of songs by The Who, another splendid signature of the “CSI” franchise, it was of course, the one and only Pete Townsend composition, brought to life by Keith Moon’s ownership of the drum beat, the guitar coming in to interrupt Roger Daltry’s vocals on—you guessed it, “I Can See for Miles.” Yes, Mendelsohn, Zuiker, Donahue and Arquette can, have, and they will, see for miles, of film, ahead for “CSI: Cyber.”

Not going to wait for some news outlet to break CBS’s new season lineup before I call this pilot as at least one “sure thing” for next season. If not, the competition is surely going to be circling the waters, ready to move on this series. Look forward to flying the friendly skies of “CSI: Cyber.” It just doesn’t get any better than this. And you read it here first.

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