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'CSI: Miami' is a success any way you examine it

NEW YORK — In the matter of CBS' "Crime Scene Investigation" triumph, here are some numbers to ponder:

No. 1: the season-to-date rank for "CSI," which not only unseats past champs "ER" and "Friends" but has boosted its audience by 29 percent from a year ago.

No. 1: the rank among new fall shows seized by its spin-off, "CSI: Miami."

No. 60: the grade of sun block worn by that show's star, David Caruso, the famously fair-skinned actor who walked away from "NYPD Blue" a decade ago and is now savoring his TV comeback in the Florida sun.

"It works great," says Caruso, who coincidentally lives in Miami, looking pleasantly pale and not a bit burned. "It saves my life every day."

The original "CSI" surprised everyone when it became the sleeper hit of the 2000-01 season. When "CSI: Miami" premiered this fall to excellent reviews and spectacular ratings, nobody blinked.

Its expected success has sealed the status of the CSI franchise's co-creators, Ann Donahue, Carol Mendelsohn and Anthony Zuiker, as one of TV's hottest producing teams.

And it just may have redeemed Caruso after years in career purgatory.

Caruso plays chief forensic investigator Horatio Caine who, like his Las Vegas-based "CSI" counterpart, Gil Grissom, leads a team of scientific sleuths as they analyze blood, fiber and random body parts to discover how a murder went down — and who did it.

Airing Monday at 9 p.m. MT, "CSI: Miami" had the most-watched September drama debut since "ER" in 1994, with an audience of nearly 23 million. It has since put the squeeze on time-slot rival "Crossing Jordan," a second-year NBC drama about a sexy, smart Boston medical examiner.

If shows like "Crossing Jordan" could crib from the "CSI" formula of brainy cops and tell-tale corpses, why shouldn't "CSI" feed the craze with an authorized spin-off?

That was the plan devised by CBS boss Leslie Moonves last January as he cast an envious eye on another NBC show, "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" — the third in the "Law & Order" drama line.

But how to supplement the quirky "CSI" with anything but a rip-off?

Fans delight in how "CSI" (Thursday nights at 8 p.m.) lets them have their whodunit both ways. A mystery is methodically unraveled by lab geeks in rubber gloves. But, without warning, tidy science erupts into gross theatrics — including those flash "fly-throughs," when the camera plunges into a bloody bullet wound or careens through a ruptured digestive tract.

The cast includes Jorja Fox, George Eads and Gary Dourdan along with fetching Marg Helgenberger and William Petersen as the nerdy hunk Gil Grissom, who, ruled by clinical detachment, is given to morbid quips at the murder scene. ("I think we've got a little murder here," he sized up a killing at a dwarfs' convention.)

All in all, "CSI" seemed one-of-a-kind.

Not true, says Zuiker. "The difference in cities changes the storytelling," he says.

"Leslie said, 'Pick a city,' " recalls Donahue. Philadelphia? Chicago? "Leslie said no."

When Miami got the nod, Donahue and her partners realized that "the heartbeat of the city would dictate the show." Where "CSI" was arid, nocturnal and neon-lit, "CSI: Miami" would be balmy, brooding and as orange as the sun.

Emily Procter (the Southern belle Republican on "The West Wing") was signed. Then Rory Cochrane, Adam Rodriguez and Khandi Alexander.

But just days before the scheduled start to film the "CSI" season finale — which was set in Miami to introduce the spinoff — there was still no Caine.

Then Caruso got a phone call.

"Grissom is analytical. He enjoys figuring out mysteries," says Mendelsohn. "Caine wants to get the bad guy. That gives a different tone to the entire show, and David Caruso had the right urgency."

Caruso and his wife, Margaret, a former flight attendant he married in 1996, were already happily residing in Miami.

"A weird irony," says the 46-year-old native New Yorker, who made his first trip to South Florida to film a 1997 TV movie, "Elmore Leonard's Gold Coast."

"We were really knocked out," he says, and before long he and Margaret had made their home in South Beach and partnered with friends in a clothing boutique.

Of course, much of the Miami-set series, like "CSI," is shot around Los Angeles. Caruso is OK with that, but is thrilled with the eye-popping Miami-area location footage. "It's helping create who and what we are," he raves.

During a recent visit to New York, the red-haired actor — known for searing, sometimes combustible performances — seems affable, open, even light-hearted.

He speaks with pride about his show, and doles out credit in every direction: co-stars, crew, the Donahue-Mendelsohn-Zuiker triumverate, the original "CSI."

Then, without prompting, he addresses the indiscretion for which, until now, no statute of limitations has seemed to apply: his defection eight years ago from the hit drama that launched him, just a few episodes into its second season.

The high-profile movies that Caruso left "NYPD Blue" to make flopped, and once that box-office verdict was handed down, he received the maximum sentence from the industry and public alike.

"I lost everything, I was at zero," he recalls matter-of-factly. "And it's easy to connect that to a sense of death: 'I'm gonna perish if I lose this career.' But while that is devastating when it's happening, you get this gift, this pearl of knowledge: You DON'T die."

Caruso might have been pardoned in 1997 if his initial comeback bid had been in a series that caught on. But the swift demise of crime drama "Michael Hayes" obscured the fact that not only was Caruso's on-screen performance up to snuff, but no reports of his off-screen performance squared with the "difficult" image that had dogged him since "NYPD Blue."

CBS exec Moonves, who had taken a chance on Caruso for "Michael Hayes," recommended him to the "CSI" producers.

In May, Moonves officially announced "CSI: Miami" to advertisers at the network's annual fall-season "upfront" presentation at Carnegie Hall. Savoring the memory, Zuiker says, "I know we could have touched the clouds."

But a few weeks later, storm clouds were gathering.

As production commenced in July on "CSI: Miami," something seemed to be missing.

"We felt the show needed a stronger female presence to work in conflict with Caine," Zuiker says. That meant a new character and another big casting decision made under the gun.

After Sela Ward turned down their offer, Kim Delaney, whose lawyer drama "Philly" had failed to get a second-season pickup from ABC, signed on for the role of Megan Donner, described as a DNA specialist "whose trust in science creates conflict with Caine, who relies more on gut instinct."

Meanwhile, there was real-life conflict afoot, as "CSI" stars fumed over "CSI: Miami."

In a Chicago Sun-Times story, Petersen called the spinoff premature and voiced concern that it would stretch Donahue, Mendelsohn and Zuiker too thin. "If our show starts to suffer," he warned, "I'll go beserk."

Helgenberger, interviewed on NBC's Emmy pre-show in September, told Matt Lauer, "As far as I'm concerned, there's only one 'CSI,' and that's the one nominated tonight."

Such outbursts reflect "the normal growing pains of a show and the normal conflicts of success," says Zuiker, hastening to add, "a large part of our success has to do with Billy Petersen and Marg, and they have every right to be territorial."

Apparently, nerves were calmed with conciliatory talk and pay hikes (the Sun-Times reported the per-episode salaries of Helgenberger and Petersen were doubled to $150,000 and roughly $250,000, respectively).

And Zuiker and his partners remain focused on "CSI." Another team produces the spinoff under their diminishing supervision, and fine-tunes its personality.

"Those producers are finding what the show is, through us," says Zuiker, reckoning that "CSI: Miami" will take as much as 18 months "to find its voice.

"It will only be a great show when we step off," he declares. But a smash variation on the "CSI" theme isn't such a bad way to start.