Saturday, Dec. 23, 2000 | 11:49 a.m.
VALENCIA, Calif. -- Harsh sunlight burst through the ceiling of a burned-out house, turning the "CSI" criminalists into shadows against the charred walls. Smoke particles hung in the air but, three months after an arson, the crime scene appeared cold.
"There's nothing left, Gris," Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) said to his boss, Gil Grissom.
"More than you think," the cerebral Grissom (William Petersen) responded, already rooting out clues.
"More than you think" might as well be the slogan for CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," which is set in Las Vegas. The show drew scant attention before its premiere but has emerged as TV's top-rated new drama, getting about 15 million viewers per week, more than its heavily promoted lead-in, "The Fugitive."
The Friday sleeper has turned forensic science -- the evidence collection and examination that traditionally have served as background on police shows -- into prime time's hot new occupation.
During a set shooting last week, actors and producers expressed surprise -- not with their success, but with the speed of it.
"The audience was looking for something new," says Petersen, whose Grissom leads a graveyard shift of Las Vegas criminalists, or forensic investigators. But "I don't think anybody expected this would happen."
"Puzzle-solving is part of the appeal. The audience feels like they're a part of it," says Marg Helgenberger, whose Catherine Willows has a determined, street-savvy way that rivals Grissom's scientific expertise.
Viewers have responded to the freshness of "CSI" in a TV season in which attention was heaped on returning stars and conventional themes, David Marans, research director at MindShare, a media company, says.
"There is an audience for cutting-edge, unusual, provocative drama, and CBS came up with the show," Marans says, noting that Fox's "The X-Files," another surprise hit, also started at 9 p.m. Friday.
Those involved with the show say viewers keep coming back for investigations that invite comparisons to "Law & Order;" competent yet flawed characters; sardonic references ("mile-high club") that Marans says make it seem like "a Fox show with a slightly older cast"; and a moody, stylized look.