Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Time Crossover

David Caruso of CSI Miami and Gary Sinise of CSI New York.

. It's sweeps week and America's most lucrative television franchise -- the CSI Family -- is cross-pollinating two of its shows to maximize viewership. Last night, CSI Miami began the manhunt for a Ted Bundy-like serial killer who was arrested in New York but escaped in Florida. Obviously, this meant that stars David Caruso and Gary Sinise would be on the case through midweek, trading closeups and one-liners on each other's shows. It's called a crossover, and for whatever reason it does boost ratings.

It's all great fun and there's no big point here, but younger viewers may be unaware that there's more than one kind of crossover in process. Back in the late 50s and early 60s, there was another multi-show franchise -- the first -- fathered by a hip private eye production called 77 Sunset Strip. According to

Roy Huggins' private eye STUART BAILEY was originally (and intentionally) quite Chandleresque, trudging through the mean streets of Los Angeles alone, carrying the weight of the world along with him. He gained a fluency in foreign languages, a past as a government agent, a slick wardrobe, a slick office, and a partner, JEFF SPENCER, when Huggins adapted him for television's 77 SUNSET STRIP, TV's first hour-long private eye show and -- simply put -- one of the the most influential private eye shows in history.

Spencer was also a former government agent, and a non-practising attorney. They worked out of swank digs at 77 Sunset Strip, next door to Dino's Restaurant, where French secretary SUZANNE handled the phones. Hanging around for comic relief were racetrack tout Roscoe, and hair-combing, Dino parking lot attendant and beatnik P.I. wanna-be KOOKIE. Comb sales soared. So much for Huggin's hopes for a straight P.I. series. Hardboiled drama was out and gimmicks were in.

So far, you may be thinking this doesn't seem much like the CSI phenomenon, but there's more. Much more:

(T)he Warner Brothers hit factory started churning out copy cat versions of the show, all following the formula of two handsome male leads, a wanna-be, a pretty (but slightly ditzy) secretary, and a buffoon, with William Orr, Warner Brothers' first television producer, at the controls. Hawaiian Eye , Bourbon Street Beat, and Surfside Six all appeared within the next year or so...

In fact, the shows were even more inbred than the above description suggests. Compare these summaries:

HAWAIIAN EYE: Set in Honolulu, it featured the exploits of handsome (natch!) private eyes TOM LOPAKA (Robert Conrad) and TRACY STEELE (Anthony Eisley), who worked out of a poolside office at the ritzy Hawaiian Village Hotel. Adding comic relief were Cricket, a ditzy nightclub singer/photographer (played by Connie Stevens), and Kim, a ukulele-playing local cabbie.

BOURBON STREET BEAT: Big Easy private eye CAL CALHOUN, a lanky, easy-going ex-bayou cop, takes on a junior partner, REX RANDOLPH, a young, yuppie-ish Ivy Leaguer from one of New Orlean's "best" families. Together they run 'Randolph and Calhoun Special Services" next to The Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter. Of course, no 77 clone would be complete without an attractive secretary holding down the fort, a trainee gumshoe, a buffoon for comic relief, and some sort of "hip" gimmick," like Kookie's comb. In Bourbon's case, the secretary was Melody Lee Mercer, and the rookie was Texas rich kid KENNY MADISON, who was working his way through law school by doing part-time PI work. The buffoon chores were ably handled by local jazzman Billy the Baron. Sometimes popping up was Billy's singer Lusti Weather.

SURFSIDE SIX: The hook...was that the detectives, DAVE THORNE, KEN MADISON and SANDY WINFIELD, worked out of a houseboat in Miami Beach, across from the Fountainbleau Hotel on Miami Beach. The quirky babe character quota was filled next boat neighbour Daphne Dutton, an eccentric socialite, and nightclub entertainer Cha Cha who performed in the hotel's Boom Boom Room.

Are you starting to get a glimmer of CSI's DNA? Now consider this:

They did some crossovers on these private eye shows...

(O)n Hawaiian Eye... Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Stu Bailey appeared in the first episode, "Malihini Holiday" and with co-star Roger Smith as Jeff Spencer in "I Wed Three Wives."

Richard Long appeared as Rex Randolph from Bourbon Street Beat and 77 Sunset Strip in "Swan Song for a Hero.".

The Hawaiian Eye cast went to LA to 77 Sunset Strip as well: Robert Conrad as Tom Lopaka in "Only Zeroes Count" and "Who Killed Cock Robin?"

The Surfside 6 crowd showed up [at 77] too: Troy Donahue as Sandy Winfield and Van Williams as Ken Madison in "The Hot Tamale Caper"

And the LA dectectives went to Miami to Surfside Six: Edd Byrnes as Kookie Kookson and Roger Smith as Jeff Spencer in "Love Song for a Deadly Redhead"

We all know that the CSI franchise is a lot more serious than the old "77" clones. William Petersen, David Caruso, and Gary Sinise almost never smile, except ruefully, rarely chase women they aren't trying to put on death row, and their partners are no longer exclusively male because the secretaries and cabaret singers have been promoted to professional status, which means they don't smile either.

