What Happens in Vegas

Curator's Note

Television settings tend to be generic “spaces,” rather than “places.” Like the city of popular imagination, however, CSI’s Las Vegas is a crucial “place.” It is simultaneously spectacular and banal, as each episode opens with dizzying shots of the Strip in full-on nocturnal splendor, or of sprawling subdivisions baking in the midday desert. These tableaux quickly become crime scenes, as bodies are discovered, and our CSIs arrive to investigate. Vegas itself is, of course, one huge “crime scene,” as any critical history of the city will argue, resplendent with crimes against morality, against taste, against social justice, and even against nature itself. Everyone knows this, and this is exactly what has made it so compelling. CSI brings this experience home, rendering it as an unending quest at the human scale of the city, where locals and visitors toil, play, seethe, and mourn in the shadow of its spectacle. In this clip, from “Room Service” (602), Vegas is literally split in this regard, with only the fact of death uniting its victims. What does CSI’s Vegas add to the popular and critical perceptions of the city? What does it tell us about contemporary representations of place in popular media?


Great clip, Derek! I'm fascinated by ways that the city gets used in the show as well, particularly in the contrasts between these late-night shots of the strip, the site we associate with Las Vegas, and the broad daylight shots of the places where people actually live (and die). I'm curious about what makes Las Vegas work in a way that, for instance, Miami and New York never have -- and yes, part of that is casting, but part of it is about the specificity of the place as well. Going back to yesterday's conversation, I wonder how much of the work that Vegas does here has to do with its radical artifice, its seemingly endless simulations, with deaths as the only irruptions of the real. What a testing ground for a forensic scientist, attempting to find evidence in the heart of postmodernity...

Although we may associate Vegas with a variety of crimes (i.e. gambling, drugs, prostitution, organized crime), we don't typically associate it with the murders of average, ordinary people. It would seem that CSI adds another layer to the Vegas mystique and that has to do with the way that the way that the program brings together middle-class victims, middle-class heroes, and the place. It seems to me that "average" people tend to see Vegas as a place where anything can and does happen, but that anything is usually envisioned as good (e.g. wealth, sex, and an all around good time). CSI puts a damper on this vision by adding death to the list. As Kathleen notes, death brings a sense of the real to Vegas and this is further reinforced by the way that death happens to and around "real" people on the show.

As Kathleen points out, the sense of place does drive the series. The mystique of Las Vegas fuels the voyeurism of the show, even when, as Chad remarks, death puts a damper on things. The constant play of reality and artifice is what keeps the series vibrant. Derek's clip illustrates very well the gap between the worlds of reality, as represented by the the taxi driver, a local who is trying to make a living and artifice, presented in the form of a wealthy and famous young man whose only job it seems is to have fun. These two worlds never meet, but only cross paths unaware that the other exists.

Thanks for the feedback. It's not only death, of course, but as Eva points out, the very different kinds of everyday life in Las Vegas. I love how the series contrasts visitors (looking for fantasy) with locals (most often just getting by) and deals matter-of-factly with the labor of Vegas. There's an amazing tracking shot later in this same episode that moves vertically up from the laundry room, through two kitchens, and ends in the casino, revealing the different kinds of work (and workers) going on behind the facade. I just posted it on Veoh; here it is. My brother works in IT for a casino in Las Vegas (on the strip, and "behind the facade"), and my sister-in-law is a nurse at a Clark County hospital, so I'm particularly interested in these kinds of representations on the show! Regarding Kathleen's point about the uniqueness of Vegas, I think it succeeds because the other places are relatively over-exposed (even Miami, but especially New York) in media. We've never had as intricate (if still mostly conventional) a fictional representation of Vegas (and the contemporary mountain/desert West, for that matter) as we've had on CSI, and this is still the case despite the post-CSI influx of shows set there.

It seemed to me that in the early seasons CSI made a point of being predominantly set in the "real" Las Vegas; I remember crane shots that pulled away from a suburban crime scene to show the Strip looming in the distance, etc., but very few Strip-related plots. Does anyone else think this changed in later seasons? Is this possibly partly in response to other Vegas shows/the hotness of Vegas in general over the last few years?

I'm still catching up on seasons 5-7, and rewatching the entire run more closely, but my sense is that they've been fairly consistent on these counts throughout, taking in not only the attractions of the Strip, but other Vegas-tied factors (e.g., rampant development, the desert environment, Area 51, etc.). You're right that they probably have had to finesse this in the wake of so many Vegas-set shows, but I'd have to look into this more before I could make any claim about it. Thanks for your comment!

In the last few years I have taught three seminars on the issue of urbanity and the, invariably, a student in each of these classes decides to write about Las Vegas as their city of choice. The reason in each and every one: CSI Las Vegas. It's always a strange choice because Las Vegas is the ultimate American expression of Marx and Engels' claim that "All that is solid melts into the air". The result for residents is a city that openly abhors its history, which is what every citizen at some level yearns for. Michael Peterson's comment about the early version of the show is in concert with what others tell me about it: the older shows had a tendency to go off The Strip. Honestly, CSI is begging for a social historical analysis that asks not only questions of urbanity but how American cities have accepted and promoted themselves through these kinds of shows. By depicting the city as both criminal and just locals play a both/and game where a city such as Miami or Las Vegas contains a cesspool of criminal activities (as necessary tourist titilation) and a repository of a redemptive workforce.

I not only agree, Tim, I would argue that studying Las Vegas (and its media representations) is critical in understanding contemporary urban space. As some of the histories I'm reading suggest, Vegas is (mostly for worse) the most influential model of urban planning and management in the United States; i.e., one which destroys, reinvents, and destroys again, just as M & E put it. The relationship between its representations and its tourism is a particularly valid point. It's certainly not limited to Vegas or Miami (e.g., New York has a much longer history of this), but the way in which mayhem, crime, and death are part of the official attraction is certainly intriguing.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.