CSI: Miami, now in its sixth season, returns with a new episode Monday night, the first one completed since the writers’ strike ended in February. CBS’s top-rated crime drama is the most popular TV show in the world, according to international ratings, just as Baywatch was the world’s most popular show in the ’90s. Here in the U.S., A&E leans hard on the syndicated reruns, airing nine-hour marathons every Wednesday.

The two series have their similarities: beachfront locales, lots of sun, pretty girls and muscular guys, and murder-mystery storylines for those who aren’t interested in the eye candy. But while Baywatch had beefcake mannequin David Hasselhoff as its lead actor, CSI: Miami has David Caruso, whose performance makes the show endlessly watchable.

I’m not trying to argue that there are hidden depths to the carrot-topped actor’s portrayal of Horatio Caine, the police detective who heads up the Miami-Dade County police department’s forensics team, but I am defending the method in his madness.

Many people think Caruso’s a terrible actor, which just isn’t so. Instead, he’s a good actor who’s gotten lazy, although I do think he’s keeping himself entertained as he goes through the motions week after week.

He could still turn in a solid performance if he wanted to, but for now he’s content to deliver stone-faced one-liners and throw a bunch of quirks into his role as “H,” like standing perpendicular to another character when speaking to him or her and placing lots of odd pauses in his dialogue, possibly as an homage to one of his idols, Christopher Walken, or, as a friend of mine has theorized, because he can only memorize five words of dialogue at a time and then has to look off-camera to locate the next cue card.

Horatio isn’t like any of the other characters on CSI: Miami, which helps set him apart, but he’s so different that he almost seems like he’s on another show altogether.

CSI: Miami is a spin-off of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which began in 2000 and is set in Las Vegas; the second spin-off in the franchise is CSI: NY, which is in its fourth season. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the original CSI in syndication and roughly 20 minutes of CSI: NY — they both seem to get the job done in terms of their genre, but they’re missing the Caruso factor, which is crucial for TV comfort food of this sort.

Yes, comfort food, not guilty pleasure. I don’t feel guilty about watching CSI: Miami reruns on A&E, but I realize I’m gorging on empty calories. And like I said, I haven’t seen much of CSI or CSI: NY, but its lead actors — William L. Petersen and Gary Sinise, respectively — both got their start doing theatre in Chicago, so I assume that starring in a long-running TV series is more fulfilling for them in a financial sense than an artistic one. Same for Caruso and his bank account, but unlike Petersen and Sinise, his piece of the CSI franchise represents a successful comeback from a career plummet that once seemed permanent.

During the 1993-’94 season, Caruso was treated as a Very Big Deal because of his performance as Detective John Kelly on ABC’s NYPD Blue. For one thing, he had a slightly menacing, unpredictable screen presence, speaking to criminals and suspects with a quiet, tense voice that let them know Kelly wasn’t somebody they wanted to mess with. His sad eyes and complicated relationship with the ex-wife he still loved made Kelly a character you rooted for — a good guy who’d make mistakes and was therefore instantly recognizable as “one of us.” There aren’t a lot of red-headed male sex symbols in TV history, which was another reason why Caruso stood out.

Soon after the conclusion of NYPD Blue‘s first season in the spring of ’94, there were rumblings that Caruso was beginning to bite the hand that fed him. He landed the lead role in Barbet Schroeder’s remake of Kiss of Death and shot it during Blue‘s summer hiatus, but once he was offered the lead in the psychological thriller Jade later that summer, he quit the show that had made him a TV star so he could become a movie star. Or at least that’s how the story is usually told.

When Kiss of Death came out in the spring of ’95, I seem to remember Caruso saying in an Entertainment Weekly interview that he’d asked NYPD Blue‘s producers if he could take time off to film Jade; he would’ve missed a few episodes, but the show did have a big cast, so it’s not as if other characters, like Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz, couldn’t have filled the void for, say, four or five weeks. Caruso said that ABC and the show’s producers, including Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) and David Milch (Deadwood), refused to give him the time off — there were also salary demands on the negotiating table — so he left the show after the first four episodes of the second season. His replacement was Jimmy Smits, who stuck around for four years. (NYPD Blue went off the air in 2005 after 12 seasons.)