We said there was no big point to all this, but there are a couple of ironies we couldn't help thinking about. The old clones were shot in black and white, while the CSIs are shown in high-definition color, but it's the latter shows that are dark and film-noirish with all those broken, mangled corpses they couldn't have shown in the 60s if they'd wanted to. And they probably didn't want to, because they thought we'd rather see suave well-dressed men and beautiful girls leaping in and out of convertibles in exotic locales. Did we mention convertibles? All the Sunset Strip shows had convertibles as co-stars.

1959 Mercury Parklane Convertible
used in the television show "77 Sunset Strip"

Which leads us to another irony. Despite the huge difference in atmosphere, the CSIs really do make use of quite a lot of the Sunset Strip conventions. The glamorous settings are much the same: Las Vegas, Miami, and New York as opposed to L.A., Hawaii, New Orleans, and Miami Beach. The two non-New York CSIs also feature plenty of convertibles, although they're generally props in crime scenes rather than love scenes. Last night's show had a snappy yellow Mustang ragtop:

The happy top-down ride ended, of course, with the murder of all four passengers, including two pretty girls whom Stuart Bailey and Jeff Spencer would have saved and kissed in the old days.

It's not that we're pining for the relative innocence of the 1960s. It's that we're wondering why there are so many apparent references to the old shows, as if we're being served up a deliberate subliminal message about the decline of American life. There are still two leads, and most shows unravel two cases. The part of the buffoon has been preserved but imbued with malice, generally as a stupid detective or ambitious bureaucrat (e.g., CSI's Eckley). Even the Cricket Blake/Lusti Weather/Cha Cha role is still on the scene in the character of CSI's Catherine Willows, the former showgirl/stripper who has advanced to the position of grim single-mom and night supervisor of forensics.

All the original elements are present, but they're grimmer, bloodier, and more depressing. What are we supposed to take from that -- particularly in the context of the astonishing popularity of these shows? We can't help wishing that just one of the old conventions had been carried over intact to provide us with a single ray of right in the darkness. But.... hmmmm... come to think of it, there is one direct steal from the old shows that really is almost the same.

What, you ask? It's the Kookie Factor. And it's not a small one, either. The initial burst of popularity for 77 Sunset Strip was fuelled by the character Kookie played by Edd Byrnes. In the early episodes he parked cars, combed his fashionably greased hair, and spoke in a hip slang the mature stars had trouble understanding. Later, he joined the big boys as a private eye. As it turns out, all three CSIs also have Kookie in the cast. For example, here's the official description of the role played by Eric Szmanda in the original CSI.

Eric Szmanda plays Greg Sanders, the kooky lab technician on C.S.I. Eric is young, and a newcomer to the business, his first role being in 1998 in the t.v. series, The Net. Born in Wisconsin, Eric studied at Carroll College in the state, before coming out to Hollywood to become a full time actor. His role in C.S.I. has given him a lot of exposure, and you're sure to see him a lot more. His role has been made permanent on C.S.I. so he's not going anywhere for a while.

And here is the Kookie family tree:

"Kookie" Edd Byrnes

"Kookie" Eric (LV), "Kookie" Carmine (NY), and "Kookie" Jonathan (Miami)

Youth, hip (hop) slang, fashionably (spiky) greased hair, and -- frankly -- virtually identical faces. Maybe we're being allowed to have some hope after all, hope that youth will somehow prevail even in the face of the deadly entropy that is transmuting all the old sunshine and glamor into the fluorescent glare of a morgue table.

Keep watching. You never know. Maybe one day Peterson, Caruso, and Sinise will all show up together on a bright Miami day and leap smiling into a convertible to go kiss some pretty girls. Maybe Catherine Willows will burst into song at Caesar's Palace while Kookies II, III, and IV accompany her on the bongo drums. Maybe.. oh well.. anyone can dream.


Here's a video clip of the old Sunset Strip show. And here are some informational sites --sunset 1, sunset 2, sunset 3, sunset 4, sunset 5, sunset 6, sunset 7, eye, bourbon, surfside.

Coincidence or Synchronicity? The producers of Bourbon Street Beat actually purchased the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans that was supposed to be the neighbor of the show's detective agency. And wasn't it the Old Absinthe House where Robert Davis was beaten by New Orleans police? Here's a link to the ABC interview with Davis (click on the "video" icon for the interview clip, which includes footage of the incident and the name of the bar). Is the Jungian collective unconscious trying to tell us something? Nah.

UPDATE. Welcome to InstaPundit readers (thanks, Glenn); feel free to poke around on the main page, in our archives, and at our affiliated site We're an equal opportunity offender.

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