“Looking for things, analyzing them, trying to figure out the world”: Professional expertise and authority in the TV police procedural

Curator's Note

The final chapter of my book, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, concludes with the exchange between Gil Grissom (William Peterson) and the homeless woman Cassie in “The Hunger Artist,” which I have excerpted here. My point in the book is that their dialogue compares them as fellow outsiders analyzing the world.  Talking with Cassie enables Grissom to justify his isolation—which is to say that the dialogue, like the series as a whole during the Grissom years, is deeply invested in the scientist’s professional expertise but also in his activity as an intellectual, with regard to his motivation, distance, thinking, and morality. The scene following this exchange then literally embodies the scientist’s isolation in his hereditary illness, which will challenge his ability to continue in his profession by compromising his ability to analyze evidence. At the same time, this coda challenges the authority which the series otherwise appears to grant to science: “I don’t have the answer,” the doctor replies to Grissom, and the episode, along with the second season of CSI, concludes on this uncertain note.

I chose this excerpt for my post today to call attention to an investigator who is coded as authoritative because of his professional expertise and intellectual agility. CSI stands out to me in this regard as a worthy successor to the Ben Stone era of Law and Order when, in contrast to other law shows and its own “ripped from the headlines” rebranding later on, the second half of each episode usually foregrounded questions arising from the lawyers’ reading of the law as a text. Granting narrative authority to an intellectual because his or her training and expertise has honed his or her intellectual acumen is as rare an event in the history of the US TV police procedural genre as it is in American culture at large. The spin-offs of CSI are standard cop shows which exploit their brand by transforming the scientists into cops with guns and reducing the science to displays of technological gadgets. More recently, a sort of post-post 9-11 twist on the genre is evident in the return of the amateur detective on shows such as The Mentalist and Castle and a few of those crime dramas which have welcomed character back to the USA cable network. I am not yet sure what to make of this pattern in which, during the past decade, the scientific and intellectual activity that comprised the narrativity of CSI was sublimated in its spinoffs and imitators and then succeeded by the amateur cop who may have a certain intellectual panache and flair for deduction but lacks professional training and credentials (and, it turns out on The Mentalist, moral as well as legal discipline)—yet these series give their amateurs free access to official crime solving. Would amateur doctors be so easily welcomed on medical procedurals? 


Great scene to choose, Steven. In writing my own book on CSI, I appreciated your analysis of the episode, and your book as a whole, as a thoughtful consideration of how the series structures its very epistemology. Authority is granted and challenged in both conventional and susprising ways in CSI (at least through most of its run; the last three seasons haven't got that sensibility down as well as before).

One of the interesting things about Grissom's narrative authority is how it arises both out of his training (as you indicate) and his embodiment of familiar codes of the "intellectual detective." While he is not as eccentric as Holmes, Poirot, or Columbo, Grissom's very slight misanthropy is enough to locate him in that company, i.e., as a sharp, but slightly "off" personality. That said, the series' explicit grounding in bureaucracy (i.e., the Metro Las Vegas Police Department), and consistent world of intellectual work insures a kind of grounding that most similar characters never get. Grissom and all his team must display and reaffirm their earned credentials. In contrast, Adrian Monk is just "brilliant," apparently; that's not enough to cut it on CSI

As you point out, it's intriguing that more recent series have just focused on the surface attributes of such characters without attempting to ground them. However, given the varied tones of these later series (from light comedy to supernatural horror), it does raise the question of appropriate narrative authority: when do credentials/training matter?

Hi Steve,

You have offered so much to think about here! One could write a whole book on just these ideas alone... :-) But I'm going to just focus on a couple of points -- one having to do with the television investigator/intellectual and the other having to do with the ways in which Grissom harnesses sensorial experiences as part of his intellectual work.


First, though I utterly agree with the representation of Grissom as intellectual, I think that we might take this character (and the reading it enables) to look across other series in the same light, not so much as a stark contrast to what we see on CSI but as complementary representations. So, for instance, I'm interested in what you say about Ben Stone and the reading of "the law as text." While that is a highly professionalized form of intellectual work, it still demonstrates intellectual work on television. Moreover, I think Stone's replacement, Jack McCoy, is a terrific public intellectual -- linking the law to broader social concerns. In fact, there's an interesting difference between him and Grissom in that respect -- Grissom is more the philosopher while McCoy is more the social advocate -- but both are known for savvy intellect.


I'm also really interested in Grissom's description of how sensory powers work -- how hearing allows for one to detect nuance and intonation in a person's voice, so that we have, in effect, a connection between "form" and "content" (a connection neatly demonstrated in the visual/sonic details of the clip you offer here). This seems to me one of the most impressive elements of his intellectual work here, as he ties sensory experience and emotional resonance to his detective work.


As an aside, I wonder what folks think about the fact that the philosophizing woman (with whom Grissom relates, of course, but also with whom he is contrasted) is schizophrenic (if I remember the specifics of her disorder correctly). What does that say about intellectual work? And about the gendered dynamics of intellectual work?


I really enjoyed your piece. I've been thinking about Grissom and women as I work on a piece about the Miniature Killer story arc, female criminality, and "amateur" criminologist Frances Glessner Lee. In that research, I've been going back and looking at Grissom's interaction with women (victims and perpetrators) in the series. Your clip made me think of how he expresses particular affinity with damaged (for lack of a better word) people, particularly women. Unlike the more hard-boiled lead detectives of classic procedural, it seems like the show feminizes Grissom specifically because of his intellectual approach to investigation. While his approach subjects his leadership ability to critique by "higher-ups", it's an approach that  elevates his status for viewers because his ability to examine behaviors and desires without judgement and with the support of material evidence that is key to his success and his extension of empathy to a variety of characters (a courtesy that the bureaucrats won't extend). Though I must say, the show's creators are careful to make sure that even Grissom's empathy has its limits. Such single-minded focus on detail is something Grissom shares with Brennan on Bones; however, her relationships with people are decided more stunted, perhaps in an effort to cast her intellectual gifts as more "masculine".

Certainly, part of Grissom's interest in the crime's subjects is constructed as part and parcel of his "scientific" interest (and emotional detachment) in all kinds of phenomena. But in the shows where women bear particular emotional/mental scars -- like Cassie, like Natalie (**spolier alert** the miniature killer), Lady Heather, to name a few -- Grissom's investment in their stories and their well-being exceeds his duties as an investigator, but does it exceed his role as a scientist?

I've not fully concretized these ideas but they are representative of what your post spurred in my thought process. Thanks!

I just want to dwell for a moment on the notion raised by Jules that the "feminizing" quality of Grissom is his intellectual acumen. A lovely idea! However, I would add to it that his intellectualism is highly emotional -- which might even more account for his "feminine" characteristics. The similarity and contrast with Brennan ("Bones") is then really fascinating -- for her scientific process seems dependent in part on her affectless while the success of her findings are dependent on the emotional analyses provided all around her. (That particular series, too, is full of intellectuals; the lab as "brain" -- as Jules puts it -- is a space for collaborative thinking above all.)

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