Look into this Mag-Lite, then surrender to the box of gizmos: CSI's William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger

Look into this Mag-Lite, then surrender to the box of gizmos: CSI's William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger

Three out of ten Portuguese entertainment correspondents agree: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI for short, is the surprise hit of the TV season! That is to say, this CBS program earned a Golden Globe nomination for best drama series, the only new program so honored (I know, I know, it could only have been homophobia that denied a similar nod to the oafish, and canceled, Normal, Ohio). Far more important, this program about forensic scientists on the prowl has secured a spot in the Top 20. Its heavily advertised lead-in, The Fugitive, was expected to win audiences, but viewers instead tuned in en masse after the would-be success left the air. All of which has earned CSI the dubious right to light out for Thursday night at 8:00 p.m., where giants stalk the land. Fortified by the Goliath of Survivor II, CSI now goes up against Will and Jack and David Spade. I wish it luck.

A few minutes' thought might suggest that of course this show would be a hit: CSI is TV that HAL could love. (What better year for it to get the big PR push than 2001?) Not just HAL, of course. But put it this way: This is the least sexy show ever to set down in Vegas, here glimpsed mostly as a blue-lighted night world of impersonal hotel corridors and warehouses peopled with the marginal, the forgotten, and the willfully extraneous. CSI's only concern with showgirls is how legible their fingerprints remain after being wiped from the rim of a tub. Consider also that this is a show whose very name dignifies process, whose dialogue at times appears to have been scripted by a computer screenwriting program, whose array of gadgets performs most of the intellectual work, and whose characters have as much personality as those little Windows "Help" icons. The most interesting thing of all about CSI might be that not much of this matters.

Morbid, creepy, sometimes downright yucky, CSI wraps stunning data crunching (yes, "stunning" data crunching) and brain-teasing thrills in a sleek package. It strides confidently past the cyborg and heads right for the machine. This show presents engaging visions of a post-human workplace, and I can't decide whether to be afraid or to rejoice. Maybe later this year, one episode will feature a robot arresting a human. Most of us will probably end up rooting for the robot.

Technology in the abstract and collective is the hero here, which should be recognized as a significant departure from the norm. Quincy, the program's most obvious forebear, centered on the prickly humanity of its protagonist. All that dissection just reinforced his sure instinct for settling slippery questions of human greed and anger. And though the various outposts of the Law & Order franchise dote on process, each show focuses on people, both good and bad, doing their best to carve out compassion and flexibility within an often intractable justice system. Even Knight Rider, one of the more machine-heavy shows to grace the tube thus far, endowed its wundercar with a persnickety personality of its own. Machines aspired to complement human beings rather than the reverse.

Whereas here, HAL wins. One recent CSI episode featured, among other gadgetry, DNA-typing machines, a voice-print identifier, an instant chemical separator, a fingerprint locator, and several databases. Each one did its thing surely, competently, and inevitably, and I for one couldn't wait to see whether the shapes of the two stress patterns on the voice-print identifier matched up or not. Sure, humans still collect and enter data, as well as make sense of it, but this show has set a course for their eventual exit, not to say extinction. In the ideal world of CSI, we would all be Homer Simpsons, snoozing blissfully as dials and levers toil thanklessly away beneath our raised feet.

None of which is to say that the show is no fun, or that its cast is wasted. Despite the worrisome presence of goonish blast-meister Jerry Bruckheimer as executive producer, a cool intelligence animates everything here. Credit creator Anthony Zuiker, whose already legendary promo job convinced dubious CBS veeps to give his brainchild a chance. Zuiker clearly scribbled feverishly and listened well during months of ride-alongs with the graveyard forensics shift, adroitly capturing both the horror and the humor of working among the decayed. His cast, many of them seasoned B-levelers (leads William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger have visited every spot on the dial between decent and dreck), hits its marks, gamboling from crime scene to crime scene with the slightly off-putting avidity of everyone whose job demands a certain degree of distancing. They wager on solutions and often seem more eager to find dead bodies than living ones. When Petersen finds an apparent suicide in a hotel bathtub, he closes the door to be alone with the corpse and "get his mojo working."

Yet these actors also know when to get out of the way of the bells and whistles. Some of the cast members have been allotted notional personality traits: Helgenberger's character used to be a stripper and has a daughter; maverick Warrick Brown (Gary Dougan) has a seemingly problematic gambling jones. Yet for the most part these folks are entirely satisfactory servants who ferry evidence back to the lab, then go out in search of more. Petersen's Gil Grissom bears what little narrative and emotional weight CSI strives to lift. (For all of the feminist brio Helgenberger's Catherine Willows incarnates, she's still a distant third in importance behind Grissom and the voice-pattern analyzer.) So far, we know that Grissom owns a Janet Reno pinup and has invented his own fingerprint technology: "Red Creeper. Serious case, serious print powder." More or less a cipher, Grissom may be a new kind of hero: technician as creative genius. By comparison, MacGyver was a Luddite.

Really, the most exciting moments here are tech tricks: often unreliable POV shots that depict the investigators' evolving solutions, more often than not wrong turns, in a grainy stock that quite smartly captures the deductive process. One shot even followed a bullet from gun barrel to innards, then out again. In all, I enjoy this show a great deal, but I can't help finding it more than a little disturbing--not just in the maggot-infested ways it strives to manipulate our response, but in its apparently wholesale, and probably unconscious, embrace of operating systems as principles of order, and more than that, of salvation.