Like the Tokyo Olympics and Euro 2020 soccer championships, CSI’s revival tied to the series’ 20th anniversary was delayed by a year amid the pandemic. CBS’ CSI: Vegas, headlined by original stars William Petersen and Jorja Fox, premieres October 6, exactly 21 years to the day after the debut of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a series that changed the procedural drama genre; created a blockbuster global drama franchise that has amassed $2 billion to date; and helped launch a production company, Jerry Bruckheimer Television, and build a studio, CBS Studios.
While the original series launched with little fanfare on the lower-profile Friday night, the return is being supported across the entire ViacomCBS portfolio with a campaign that includes a list of Anthony Zuiker’s Top 25 CSI episodes on Paramount+, curated by the series’ creator, a virtual scavenger hunt on Instagram, and plans for interactive game play. There is also a CSI: Ride-Along podcast in the works.
Hosted by Zuiker, the 44-episode podcast will look back at the influential series — and its sequel — from an insider perspective, featuring special guests from producers and cast members to real-life crime scene investigators who break down notable episodes and share behind-the-scenes secrets. The podcast, now in development, will be ready ahead of the revival’s potential second season.
CSI: Vegas, which is wrapping production on its 10-episode order, is envisioned as an ongoing series, with everyone in the cast except Petersen under multi-year deals. The door is open for Petersen, whose casting helped the original series get made, to return. (There is also a possibility for other leads of the franchise including David Caruso, Gary Sinise, Melina Kanakaredes, Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson and Patricia Arquette to make appearances in future seasons.)
“I think Billy had a grand old time coming back, we have had a lot of laughs, we had a few challenges but in the end, he started it all by saying ‘yes,’ giving everybody a career and if he wants to go back, wonderful, we are just happy to have him in the first 10,” Zuiker said.
At the May 2015 upfronts where CBS announced that the mothership CSI series would wrap its 15-season with a two-hour finale that fall, Jerry Bruckheimer TV’s team, led by longtime president Jonathan Littman, already started its campaign for a full-time return of the groundbreaking series.
“We had an enormous run but I was continually being asked by fans, when’s it coming back, are you going to bring it back?,” Littman said. “And as we got closer to the 20th anniversary of the show, I thought, that’s a good target. That felt like a way to go to CBS and say wouldn’t it be great if, and there is demand for it. We knew it was doing well on the streaming platforms, we knew that people were still watching the reruns of the show.”
CSI, the most watched drama series in the world for seven years between 2006-2016, remains a global hit, reaching 291 million viewers worldwide in 2020 despite it not having aired original episodes for five years. The series has found new audiences on streaming and has become one of the top performers on ViacomCBS’ Pluto TV, reaching 10 million users in the U.S. since its launch in July 2020.
JBTV’s other signature series is the Emmy-winning, globetrotting reality competition The Amazing Race. “[Co-creator] Bertram van Munster liked to joke with me no matter what hotel he walked into, he turns on the TV and he sees CSI,” Littman said. Meanwhile, Zuiker quipped that he is still being recognized in Italy when he travels there.
Still, Littman and his team felt that they needed a thematic hook and a creative vision beyond the anniversary to bring back CSI and they found it in the ongoing debate about science.
“CSI was the show that said science could empirically say somebody was guilty or not guilty,” Littman said. “Let’s bring back the show that started and said, science is how you can solve a crime.”
With the general framework in place, the producers started a search for a writer. One of the candidates was former Elementary executive producer Jason Tracey, whom CBS Studios president David Stapf called “a superstar in our ranks.”
At the start of the millennium, Tracey was still trying to figure out his way in the business — deciding whether to pursue writing or producing, film or TV — when he, along with his aspiring TV executive wife, made it a habit to sit down and watch CSI together. “It was very formative for my professional development — and arguably my relationship,” Tracey said.
So when he got a call to go in and pitch an idea for a CSI anniversary series, “I was waiting in the parking lot when they opened up on Monday morning — I was the first one in,” Tracey said. He pitched what Littman called a “phenomenal hook” and got the job.
The original CSI experimented with multi-episode arcs, most notably with The Miniature Killer plotline in Season 7. Building on that with a serialized mystery spanning the entire season for the first time in addition to close-ended stories in each episode, CSI: Vegas follows Gil Grissom (Petersen) and Sara Sidle (Fox) as they return to Vegas to help a former colleague who has been accused of tampering with evidence that could upend and overturn every conviction that came from the lab.
The lab being under attack is a reflection of the ongoing attack on science in some parts of society that has found fertile ground on social media, making “the ethos that Anthony started the show with originally, about following the evidence and trusting scientific rigor to figure out the truth, a message that would resonate this moment even more than it did in the original,” Tracey said.
Added Zuiker: “The original franchise had you reshape your interpretation of truth through the sanctity of science, and (in CSI: Vegas) we are going to remind the audience about the sanctity of truth through science. Science has been taking a bit of a beating as of late, and we hope that before that happened, CSI would remind everybody how important science, how important truth, and how important that narrative is.”
Drawn by the idea, Zuiker came on board, along with former CSI executive producers Ann Donahue and Carol Menselsohn.
“There was never a moment that it was going to be done without Anthony’s involvement. He’s the godfather of CSI, and the father,” Littman said.
Added Stapf: “Forgive the pun, but Anthony Zuiker is in the DNA of CSI. He has a brilliant, I’d say, a twisted mind that lends itself perfectly to what CSI is; he’s a visionary, and a big thinker, and that was one of the things that always was exciting about this show. It covered ground other shows didn’t, and I think this new version does the same.”
