Deborah Knight and George McKnight

We analyze CSI as an example of TV noir, but before turning to the series, it is worth asking: Just what sorts of narratives count as noir, and why? We find examples of noir in literature, film, and television, but wherever such examples are found, noir is a hybrid of elements. Film scholars have persuasively argued that noir is not and has never been a genre in its own right. Silver and Ward, for example, suggest that "the relationship of film noir to genre is a tenuous one at best" and conclude that noir is better understood as a cycle than as a genre.1 Others reject the idea that noir is even a cycle. Steve Neale, for example, argues, "As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view, never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it, and why the contours of the larger noir canon in particular are so imprecise."2 Noir combines thematic and stylistic features that can be exploited by a variety of genres, including mystery/suspense, detective, crime, science fiction, thriller, melodrama, gangster, and so on.3 In noir films, we typically encounter a dystopic world where either or both of two things are happening. Either there is something darkly corrupt at the heart of the social order, or the social order is threatened by the criminal or antisocial actions of certain individuals or groups. Consequently, the urban setting in noir films is increasingly identified less with community and more with individual self-interest and/or the systemic corruption of the American dream. Typically, a noir narrative involves a mystery or crime and requires a detective to solve it, although this need not be the case.4 What becomes necessary in noir narratives, then, is a figure whose actions can resolve the mystery and ensure justice, although such figures are often outside the law as traditionally represented by the police.5

Here, we will examine crime detection in CSI and discuss how the show deploys various noir conventions, styles, and themes that make it a good example of TV noir. We begin by considering the noir trope of the corrupt city and discussing the sorts of storylines characteristic of CSI. Next, we identify it as a procedural noir, focusing in particular on the centrality of scientific procedure and method in CSI investigations. We then consider the nature of the investigative team, comparing the CSI team to both classical and hard-boiled detectives. We conclude with three case studies that illustrate some of the philosophical themes found in CSI programs, including epistemological ones, such as identity and self-knowledge, and moral ones, such as what counts as ethical conduct.

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