May 1, 2014

THE SKED Planted Pilot Review: “CSI: Cyber Crime”


A planted pilot is just what it sounds like:  an episode of an existing TV show temporarily invaded by the elements of a prospective newcomer for an semi-official on-air tryout.  Networks and studios like them because they’re cost-effective, since most of the expenses can rolled into the episodic budget of the series being utilized, and even if the project doesn’t go anywhere, the episode can be packaged into the syndication sales of the parent series.  In addition, the network also gets a much wider public response than mere focus group testing allows.

The scale of the planted episode can vary greatly; last season’s prototype for The Originals traveled to New Orleans for most of its length, with only brief appearances from other Vampire Diaries characters, and introduced most of the new series’ protagonists and storylines (some of which were altered when the show itself made its debut).  Tonight’s episode of CSI was a much more modest effort.  Aside from a briefly-glimpsed Australian subordinate somewhere in DC, the only visitor to the show was FBI agent Avery Ryan (Patricia Arquette), who would be the focal point of the new series if it’s picked up.

CSI will air its own season finale next week, so we’ll talk about the show then; tonight, we’ll just look at the potential for the cyber-spinoff.  The hour, written by CSI Executive Producers Carol Mendelsohn, Anne Donahue and Anthony E. Zuiker (the latter two were co-creators of the CSI franchise) and directed by Eagle Egilsson, would be a bit different from previous CSI entries, being based on a type of crime rather than a particular city, and of course as a full-fledged series, it would feature a number of additional regular characters.  Still, there was nothing particularly intriguing about the premise or tonight’s execution.

When CSI first began, the idea of a high-tech forensics-driven procedural was something new, and over the years it’s showcased all sorts of gadgets and devices that viewers had never seen before.  Computer crimes, though, are all over the airwaves, and for all its menacing talk about the “dark web,” the pilot script revealed little about the field that was startling or original.  The case of the week involved the wife of a casino owner who, it turned out, had been killed by a hitman hired by an agoraphobic techno-creep who had invaded the materials posted online by an innocent woman (the wife of a soldier serving in Afghanistan and mother of two, in case we didn’t get the point) and turned her image into the avatar of a sexual “chat-bot” that shook rich men down for cash.

Even by CSI standards, the plotting was implausible (the agoraphobe zinged across the country with little hesitation for a chance to kill the real-life woman after she went public with his scheme, and the ending turned him into a full-fledged maniac), and FBI agent Ryan didn’t do anything particularly wondrous in solving it, examining digital close-ups of online photos for clues and using algorithms to fill in fragments of shapes they contained, in ways that are familiar by now from other procedurals.  It didn’t help that Arquette’s character was, on top of being a cyber-genius, somewhat annoyingly a “human lie detector,” or that a lot of her dialogue amounted to her showing off in front of the regular CSI team and delivering punchy one-liners to show how cool she was.

In short, there was little exciting about the prospect about a series based on the episode.  Of course, at this point CBS may not be looking for excitement, just a reliable spin-off that can use the CSI brand name to generate moderate numbers with a lower budget than the veteran original’s and limited risk.  If so, maybe we’ll be seeing more of Arquette and her intense typing on keyboards in the fall.  That certainly won’t be anything to get viewers excited about network TV drama again.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."