I don’t know why, but I believed Caruso. I don’t doubt that he started to believe his own hype to a certain extent, but he seemed sincere about wanting to stick with Blue. (In a 1995 New York Times article by Bernard Weinraub, Bochco was quoted as saying, “Of all the parties involved [in the negotiations], David may be the least knowledgeable. At the end of the day I know what happened.” However, Weinraub also wrote that Caruso “views television as a boot camp for films, and doesn’t see himself returning.”) And when CSI: Miami premiered in 2002 and Caruso said in interviews that he’d had almost a decade out of the spotlight to think about the mistake he made by leaving NYPD Blue to do Jade, which bombed in the fall of ’95, he seemed just as sincere.

Some may argue that Caruso was young and naive when he left NYPD Blue after only 26 episodes, but he was already in his late 30s by that time, having appeared in films like An Officer and a Gentleman and First Blood as far back as 1982, as well as giving noteworthy performances in King of New York (costarring Christopher Walken and Sugar Water mainstay Wesley Snipes) in 1990 and Mad Dog and Glory in ’93. I haven’t seen Mad Dog and Glory in a long time, but I do remember Caruso holding his own rather easily in a one-on-one scene with Robert De Niro.

Like John Travolta on Welcome Back, Kotter or Bruce Willis on Moonlighting, Caruso’s star wattage was big enough for the big screen, but neither Travolta nor Willis left the shows that made them stars before they’d paid their dues. Similarly, Caruso didn’t have a Saturday Night Fever or a Die Hard waiting to launch him into a full-time career as a movie star. His career is more like that of Farrah Fawcett’s — she left Charlie’s Angels in 1977 after one season and watched her TV heat burn out quickly in films like Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978) and Sunburn (1979).

Perhaps Caruso just listened to bad advice, but whatever the case, his career as a leading man in movies was over by the end of 1995. Many people forget that he returned to series television in the fall of ’97 with Michael Hayes, a legal drama with a well-received pilot episode. It failed to revive Caruso’s career, however, and was canceled after one season.

He then appeared alongside Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan in Taylor Hackford’s 2000 film Proof of Life (Hackford had previously directed Caruso in An Officer and a Gentleman) and in the horror film Session 9 (2001), and finally, in the fall of ’02, he was playing a cop on the small screen again in CSI: Miami.

I don’t know whose idea it was to have Caruso anchor the spin-off of one of the most popular shows on TV, but it probably raised some eyebrows considering his lack of success in both TV and film after he left NYPD Blue. Maybe it was CSI executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the 1984 film Thief of Hearts, which costarred Caruso; he’s made enough smart, money-making choices in his time that people should just nod their heads in agreement no matter what he says. Maybe he remembered that Caruso was a good actor who’d simply made some bad decisions in a very public way and had unfairly paid the price for too many years. Or maybe a CBS janitor said, “That red-headed dude from NYPD Blue was the best cop I ever saw on TV,” and somebody actually listened. Whatever the case, the casting paid off, even if Caruso still has his detractors.

In the last few months I saw a rerun on A&E of one of CSI: Miami‘s first episodes. Ever since I discovered the show last year and became fascinated with Caruso’s oddball performance as Horatio Caine, I wondered if it’d always been that way. An actor’s performance obviously evolves on a TV show the longer it runs, just as his or her character evolves. As it turns out, Horatio in early episodes is similar to John Kelly on NYPD Blue: quiet and tense, but not robotic (CSI costar Eva LaRue said on E!’s Chelsea Lately that Caruso brings in the “Terminator audience” with his quips and signature sunglasses) or ghostlike, as he is now. He even smiles occasionally, and in one scene I swear he almost laughed.

Caruso seems to make Horatio his own man and less like John Kelly around the second season, but I haven’t seen a lot of episodes — this is all guesswork on my part. Then around the third or fourth season, Caruso began showing his age: baggier eyes, a heavier frame, more noticeable jowls, etc. I’m not saying the change in appearance wasn’t natural — Caruso turned 50 in 2006 — but he suddenly looked much different.

And once he started looking older, he started making his character weirder. Horatio talks to everyone, even love interests, while standing at that 90-degree angle and lowering his head when he speaks, almost as if he’s trying to make them concentrate on his posture so much that they’ll let slip some crucial piece of information, foiled by a cop who looks like he’s slowly recovering from back surgery.