Bringing back Petersen and Fox also proved easy. Both said they were attracted to the new science explored on CSI: Vegas. A lot of it revolves around advances in DNA research. “The labs have changed so much, and it’s actually a little frightening what we can now even tell from a blood drop, down to a suspect,” Littman said. “You still dust for fingerprints, you’ll always do that at a crime scene, but you’ll see so much new in this show and some of it is really mind-blowing.”
Petersen also loved the idea of revisiting Grissom and Sara and where they are now, while Fox also liked the “freshness and newness” of the new iteration “having Jason Tracey and Paula (Newsome], Matt (Lauria), Mandeep (Dhillon) and Mel (Rodriguez).” On the new series, Petersen and Fox also are joined by fellow original cast members Wallace Langham and Paul Guilfoyle who are reprising their roles as recurring guest stars.
“We love our new cast. I think Paula is fantastic, Matt and Mandeep are also great,” Littman said. “We love that Jorja’s going to stay on (beyond Season 1), that’s really so meaningful, and I think she’s been really enjoying her time back at the show.”
Putting CSI: Vegas on Paramount+ was briefly considered but ultimately, everyone felt the sequel should go to the series’ original home, CBS. (CBS Studios first toyed with the idea about a new CSI series for then-CBS All Access several years ago when it did not go far.)
The story of how the original CSI came is now part of TV lore. Zuiker was moonlighting as a tram driver in his native Las Vegas while trying to make a career as a screenwriter when he came up with the idea for the series watching The New Detectives on Discovery Channel. Two film scripts landed Zuiker a general meeting with Littman, a fan of medical examiner procedural Quincy, who loved Zuiker’s idea for a forensic drama. CSI was developed for ABC as JBTV was based at Disney at the time. The network ultimately passed but by then, Fox and NBC had spent their development budgets and were closed for the season buying drama projects. CBS’ Nina Tassler agreed to hear the pitch but warned Littman that she too was out of money. She liked what she heard and ended up buying CSI. “It’s the best investment ever,” Littman said.
Petersen, who was under a talent deal at CBS, gave the project a big boost by picking the CSI pilot script to star in. The show was reworked for him, with Grissom, originally a supporting character, becoming the head of the crime lab and the lead of the show.
The first time Littman got an inkling that CSI may be a hit was before it had been picked up to series, during a screening of the pilot to a test audience.
“The first time we tested the show, when we got into the focus groups, there was an explosion of conversation about it,” he said. “People didn’t want to stop talking about the show. Usually when you’re in a focus group, the moderator has to draw the people out to talk, and it was the complete opposite. He almost couldn’t control the conversation.”
Littman has theories why CSI became such a hit in the U.S. and internationally, spawning three spinoff series and the current revival, along with expansive auxiliary businesses including publishing and video and mobile gaming programs and touring science exhibits — one is a long-standing attraction in Las Vegas.
“For America when it came on the air was after OJ, and it was where we had just learned the words DNA, blood drops, these terms had just come into our lexicon when it came to a trial,” he said. “But there was a lot of cynicism that if you get the right lawyer you can just get off, so we came on and said no, if you have the right science, I don’t care who your lawyer is the science will prove it if you are guilty.
“We fit timing-wise in our country when this whole conversation was in the zeitgeist. Globally it’s a great mystery, and it’s told in a way unlike any other. It’s the visual nature of it and the visual storytelling, it transcended language, it was a language in and of itself. And every country has crime, people love solving crimes along with what’s going on TV, and we made it feel a little bit play-along because we were presenting the evidence to the audience, we had these flashbacks that would bring these moments to life, no one had told the story that way. It was cinematic, Jerry (Bruckheimer) very much wanted to bring this sensibility to TV.”
CSI’s impact reached far beyond television and pop culture. The show created the “CSI effect,” raising crime victims’ and jury members’ real-world expectations of forensic science, especially crime scene investigation and DNA testing, which is believed to have changed the way many trials are presented today, in that prosecutors are pressured to deliver more forensic evidence in court. On the flip side, the CSI effect also has extended to criminals who have grown more sophisticated, “making sure their fingerprints and forensic clues are cleaned up,” Tracey said.
Because of the worldwide popularity of the original CSI, the new installment has sparked bidding wars, generating record-breaking fees in many markets for first and multiple windows, while also boosting licensing for the entire library of the franchise. So far, CSI: Vegas has been sold in more than 50 markets, including to Global in Canada and Network 10 in Australia where it will then be available on Paramount+ in Australia.
CSI: Vegas introduces a serialized storytelling that “modern audiences have come to enjoy since the original had its run,” said Tracey, who already has a plan for Season 2. Additionally, “we are going to learn a lot more about these characters, learn more personal things about them than we ever did on the original CSI,” said Zuiker. “For new fans and for older fans, to see some of these new examples of CSI storytelling beyond ‘crime or two of the week’ is very refreshing based on where we are in our technology, in streaming, not to mention the diverse cast, which is a significant move in the right direction.”
While there will be surprises for longtime CSI fans in the new installment, for Stapf, “the surprising in CSI: Vegas will be the familiar.”
“There’s a comfort level when you enter back into that world,” he said. “We got the main title in the other day, and I got goosebumps because you hear that Who song, and somehow, it didn’t feel old-fashioned. It felt, wow, this is cool again. I was a little surprised by how hip and forward moving the show felt even though it also felt comfortable and familiar. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”