At 206 episodes and counting, CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" pushes forward with season 10 after last season's cast shake-up as original cast member William Petersen departed and Academy Award nominee Laurence Fishburne stepped in. And while overall viewer ship for most series is down, "CSI" still ranked #4 last season proving it clearly has a lot of ratings muscle for CBS's programming schedule. Just in time for the new season to begin tonight, Executive Producer Naren Shankar shared his thoughts on the new energy on the show since Fishburne came on board, the five-episode return of Jorja Fox and how the ever-changing world of forensics has helped their storytelling.
Jim Halterman: Now that the transition from William Petersen to Laurence Fishburne is behind you, are you all breathing a big sigh of relief?
Naren Shankar: You know what? We all worked with Billy for so long and working with Laurence has given us a whole new way to look at things, a whole new way to come into crimes and different attitudes so it's great. The cast is getting along really, really well and we're having a lot of fun with it.
JH: How do you generally approach changing the cast without shaking things up too much in the eyes of the viewers?
NS: You always hope they'll stick around forever. It's great when you're lucky enough to be on a show where you can have that core group of people that everyone gravitated to initially, that sort of magical chemistry that makes a show a hit. I think that television is about family. You're inviting these people into your house every week so you kind of like when they are all there. All shows that are lucky enough to have long runs have to deal with it. You just have to manage it in a way that keeps the show true to its roots. I think what happens a lot of times on shows is that people change the things that made them what they are. If we suddenly said "Oh my God, you know what? We need to have really super young people" or "It has to be sexy and people sleeping with each other" that would make our show not what it is. We're a forensics-driven mystery show and that's sort of in our DNA so hopefully we won't have to deal with any cast changes from here on out. You never know but I will say that we're very aware what the show is fundamentally and that's not going to change.
JH: Original cast member Jorja Fox is coming back for a handful of episodes. Is she coming back in the same role with the CSI group or...?
NS: In a sense, she is stepping into her old role but it's a little bit of a different Sara. The Sara who left was burnt out, was pretty messed up by the job and what happened to her but when she first came back there was a big question mark in her life which was the nature of her relationship with Grissom but that actually got resolved in a very happy way. What's really fun about having Jorja back is she lightens things up. Sara comes in at a moment in our premiere when the team is a little bit fractured and things aren't quite working very well. She's able to help the guys � and Catherine in particular � adjust to the new reality of the way things are now. It's a nice way to bring Jorja back into the fold and we're actually having a really good time with it.
JH: Do we get an update on the Sara/Grissom relationship?
NS: Yep, there are little bits and pieces there and little mentions that I think the audience will enjoy but you definitely get a little sense of what is going on with them.
JH: As the "CSI" characters have moved into higher positions within their unit, is there ever a chance to cause friction between them since they are now taking orders from someone who maybe was once an equal?
NS: I don't think that's going to be something you're going to see on a week-to-week basis. Natural friction will arise justifiably during the investigations but it's not an on-going thing like suddenly Nick is busting balls and making everybody cow-tow and everything. You're not going to see that because, again, that's not really the nature of the show. When we think about our guys, the show has always been Grissom as the teacher mentoring people but after 10 years these people have become pretty damn good experts on their own and I think what we like to play is that these are really smart people working on things together. They don't always agree on things and they don't have to because people can see things differently and that's where you tend to generate real differences of opinion and competitiveness and friction.
JH: Covering a lot of the procedurals, I always wonder if you have come across real crimes that are just too horrific and might actually turn viewers off?
NS: Yeah, absolutely. It tends to be things that happen with kids from my standpoint. There is a lot of grotesque and weird stuff, there's no question about it. But I think if you talk to most criminalists and ask, "What really gets you and really pushes your buttons?," it's always stuff with kids because they're innocent and pretty helpless and when you see some of the horrific things done to children...we approach those things with real delicacy and real care and we try not to have to deal with them too often because it is just subject material that really, really generates profoundly strong emotions. I think that out of respect to the effect it has on people you have to approach the material with real care.
JH: There's a big crossover coming up with all three "CSI" series and Laurence Fishburne serving as the centerpiece, right?
NS: He's going to be called to a case in Miami and then travels to New York and then ends up in Las Vegas. The Miami case that starts it is on Monday, November 9th, New York is November 11th and we're November 12th. Logistically it's really challenging but I think it's going to be very cool.
JH: In the 10 years you've been on the air, the world of forensics has changed so much. Does that help in your stories along, as well?
NS: The actual technology has changed dramatically in the time this show has been on the air and, for that matter, the audience's understanding of technology has changed dramatically. In Season One you could do a whole scene about a fingerprint but you can't do that anymore. You don't get a whole montage out of pulling a fingerprint. That was a big deal when the show first came on the air but as the technology has improved and we've captured the new technology and put them in the show the audience has been educated along the way. Luckily, people are very, very inventive in new techniques and new instrumentation kind of comes up all the time so we try to use that as much as possible.
JH: With the world going through its own big crises, you'd think that viewers might want lighter fare but procedurals like the "CSIs" and the "Law & Orders" are as popular as ever. Why?
NS: I think there are a number of factors. There are advantages and disadvantages to procedurals and classic franchises like these. The advantages are they are open ended. The sad fact of the matter is there is no dearth of people trying to kill each other in inventive ways so you always have crimes to mill off. We have the kind of procedural where you're not burning up tremendous amounts of interpersonal character stories week to week to week. People feel like they can drop in and have a satisfying mystery with people they are familiar with. It's a very accessible show to the audience and, as a result, you can keep doing it for very long periods of time. The downside of that is that as actors and writers you want your regular cast to get emotionally wrought and get invested in stories. It's that really fine balance between servicing the characters, giving stuff to the actors to do emotionally and character-wise help them carefully track the season but still allowing the episodic nature of the show and the episodic nature of the crimes to primarily drive what you see week after week.
JH: Beyond CSI, do you see yourself sticking in this genre or do you crave something lighter?
NS: It's funny, I started my career in science fiction. I've worked in science fiction for many, many years and I came to crime dramas much later in my career. So, I will say this, I always love doing the lab rat episodes; those have been my babies over the years. I would love to do a "CSI" comedy. I always like the funnier stuff.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation begins season 10 tonight at 9:00/8:00c on CBS.