Since television's infancy, crime dramas, especially police procedurals, have been perennial favorites among viewers. Such shows typically focus on police detectives as they investigate the scene of a crime, gather clues, sift through suspects, and eventually bring the perpetrator to justice, either in court or at the end of a gun. At the center of many of these dramas are the mean streets of a big city, with its stew of suspects and complex motivations, as in the 1970s hit The Streets of San Francisco. Co-starring are the detectives themselves: strong, swift of foot, sure of shot, blessed with infallible instincts. The role that forensics is likely to play in these shows, though, is likely to be only a passing one. A detective orders a ballistics test run on a bullet removed from a murder victim. A subordinate finds a bit of fiber, a hair, or a suspicious cigarette butt, and the lead detective barks, "Run that down to trace!," the lab in the bowels of police headquarters where technicians examine trace evidence and read its story. In the past, though, those technicians rarely emerged from anonymity. Science was not considered as interesting to viewers as shootouts, car chases, or dramatic interrogations of suspects.
When science made an occasional appearance in past shows, it was generally in the figure of the coroner , whose bailiwick was where science and crime investigation intersected. From 1976 to 1983, for example, veteran actor Jack Klugman starred as the title character in 147 episodes of Quincy, M.E. (viewers never learned his first name). As chief medical examiner , Quincy served as the catalyst behind crime investigations, teasing clues out of bodies that less intrepid investigators would have overlooked. The show broke ground for its relatively high level of realism. Its forensic consultant had been a scientist in the Los Angeles Medical Examiners office, and his on-screen role as a technician enabled him to operate complex equipment rather than trying to teach actors to do it. One episode of the show, in which Quincy used bite marks to identify a killer, was credited with helping solve a rape case in the Midwest after a nurse, having watched the episode, photographed bite marks on a victim.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, though, a change had taken place. Many television crime shows had replaced gruff, street-smart detectives with teams of polished forensic lab scientists—the result, according to some observers, of America's fascination with the televised O. J. Simpson murder trial, with its dramatic testimony about DNA , blood spatter , and other forensic evidence . Sweaty interrogation rooms and the litter of coffee cups in stakeout cars had given way to smartly appointed labs and the clutter of pipettes and gas chromatographs, and the neatly pressed lab coat had replaced the rumpled suit.
The flagship of this new crop of shows was the CBS hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, launched in 2000 under the direction of Jerry Bruckheimer and starring William Petersen as the brooding, scholarly Gil Grissom and Marg Helgenberger as his female counterpart, ex-stripper Catherine Willows. While the show explores the human drama of its cast of characters, always at the center is the forensic evidence, which infallibly guides police to the wrongdoers.
In an episode aired on February 17, 2005, for example, the team is called to a Las Vegas mansion where a casino mogul is lying dead, having fallen, jumped, or been pushed from a second-story balcony. The team takes careful note of the crime scene: no tire tracks , no cast-off blood , the head's position relative to the pool of blood suggesting that the body had been moved, a suspicious oil leak in the driveway, greasy palm prints on the balcony ledge, and the floor of the upstairs study. Examination of the body back at the lab finds no drugs in the blood but eventually turns up LSD in the victim's urine and, bizarrely, breast milk in his stomach. Attention focuses on the man's wife, whose bloody shoes were found in the trash. Comparison of the shape of the shoes with the pattern of blood on the ground near the victim's head suggests that the wife stood nearby and watched her husband die. Further, the investigators examine the hard drive on the home's electronic security system, which recorded the time when doors were opened, including the garage door. By recreating the timeline of events, the investigators determine that after arriving home, pulling into the garage, and finding her husband on the ground, the wife waited an hour before calling 911. Eventually, the team pieces together what happened: that the disturbed husband engaged in elaborate infantile fantasies (the palm prints were left by baby lotion) and that a woman he forced into the role of nursemaid administered the LSD, which caused him to hurl himself off the balcony. The wife, her eye on his estate, was happy to allow him to die.
