CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
Credit: Moshe Brakha

That tug you feel while watching CSI emanates from the comforting notion that the Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation squad can take a mere stray carpet fiber or a trod-upon gumdrop and build a plausible scenario for putting away the right bad guy. Now in only season 2, ”CSI” has become one of the mightiest shows on TV, besting those puny ”Survivor: Africa” punks who precede them and even hitting No. 1 in the Nielsens for the week of Dec. 3.

The reason for ”CSI”’s success is that it combines a few time-tested TV elements in a fresh way. Each episode presents a murder case and a group of lovable heroes armed with cool, high-tech gadgets who do the sleuthing and wrap things up in an hour. This season, the team seems even more like a family: grumpy but omniscient dad (William Petersen’s Gil Grissom); a wise yet hotsy mom (Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows); a tomboy daughter (Jorja Fox’s Sara Sidle); and a couple of competitive, hotheaded brothers (George Eads’ Nick Stokes and Gary Dourdan’s Warrick Brown).

Daddy Gil radiates all-knowing aplomb (gazing over a crime scene, he murmurs, ”Why do they think they can fool us?”); mommy Catherine is an ex-stripper who feels she has to work twice as hard to prove she’s got the legit crime-solving goods; the others squabble genially and genuinely, hoping to win favor with daddy. Given their case-closing rate, ”CSI” presents one of the more functional prime-time families.

That said, I think the show is best when it steers away from the personal lives of the characters. A recent episode about the wayward daughter of Grissom’s boss (the enjoyably lugubrious Paul Guilfoyle) veered dangerously into tearjerker territory. And I’d sooner watch the most graphic of ”CSI”’s patented CGI zooms up inside a cadaver’s nostril than sit through another scene of the smitten lab technician Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda) mooning over Sara. ”CSI” provides the most pleasure when it’s all business.