"The one great thing about the modern day mystery, if done correctly," according to "CSI" franchise creator Anthony Zuiker, "is they've become such visual shows and we are really afforded the opportunities to take storylines that are happening in the now and push ourselves not only with science but with technology. I think those are the things that are still essential for an audience and just focusing on compelling storytelling and I believe we're doing that very successfully this year." Case in point, CBS's "CSI: NY" is back with new episodes tonight that immediately get into the fallout from last season's shootout cliffhanger. The crew, led by series stars Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes, uses both science and technology in the sixth season opener to track down the killer before he/she strikes again. To get the lowdown on what the New York incarnation of the "CSI" franchise has in store this year, our Jim Halterman talked to showrunner Pam Veasey about how her comedy background informs her procedural work, dealing with cast departures and where she sees the state of television going.
Jim Halterman: Looking at your credits, I have to ask how did you get from writing for comedies like "Gimme A Break" to running "CSI: NY?"
Pam Veasey: You went way back! You dug up the archives! I have to take that off! [Laughs.] I started in comedy and did "In Living Color" and I kept getting offered comedies and I thought "I just love dramas." I wanted to try my hand at it and, also, a schedule of dramas helps you get married, have kids and have a life as a writer. With comedy, you're constantly working late but those schedules are tough. Phil Rosenthal is brilliant and he did "Everybody Loves Raymond" and managed to have a life and run a brilliantly funny show but that's not always the case. I loved to watch dramas and I thought, "Why don't I try that?" and that's how I ended up here. I took some time off of comedy, wrote some spec scripts and I was in the drama world.
JH: What did you learn from your comedy days that you still use today in the crime drama world?
PV: Comedy is something that has a rhythm. There's a rhythm to a joke, a certain style to punctuation and the beauty of comedy is you can tell when it's too much. It's the same sometimes with drama. You can overwrite and do too much but because in writing comedy sketches you had to tell a story in five pages or less. You had to entertain, get to the beginning, middle and end in five pages tops. Not that drama is ever five pages but I learned how to become an effective writer in scenes from the beginning of the scene and what are you after to the middle of the scene to the outcome of the scene. Having written sketch comedy where you had to do everything in so few pages and have it be really effective, I managed to do that in writing and particularly here on "CSI: NY" where a lot happens in a little amount of time as you'll see in the season premiere.
JH: As these long running shows age and cast members start to depart, are you prepared that day when it happens?
PV: Yeah but we really wanted everyone to come back this year and when you get to your sixth season, the audience kind of expects it to happen. We are prepared for when it happens but we're not preparing scripts for it. We'll deal with it when it happens but what we like is that we're sort of in our stride. In the last few years our cast has really come together, we're telling more personal stories because the audience is familiar with them and we've liked how they've grown. We didn't feel like we were finished so we didn't want anyone to leave. We have a lot more personal stories to tell inside some really great twisty-turny topical crime stories.
JH: With everyone's life in jeopardy from the shootout last season, where do we find everyone in the new episodes?
PV: Obviously Danny (Carmine Giovinazzo) and Lindsay (Anna Belknap) who, at the end of the season, got married and had a baby and are facing a real challenge in their marriage. They're going to face that challenge and continue to grow as a couple and as working parents with Danny's big life-changing experience. With Eddie Cahill, who plays Flack, he was beginning a relationship with someone he really cared about and he is challenged with doing your job and having a passion for it when you feel like there was an injustice in the world and he's not so much in love with the cop work and he starts dealing with that loss. With Hill Harper, who plays Sheldon, we wanted to reflect some of the things that are going on in the world and Hill Harper will be a victim of a Madoff-like financial situation where he loses everything. We thought most people think it won't happen to them. When you sit down and plan your retirement and you wake up and you don't have it anymore where do you start again and what outlet to do you have and what do you change?
For Melina, who plays Stella, she's faced with letting go. She's doing what comes to mind for her best interest. She's the opposite of Sheldon, who was planning his retirement and she's more about living today and taking chances and risks and you'll see things like that. You don't really expect that from her but she'll be pretty aggressive in her own life not just as a CSI investigator. And then Mac (Gary Sinise) is the glue and he has got to be stronger than his usual self. Usually he's strong in his leadership in the answers of right and wrong in terms of crime fighting. He is the moral foundation of investigating a crime and putting someone away but when it comes to seeing everyone around you all feeling and changing and having reactions to loss and losses of all kind. Mac has got to be the emotional foundation, leader and he's the guy they can all go to and he's connected with each of them on all these different levels. It's going to be a really fun, emotional year.
JH: With all the different franchises, what sets New York apart from the other "CSI" locations?
PV: When we sit around and talk about stories, each of the shows ask how can you be different from the other two. You don't want to be a cookie cutout of all the science and everyone doing the same thing and you just change the city and it doesn't matter. On our show, we have the great benefit of four seasons. We do snow weather shows, fall weather shows... we do that differently than the others. We don't do water and beach shows and we don't have the Everglades and crocodiles and swamps. It makes a difference for everybody. Temperature and crime has a big change when everybody. If we have snow that washes things away or weather or wind or temperature in New York, there are just different stories we can tell just by virtue of the seasons.
Another way is New York City is a constantly moving, triple-layered, intense, dense city. It's only something like eight miles wide and maybe 12 long but so much can happen in such a small space in New York City. You can have three murders in one building because people live stacked on top of each other. From one building to another, something can happen through a window. It's a city of great density and we're trying to tell our story that way. Our crime scenes aren't wide and spread out. You see these beautiful shots on CSI where they walk through the desert where they look for remains of the body and it's a beautiful, wide spread out pictures. Ours could be a murder at a bodega where the crime scene tape is right outside the door and people who need to get to work are walking past the crime scene and there are cop cars in front of it. New York doesn't have that much room. We reflect the density of how the city is built, the density of the population and the density of what can happen at one address.
JH: Since you began your career the TV business has changed so much. Where do you see it going?
PV: I think storytelling in the entertainment form will always be a part of television. I think how people access that storytelling is the way that evolves the most in these coming years whether they get the stories from the Internet, whether it's only 3 minutes long, whether networks stop programming and you only buy the shows to watch them whenever you want to watch them. It stops being a network where CBS schedules something on Monday nights. You can put "The Mentalist" on Monday if you want and then watch "CSI: Miami" and then watch two comedies and that's your Monday night. I think it's going to change how people access what is produced but I think they'll always want to. I hope so because I can't imagine learning something new [Laughs.] but I think fundamentally that storytelling will always be there.
"CSI: NY" kicks off season six tonight on CBS at 10:00/9:00c.