CSI became so successful, often the highest rated show for the week, that it became a franchise with two spin-offs: the hip, sun-bronzed CSI: Miami and the darker and moodier CSI: NY. In 2003 CBS also premiered NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), in which lead investigator Jethro Gibbs, played by heartthrob Mark Harmon, relies heavily on the scientific expertise of his medical examiner, quirky Renaissance man "Ducky" Mallard, and Abby, an uninhibited, tattooed forensic specialist who dresses in Goth clothing. By then, the roster of shows with prominent forensic themes, including both dramas and documentaries, was growing almost exponentially. On cable television, the Court TV channel had four shows: I, Detective; Body of Evidence; Extreme Evidence; and the network's signature series, Forensic Files. The Learning Channel had Medical Detectives. The Discovery channel featured The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science, The Prosecutors: In Pursuit of Justice, The FBI Files, and The Justice Files, and on the Discovery Health channel was Dr. G.: Medical Examiner. On A&E (Arts and Entertainment) were Cold Case Files, Investigative Reports, and American Justice. NBC had Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Crossing Jordan, the latter with a technician nicknamed "Bug" who was often called on to bring his knowledge of entomology to bear on murder cases. What all of these shows had in common, to a greater or lesser extent, was the prominent place they gave to such forensic themes as fiber analysis, blood samples, blood spatter, DNA analysis, fingerprinting, shoeprint casting , and handwriting analysis—all with the help of a panoply of high-tech gadgetry that became the envy of real forensic labs around the country.
In August 2002, Court TV capitalized on the popularity of these shows by airing a bundle of programs under the title "Forensics Week." Included were five new episodes of Forensics Files, during which viewers could "join the investigation" by logging on to the network's website and entering interactive, virtual forensics labs, including rooms devoted to computer forensics and linguistic forensics. Additionally, "Forensics Week" included two documentaries, one documenting an unsolved 1973 case that was reopened in 1995 and solved through new forensic techniques, the other documenting a three-year murder investigation solved with the help of FBI profilers and a handwriting expert. That week, too, Court TV's Mobile Investigation Unit (MIU), a traveling forensic lab, wrapped up a 20-city tour at the Children's Museum in Manhattan. The lab allowed visitors to take part in a "caper scene" and solve a crime using fingerprints, handwriting analysis , and fiber analysis.
Purists objected to technical and procedural flaws in such shows as CSI. They note, for example, the tendency of the shows to enhance drama by having investigators work in the dark, when in reality investigators set up floodlights to illuminate crime scenes. But science educators were delighted with the public's new fascination with forensics on television. Colleges and universities in the United States and around the world saw sharp increases in the number of students taking courses in such subjects as forensic pathology . In 2004 The College of New Jersey launched a 10-year, $2.2 million effort to develop a criminology and forensic science program, fueled in large part by the popularity of forensic television. Singer Britney Spears was quoted as saying that she was growing tired of her status as a pop icon and, because of such shows as CSI, wanted to pursue a career in forensic science.
One of the most tangible effects of the interest in forensic television was its usefulness for educators in making science more accessible to students. In connection with the MIU's stop at the Children's Museum, Court TV announced the kickoff of its Forensics in the Classroom (FIC) program. Developed in partnership with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association, FIC bridged the gap between scientific theory and applications in the real world by requiring students to gather data, think logically about the connections between data and explanations, analyze hypotheses, and communicate results, all goals of the science classroom. Teachers could download classroom units and lesson plans, complete with lab activities that take students step-by-step through the scientific investigation of a pretend crime. In The Cafeteria Caper, students use DNA, hair, and blood analysis and conduct an enzyme test to determine who was responsible for an act of school vandalism. It's Magic uses handwriting analysis, a pH test, and paper chromatography to solve a "dognapping" case. The Car That Swims uses footprint casting to expose a girl's false statements about a car found in a river. Renters Beware requires students to conduct a flame test, a Kastle-Meyer test, and fingerprint analysis to uncover a plot involving a money-hungry landlord with a mysterious chemistry lab.
see also American Academy of Forensic Sciences; Bite analysis; Blood spatter; Careers in forensic science; Casting; Cast-off blood; Chromatography; Coroner; Crime scene investigation; Hair analysis; Handwriting analysis; Medical examiner; Simpson (O. J.) murder trial; Trace evidence.