HD: CSI Cyber social

This spring, CSI will tackle cyber-crime with CSI: Cyber.

Y’know what gets annoying if you work on the internet (or anywhere adjacent to the “tech” business, at this point)? Nitpicky snarking about how “wrong” television/movies/etc get the presentation of computer technology.

On the one hand, it can be immensely educational to learn how things being dramatized for entertainment actually work in the real world. But too often the “analysis” is rooted in a place of smug superiority, presented from an assumption that the inconsistencies are the result of ignorance on the part of the filmmakers rather than the need to make things visually interesting: Yes, friend. I am aware that not even MI6 has the kind of computer setups that ordinary Miami detectives are shown routinely using on TV — do you honestly think nobody on the production knows that? Or did they just recognize that it’s hard to make working at a terminal interesting, even if you are trying to solve a triple-homicide.

But even I’m at once dreading and hotly-anticipating the latest entry in the CSI franchise (for those keeping track: earlier spinoffs CSI Miami and CSI NY have both ended their runs, leaving only the Las Vegas-set original still on the air for now), the ominously-dubbed CSI: Cyber. The mind reels at the thought: The CSI formula (creepy/sleazy/sensationalist murder stories viewed through the lens of forensic investigators via editing and music to make forensic investigation look a lot more exciting than it actually is) applied to “cybercrime?” It’s easy to picture endless scenes of cameras 360-degree panning around actors pretending to type very, very fast ala 90s “cyberthrillers” like The Net.

On the other hand, CSI in general long ago abandoned the pretext of their Crimes of the Week having to be something that a forensics team would be at the forefront of solving in favor of “Here’s a salacious murder premise: Figure out how it would need to be solved by microfibers instead of anything else,” so maybe there’s hope that the computer-crime angle could be just the latest excuse for another hour of Sweded Se7en a week.

Fortunately, while the actual series won’t air until 2015, we can get a glimpse at how it might go now: The 14th season of CSI-Classic included an episode called Kitty that served as a backdoor pilot for Cyber, with Patricia Arquette making her debut as Special Agent Avery Ryan who will be the main character of Cyber — and the first female leader of a CSI-Universe team (CSI: Voyager?) — who uses her special skills as head of the Quantico Cyber Crime Division to help solve a case that has the regular CSI guys flummoxed. Spoiler: she does exactly what they do, but with Computer Magic instead of Microscope Magic.

So what do we have to look forward to (apart from James Van Der Beek as Agent Elijah Mundo and Peter MacNicol as Assistant Director Stavros Sifter)? Let’s take a look at Kitty…

We open (as is customary) on flyover-footage of Las Vegas, but instead of the usual plot-appropriate contemporary pop-music the score is affecting a bass-heavy synth tune of the type that generally designates “techno-thriller” as opposed to “thriller.” The touchscreen security system of a posh ranch-style McMansion seems to disable itself (Oh no, Ma! It’s them hackers from the CNN!!) and a shadowy figures strides in with a gun and shoots a sleeping woman to death. Lovely. She’s clothed fairly conservatively (a nightdress instead of inexplicably having fallen asleep in expensive lingerie) which in TV Crime Show language means she’s probably an innocent victim of whatever the story will be.

The cops arrive (in the form of Paul Guilfoyle’s Captain Brass, who generally represents the entirety of the non-CSI Las Vegas Police Department in the series) amid a throng of press, which means the victim was famous. Moments later: The other regular good guys are pulling over the fancy car of the victim’s husband, Lee Berman, who does the “Do you know who I am??” thing so we’ll think he’s the bad guy for a while. They find gun-residue on his hands and arrest him, but he looks surprised that his wife is dead.

CSI’s new-ish team leader (Ted Danson as D.B. Russell, if you haven’t been watching lately) arrives at the crime scene the next day. The camera keeps showing the victim’s dog, so that’ll probably be important later. Danson and the other good guys all act really surprised by the existence of motion-sensitive security cameras and lights, and also that someone was able to disable them in order to sneak in. (“Somebody outsmarted the Smart House!”) Short version: All the Sherlockian observational-evidence makes it look like an obvious jilted-husband murder. They also find a laptop displaying a webcam sex-site which flash-fries itself after D.B. takes a photo of the camgirl’s face.

