Miami Heat

Whoever coined the phrase "hotter than hell" must have visited the Everglades in July. It's about 96 degrees on this oppressive morning, with 110 percent humidity because some sadistic guys are walking around pumping extra moisture into the air. They're setting up for an episode of "CSI: Miami" about a plane crash on a misty glades day. There's already a tailfin sticking out of the marshy water, and a mannequin sits nearby strapped in an airplane seat. If only the cast weren't having so much trouble staying in the upright and locked position. Between takes, stars David Caruso and Kim Delaney stand under sun-shielding umbrellas while a small army of makeup people blot their faces, fan their underarms--you'd be surprised the places you sweat, especially when you're wearing business suits and latex gloves. "My hands got so hot, I had pink nail polish on and it turned grayish yellow," says Emily Procter, who plays a ballistics expert. "At one point, I lifted up a piece of evidence and it was as if you poured water in my glove."

Now this is what you'd call a hot show. "CSI: Miami" debuts this week as the most-anticipated new offering of the fall season. It's a spinoff of "CSI," the hip Vegas program about crime-scene investigators that became TV's No. 1 drama after only two years on the air. That kind of pedigree brings extra-large expectations--just ask George Clooney about "Batman"--and for all it's got going, "CSI: Miami" is hardly a sure thing. How closely should the spinoff resemble the original? Too close, and fans might get bored. Not close enough, and they could feel alienated. Only one drama--"Law & Order"--has attempted to clone itself in recent years, and that show waited until the original had cemented itself in place for nine seasons before reproducing. "It's a little nerve-racking to talk about a spinoff. It's a ton of work," says CBS president Leslie Moonves. "We feel 'CSI: Miami' can stand by itself. It's its own drama."

Well, yes and no. There's no question that the new show looks different. With the sun and the surf as its backdrop, "CSI: Miami" has a lighter feel--day to those sinister Vegas nights. There aren't those mega-gross close-ups of body parts that have become a "CSI" trademark. Overall, the Miami cast feels looser than their counterparts on the original. The resident coroner (Khandi Alexander) likes to talk to the bodies. Caruso's Horatio Caine, as you can guess from his overly literary name, is more a man of action than William Petersen's Grissom. Coiled and intense, he relies on instinct as much as science to solve crimes. Delaney's Megan Donner arrives with more backstory--her husband died and she lost her position to Horatio--than you've ever seen on the impersonal Vegas version. "Each individual character is more extroverted, more of the world. They have lives," says executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. "When we went home with Billy Petersen, it was a huge thing. We did it once, and we learned he got migraines."

That said, there is something familiar about "CSI: Miami," maybe too familiar. The structure is the same--a murder in the first three minutes followed by mountains of way-cool forensic evidence resulting in various twists and turns before the murderer is finally caught. Both ensembles are the exact same size, and they share a similar group dynamic: the tough-guy boss, his fortysomething lieutenant, the young studs sparring for recognition, the hot chick. In fact, after the first "CSI: Miami" episode, the differences between the --shows feel largely cosmetic, like when they switched the Darrins on "Bewitched" and hoped no one would notice. "I warned the producers: it ain't broke," says Moonves. "It's the No. 1 drama on television. Don't get too far away from what makes people love this show." It's a measure of the producers' ambivalence that, as of last week, they hadn't decided whether to reuse the "CSI" theme song--The Who's "Who Are You?"--or try something new. "It's not the way I do spinoffs. We make the shows very different," says "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf. "But I think the show is going to work, especially with Caruso."

Really? Talent aside--and Caruso is hands down the best thing about "CSI: Miami"--he's hardly the first guy you'd hire to head an expensive new show. Ever since he stormed off "NYPD Blue" back in 1994 to pursue a movie career, Caruso has been box-office poison. None of his movies ("Jade," "Kiss of Death") were hits. Neither was his 1997 TV comeback, "Michael Hayes." "I had concerns in the very beginning. I'd heard about what happened," "CSI" creator Anthony Zuiker says about Caruso's bad-boy reputation. To his enormous credit, Caruso is the first one to take the blame. "The situation was mishandled by me," he says. "Out of ignorance and being green on a lot of levels, the situation got away from me." That said, he's enormously grateful for another chance. "When you develop a public trust with an audience and you violate it, it's difficult to rebuild," he says. "These people have allowed me to participate in 'CSI,' to work with me and rebuild the trust while we build this new world. That's a big deal for someone like me."

Not everyone is so thrilled about the show's exercising its manifest destiny. Some of the original cast members complained that the spinoff would dilute their own audience and, even worse, diminish their personal value. "If 'CSI: Miami' works as well as 'CSI,' it poses the question of whether it's the show, rather than the actors, that make it successful," says someone close to the show. If "CSI" does prove to be cast-proof, there will be no stopping it. "I'm sure there will be days when I'll be dying to do it again, but I think it would be a mistake to have another 'CSI' on next year," says Moonves. "You don't want this to become 'Millionaire'." That said, the producers are ready to expand the franchise. Where next? New Orleans? Honolulu? "There's a lot of cold-weather forensics," says Mendelsohn. "We've never been able to use footprints in the snow." Hear that, Fargo?

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