CSI: Miami started out as a fairly normal-looking crime drama, but over the years the set design, costume design, and lighting design have gotten out of hand. It’s almost like a live-action cartoon now, with crime-lab equipment straight out of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, cinematography that makes the interrogation-room scenes look like they’ve been filtered “through a pack of LifeSavers,” as a friend said, and detectives who are supposed to be taken seriously even when they’re wearing orange sweaters and beige sports jackets. I realize Miami Vice introduced cops wearing pastels in the ’80s, but it had nothing on CSI: Miami‘s fashion sense.

The last new episode aired back in January and introduced Elizabeth Berkley as the mother of Horatio’s long-lost son. Interesting casting once again, as it paired up the star of Jade with the star of Showgirls, another big-screen bomb from the fall of ’95, though that film’s reputation has been salvaged in the last few years by Paul Verhoeven enthusiasts. Berkley’s career, however, never recovered. To be honest, she’s terrible in Showgirls, but unlike Caruso when he did Jade, she really was young and (seemingly) naive at the time. Luckily, on CSI: Miami she blends into the overall cartoonish atmosphere with ease.

And that’s the thing — since the show has become more and more garish and absurd in order to keep its particular brand of comfort food from going stale, it follows that Caruso would decide at a certain point to join the fun, albeit in his own peculiar style. I have a feeling he’s in on the joke all the way, and anyone who thinks he’s a terrible actor just doesn’t get the joke.

This isn’t to say, however, that I prefer Caruso 2.0 over the original model. As Horatio Caine, all the energy and unpredictability he had as John Kelly is long gone, which is somewhat sad. (Think of CSI: Miami as the “fat Elvis” portion of Caruso’s career — still entertaining but harder to defend.) In fact, he’s the 21st century’s answer to Jack Lord, the star of Hawaii Five-O, another long-running CBS crime drama that featured lots of sun, sand, murder, and wonderfully bad dialogue, e.g. “I’ve got a hunch that what we’ve uncovered so far is just the tip of a very dirty iceberg” and “You know, your husband’s a great big beautiful dude, but they don’t play the same game. They’re little-bitty snakes, but they run around with big guns that go bang-bang and they kill people!”

Like NYPD Blue, Hawaii Five-O ran for 12 seasons (1968-’80), and like Dennis Franz, Jack Lord remained with the show for its entire run, playing impressively coiffed supercop Steve McGarrett. But like Caruso as of 2002, once Lord started doing Hawaii Five-O, he didn’t act in any movies on the side. It’s possible Caruso hasn’t been offered any film roles since CSI: Miami became a hit, or he just feels he learned his lesson with the JadeNYPD Blue fiasco and doesn’t want to do anything to screw up his second chance. I can’t say I blame him.

Like Caruso, Lord can sometimes give off the impression that he’s reading from cue cards, and in the final few seasons of Five-O he doesn’t cover his tracks very well — watch his eyes in the 1978 episode “Small Potatoes” move from left to right as he reads his lines while looking past the actors right in front of him. Lord reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s in his later years, so the cue cards may have been an early indication of memory loss, but the punishing schedule of TV production — shooting, say, eight pages of a script per day for a one-hour episode as opposed to two pages a day for a two-hour feature film — must make dialogue memorization a constant burden for any actor.

Caruso has a home in Miami, where exterior shots of CSI: Miami are filmed; Lord lived in Hawaii during and after Hawaii Five-O‘s dozen years on the air (he died in 1998). Maybe Caruso’s content to be able to live and work, at least part-time, in a city by the sea, earning a healthy paycheck and saving up for his kids’ college fund.

Or maybe he’s just happy that he was able to make any kind of comeback in his profession — if not in movies, then at least in a successful TV series that people around the world have come to love, even if it’s merely comfort food. The flame-haired lawman’s acting flame may be almost out, but he entertains me nonetheless. In the end, the second coming of the Lord — the Jack Lord — has been worth the wait.

About the Author

Robert Cass

Robert Cass lives in Chicago. For Popdose he's written under the Sugar Water, Bootleg City, and Box Office Flashback banners and collaborated on the series 'Face Time with Jeff Giles and Mike Heyliger.

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