Meanwhile in Washington D.C., Arquette’s Agent Ryan informs her superiors that a lead in “That Kitty case we’ve been tracking” (oh boy…) has popped in Vegas and she’s on her way; bullying a snarky airforce transport pilot to give her a lift using encyclopedic (or Wikipedic, because Cyber?) knowledge of flight times. It’s a scene that only seems to exist so the background-music can inform us that Cyber will be using “I Can See For Miles” as its franchise-mandatory Who-sung theme song.

Ryan watches Brass lay out the crime theory for the husband (kill wife to be with camgirl) but nudges him aside because “He’s asking the right questions, just not my questions.” She wants to talk to him about the camgirl, “Kitty,” whom she knows is actually a cyber-scammer seeking wealthy men. But when she insinuates that she knows Kitty was blackmailing Berman rather than sexting, he calls for his lawyers. Ryan goes to introduce herself and what CSI thinks is a really fancy laptop to the regulars, along with her catchphrase: “I solve crimes that start in the mind, live online and play out in the real world.” Our first “cyber” twist: “Kitty” isn’t real, she’s a photorealistic CGI animation with rudimentary pseudo-A.I.

So… the show takes place in the future, too?

And yes, “revealing” Kitty to be a super-chatbot causes her to blow apart into pixels and wireframe, for some reason. Ryan asks to borrow CSI’s main female character (Elizabeth Shue) because digging through sex site backlogs will be easier without any men involved, and Danson’s D.B. indicates to the audience that we’re meant to find the idea that data can be recovered from an “erased” hard drive to be extremely surprising. Some time is wasted on Hackers-style “inside the wires” animations before they dig up the crime. “Kitty” recorded Berman’s sessions via his own webcam without his knowledge — “They can do that???” says CSI’s presumably-panicky network TV audience — and a clue. If “Kitty” isn’t real, why does she keep touching her jaw like it’s in pain? Meanwhile, the regulars determine that Berman definitely didn’t kill his wife, but maybe he paid someone else to?

As it turns out, there’s a recording of “Kitty” telling Berman that she’ll kill his family if he doesn’t pay up a ransom of “$2 Million… in Bitcoins!!!,” but he wanted a face-to-face, hence driving around at night with his gun in the car. Ryan determines that Kitty’s puppet-master is “a psycho-sadist” who got mad when his victim tried to dictate terms and opted to take the money and kill the wife anyway, meaning Berman is the only one who may have actually seen the real suspect (which, Ryan has already informed us, will be called “nodes” on Cyber) …except he didn’t, because nobody showed up — a fact he hadn’t yet revealed out of shame that his wife wound up murdered over a cyber-fling.
Since this is now roughly the halfway mark of the episode, it’s time for another twist: On his way out of the police station, Berman recognizes a woman in another room (this is a recurring problem in the CSI-verse, where all police stations are made of cool, ultra-photogenic glass walls) as… Kitty???

So what’s going on? Well, since they’ve already run through every other item on the “Stuff Your Grandparents Heard About The Internet That Frightened Them” checklist, it’s time for the big one: Identity Theft. The “real” Kitty is actually a good, honest, All-American suburban housewife from San Diego whose image and mannerisms were copied without her consent to create the Kitty avatar. (Yes, you and I know that the level of animation skill necessary to do that would negate the need for a human model, but if you keep banging your head like that we’ll be here all day.) Ryan then proceeds to do her damndest to give CSI’s audience heart-attacks by explaining “social vulnerability,” i.e. “If you’ve ever so much as looked at Facebook, someone can make a virtual sex-clone out of you.” The primary source of stolen images? Love-videos sent to her husband… a soldier serving in Afghanistan. In case you were confused as to whether or not to feel bad for her.

Hey, remember the conspicuous dog at the crime scene? They try to give it back to Berman — but he doesn’t have a dog!

