''C.S.I.'' -- Behind the scenes of CBS' morbidly fascinating ''Crime Scene Investigation'' show

By Mike Flaherty
Updated November 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Quincy certainly never had it this good. William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger, the stars of CBS’ new autopsy drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — one of the few fledgling hits of the fall season — are doing location shoots in many-splendored Las Vegas. Right now, Helgenberger’s sitting stageside in a topless joint, where her character, the fetching and brainy Catherine Willows, is investigating the rape of one of the club’s resident rump-shakers. Later on, Petersen (who plays forensic genius Gil Grissom) negotiates some curves of his own — shooting a scene on the heart-stopping roller coaster at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino.

Strippers and roller coasters? No wonder that Fugitive dude is currently eating CSI‘s fingerprint dust. That’s right: When CSI debuted on Oct. 6, it immediately hit the Nielsen jackpot. Attracting a staggering 17.3 million viewers, it won its 9 p.m. time slot, outrated its highly touted, historically titled lead-in, The Fugitive, and quickly became the highest-ranked new drama of the season. (Need more perspective? The episode even outdrew The West Wing‘s fall 1999 bow by a cool half million viewers.) Numbers like those shocked everyone associated with the series. Well, almost everyone. ”Don’t ask me why,” says Helgenberger, who won a 1990 supporting actress Emmy for China Beach and popped up in last year’s Erin Brockovich. ”I just believed in the show. I knew it was innovative and different and provocative.”

She’s got a point. Take the pilot’s case of the poisonous prostitutes, which was based on a real-life scam perpetrated by a group of Vegas hookers who smeared their breasts with a powerful sedative in order to knock out — and then rip off — their unsuspecting johns. Another subplot saw a suspect collared thanks to some telltale striations on a dislodged toenail. And then there are the maggots. ”We have an episode coming up where we find a guy dead, laying in the desert, and he’s been all bleached — everything’s been sucked out of him by the sun and the weather,” says Petersen, star of the 1986 film Manhunter and currently in The Contender. ”But you can analyze the maggots living inside him, and they’ll retain whatever he had in his system. It’s fascinating — they’re like refrigerators.”

Says creator-coexecutive producer Anthony Zuiker: ”The hero [of the show] is the evidence. A toenail, a hair follicle, a teardrop, those kinds of things. It’s very cool.” Adds Petersen: ”The police chase the lie, the crime-scene analysts chase the truth. Ultimately, these are the guys who are going to give closure to the world. It’s not going to be the homicide guys; they’re going to be dinosaurs.”

Zuiker drew his inspiration for CSI from such basic-cable reality-TV potboilers as Discovery Channel’s evidence-obsessed The New Detectives and The FBI Files. His wife is a devoted fan of the shows and eventually got him enthralled with the state-of-the-art forensic procedures on display. For hands-on research, Zuiker, a Las Vegas native, spent five weeks riding along on the graveyard shift of the city’s CSI unit (”a fascinating group of characters who work in this very dark and gruesome industry,” he says). In fact, Petersen’s Grissom, the leader of the show’s rubber-gloved squad, is modeled after a real-life Vegas counterpart, one Daniel Holstein. ”He keeps ant farms in his office, he has pig’s blood in Chinese to-go containers in his refrigerator, he goes home and practices blood-spatter analysis,” says Zuiker. ”I was, like, who is this fascinating, crazy guy?”