Ah, Miami: the town where bare-breasted women take advantage of a brutally hot July day to sunbathe on South Beach. But an hour west, on the swampy Everglades set of CSI: Miami, you’re more likely to find a headless torso than a topless one. Foam body parts, meant to be human remnants of an airplane crash, lie on a table in a plastic medical-examiner’s tent. As the crime-scene unit, led by Horatio Caine (David Caruso), searches the area for clues to help explain the unhappy landing, the jet’s tail juts out of the insect-infested water — which is also inhabited by real alligators.

”I had visions of the beach,” costar Kim Delaney recalls of her decision to do the Sunshine State series. ”I’d never been to the Everglades, and they say July-August is the worst time, because there’s no air — just heat, mosquitoes, and alligators.” The perma-pale Caruso shares his method of dealing with the harsh elements: ”I just go to a more Zen place and don’t focus on it. And I drink a lot of water.”

It’s this kind of tropical locale that producers are hoping will make CSI: Miami feel vastly different from its Las Vegas-set predecessor. ”CSI is a night show that takes place primarily on the graveyard shift,” says cocreator Anthony Zuiker. ”In Miami, it’s pretty much a day show.” (Still, Caine and his crew will deal with some pretty dark stuff: In one episode, a bullet-riddled body is discovered inside a shark.)

They’ll also handle crimes differently, since Miami’s CSIs are fully commissioned police officers who can make arrests, unlike in Vegas, where Gil Grissom (William Petersen) and his team are forensics experts first and foremost. ”Grissom’s all science, no gut,” says Zuiker. ”Horatio Caine is all gut — and he hopes the science confirms it.”

But he’s not all work and no play. As opposed to Grissom’s ascetic gang, ”our characters on Miami actually have lives outside of work,” says Zuiker (the cast also includes The West Wing’s Emily Procter, The Corner’s Khandi Alexander, Roswell’s Adam Rodriguez, and Dazed and Confused’s Rory Cochrane). Not that you’ll see much of their off-duty exploits, but you’ll at least hear about them. ”Once you go home with a character, you’re in trouble,” says cocreator Ann Donahue. ”We want to see them deal with their personal lives on the job.”

For instance, watch for the professional tension between Caruso’s freshly promoted supervisor Caine and Delaney’s recently demoted widow Megan Donner to turn sexual. But ”you never want to do that too quickly,” warns Delaney. ”If you do, then you’re there and done, and where do you go?”

Caruso created some professional tension of his own on the set of NYPD Blue, which he exited amid a firestorm of controversy in 1994 (Delaney coincidentally joined the show the next year). Nearly a decade later, he’s gained perspective. ”When I left the show, there was a violation of public trust,” he says, acknowledging fans’ sense of betrayal. ”In order to reestablish that trust, there’s going to be an ongoing repair.” His first attempt at a TV comeback, the CBS legal drama Michael Hayes (on which Caruso was an exec producer), died in 1998 after one season. ”This is a much less pressurized situation,” Caruso says. ”I’m just a character on the show, which is nice.”

Nice is apparently the operative word in Caruso’s life these days. He bends over backward to avoid diva-like behavior on the Everglades set — posing for snapshots with real-life Miami cops, sheepishly explaining to the episode’s writer why he added a line, effusively thanking his assistant for shielding him from the blinding sun with an umbrella. ”I’ve learned the job is not just your performance,” he says. ”I’ve had plenty of opportunities — and a lot of unemployment — to clarify what my responsibilities are.”

Delaney’s late addition to the Miami cast threatened to create a new controversy. All the other regulars, including Procter (as Southern-belle ballistics expert Calleigh Duquesne) and Alexander (as coroner Alexx Woods), were introduced on a CSI episode last season, but CBS felt Caruso needed a stronger female counterpart, a la the original show’s Marg Helgenberger. When Delaney became available after the cancellation of her ABC drama Philly, Miami snapped her up. The producers insist her presence has caused no clashes with costars: ”The reason there was no drama is that the inception of the character was about balance and nothing else,” says Zuiker. ”It’s for the betterment of the show.”

”You wonder if people are going to be threatened, but we all get along really well,” says Delaney. Her costars say they’re not worried about reduced screen time: ”Maybe I’m deluded, but I honestly try not to think about it,” says Procter, who probably won’t be able to reprise her Wing role as Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes. ”I wasn’t hit by a car, which is a positive sign, but since they’re on different networks, it’s going to be hard.” Adds Alexander about Delaney’s arrival, ”Had it been a different show where there was any reason to feel slighted, maybe I would’ve, but [when] you sign up for an ensemble, you pretty much know what you’re doing.”

Delaney’s presence could prove a powerful draw for female viewers, whom CSI: Miami will need early in the season when it faces off against ABC’s guy magnet Monday Night Football. ”That’s a staple of American culture,” concedes Rodriguez (who plays diver Eric Delko). Nonetheless, he predicts, ”If there aren’t any spectacular games, we’ve got a real shot at doing some damage.” The show’s creators aren’t concerned about going up against NBC’s femme-centric forensics drama Crossing Jordan, either. Says Donahue, ”They’re different enough that we’ll each be able to pull our own audience.”

But can CSI: Miami also tackle those inevitable comparisons with Miami Vice? ”I was telling someone the other day, ‘I’m Philip Michael Thomas, dude!”’ Alexander laughs — until she’s reminded of the actor’s gig shilling for a psychic hotline. ”Okay, I take it back!” she says. Zuiker shrugs off the comparison: ”Miami Vice was 100 years ago. And this is not a cop show — it’s a forensic procedural drama.”

Maybe Law & Order is a more apt model, since CSI has the potential to become a similarly self-replicating franchise. ”They have three successful spin-offs,” notes costar Cochrane. ”So that’s just a big cash machine.” Will this be CSI’s financial fate? ”It’s in the hands of the gods,” says Zuiker.

”Or Les Moonves,” pipes in cocreator Carol Mendelsohn, referring to CBS’ president and CEO.

”Same thing,” concludes Zuiker.

Judging from the buzz among the Everglades denizens who’ve braved Buick-size dragonflies and scorching heat to watch filming, chances for CSI: Miami’s success seem good. As Caruso ambles back to his trailer at the end of a long day, an alligator pokes its eyes out from beneath the marshy water alongside the star’s path.

”Does this one have a name?” Caruso asks the locals.

”We’re naming him after you,” one of them informs him.

”I’ll take it!” he says, giving the onlookers a thumbs-up. Consider the public trust restored.

CSI: Miami
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