Turns out, the killer (who also knew his way around the house because a real estate site had left a “virtual tour” of it online, so “Something meant to help you… becomes a blueprint to kill your wife!!!”) adopted a shelter dog in order to enter the neighborhood on a dog-walking path without rousing suspicion (what?) and has possibly been ID’d by the pound. They don’t find the killer, but they do find the murder-weapon and a video-recording of the kill (in vertical orientation, no less!) that somehow fills in a blank for Ryan: Her “psycho-sadist” (who’s online handle is “Nebula”) isn’t in Vegas — he hired a hitman, and asked for proof-of-kill.

Ryan tracks Nebula to St. Louis by analyzing an old profile photo (you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how that worked…) but it turns out he’s pulling the “lure the cops to your house” trick from Speed and a bunch of SWAT guys almost get blown up, sending Ryan into a spiral of self-doubt. I imagine her “angle” in the main series will be that she doesn’t deal well with physical “real world” violence as well as the virtual kind.

Her main moral dilemma: It turns out Susan’s (aka “Real Kitty”) home address cannot be found anywhere online. Setting aside that this either means she has never once filed for a loan, shopped online or received a piece of government mail in her life or that “Nebula” has the most arbitrarily-narrow set of 1337 haxor skillz in history, what it also means is that if Ryan were to put that info online the bad guy might go there and could be trapped — at risk to Susan’s life. D.B. says to go for it, and his guys will protect her.

…Whatever. There’s only ten minutes left, so we’ll say this plan makes sense.

Susan holds a press conference where she calls out Nebula for “hacking into her life” to create Kitty, an act through which she has been “virtually raped by thousands of men.” But! The speech, up to and including our Message Moment — that while there’s no law against the villain’s actions, “Virtual rape is rape… and I refuse to stand back and be a victim.” — is being fed to her by Agent Ryan. GET IT??? They’ve made her into an avatar of their own, to fight the original avatar-maker! Irony!

(But it’s okay, because she ends by going off script and entreating men to “Log off… and check in to your families!”)

In any case, it works: Nebula slips into Susan’s house but finds Agent Ryan waiting for him instead. She baits him by making dismissive double-entendres about the size and frequency-of-use of his gun, psychobabbles him into trading down to a knife, refuses to display a reaction when he slashes her arm (okay, that’s kind of cool) and gets him to add years to his sentence by bragging about murders before CSI-Classic bursts in to help bring him down.

Cue one-liner from Brass: “Say bye-bye… to yer wi-fi!” No, really.

As a stinger, Ryan gets ready to board her plane to go fight another cybercrime (someone is pulling the penny-skimming scheme from Superman 3 and Office Space), but first tells Susan that she’s arranged to have her husband returned from Afghanistan (how?). Before she boards the plane (with “Miles” kicking up on the soundtrack again) D.B. opines that the penny scheme sounds like the perfect crime.

Cue Ryan: “It’s not the perfect crime. It’s CYBER crime!”

Well, then.

I won’t say that it doesn’t have the makings of a decent show as absurdly-silly police procedurals go. I like the implication that maybe Cyber will be jumping from location to location rather than being rooted to one city like the CSI’s have been up to this point. I do hope they aren’t going to use the plane as a homebase, though — I’m not sure TV is ready for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but somehow more nerdy.”

All the computer-crime stuff is preposterous, of course — but no more so than the biological/chemical stuff in the rest of these shows (have they done one where they ID a suspect by leftover gas-particles from a fart yet, or was that a parody from somewhere — or does it matter?) and I’ll give the writers credit here for squeezing every single of-the-moment tech-paranoia buzzword out there into something like a coherent plot. Arquette is an interesting lead, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much space between Agent Ryan and every other “tough lady cop” hero (re: “I’m a hardass but also nurturing and sexy in a semi-aggressive middle-aged actress now doing TV kind of way.”)

Well, I guess we’ll find out. CSI Cyber is set to debut in Spring 2015 as a mid-season replacement for CSI.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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