An Oscar winner, a teen idol, and a rapper walk into a crime scene...
It’s Friday, Jan. 23, and the stars of CSI: Cyber are tweeting. Patricia Arquette tweets: She was so honored to give a lifetime achievement award to her Boyhood director Richard Linklater at last night’s Casting Society of America awards. James Van Der Beek tweets: He links to the Kickstarter page for a crowdfunded documentary about Alzheimer’s research. Shad Moss, The Artist Formerly Known As Lil Bow Wow, tweets: He’s launching a new vodka company; flavor options include Citrus or Blood Orange.
The trio are currently filming the finale of the 13-episode first season, which seems to feature a recurring antagonist. When I arrive, they’re shooting a scene that requires Arquette to stare thoughtfully into dead space and say: “He’s back.” The same scene also requires Moss to type fervently on a computer and say, “The language is an older version of C++!”—which, you have to admit, is exactly what you were hoping from a cop show about the Internet. I’m sitting on the show’s main set, the office of the FBI’s Cyber Crimes Division, one of those only-on-TV offices where the walls are made of glass and every computer screen has an important-looking rotating-Earth 3D graphic.
This is not the first time that an Academy Award winner has fronted a CBS procedural. (Elisabeth Shue, CSI; Forest Whitaker, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.) This is not the first time a onetime teen heartthrob has broken grim on a cop show. (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, NYPD Blue; Ben McKenzie, Southland.) This is not the first time a hip-hop artist has transitioned into TV-land law enforcement. (Ice-T, Law & Order: SVU; LL Cool J, NCIS: LA.) But this is the first time that has happened all at once, on the same show.
And all this digital oversharing is a bit ironic, since CSI: Cyber is a procedural focused on the do’s and (many) don’ts of our digital age. It could have been just another guaranteed-successful spinoff of a big-money procedural franchise. But the show hit the jackpot with its casting. For the last few months, Arquette has been collecting relentless accolades on the awards circuit. The evening of January 11, Arquette won a Golden Globe. The morning of January 12, Arquette was onstage at the CSI: Cyber Television Critics Association panel. Van Der Beek memorialized this moment with an Instagram:
“When it rains, it pours,” is the understatement Arquette uses to describe this moment she’s having. “I’ve been doing a bunch of press for this, shooting this, press for that, experiencing that,” she says. In one week, she’ll be done with Cyber‘s first season. In one month, she’ll be holding her first Oscar onstage and making a passionate speech about women’s wages. “It’s all gonna be over at the same time,” she laughs. “So I’m gonna have a lot of time all of a sudden.”
Arquette’s co-stars sound supportive. “This is a true story,” Moss tells me. (He’s playing Brody Nelson, a blackhat hacker-turned-good guy computer expert.) Moss was watching the Golden Globes when Arquette won the prize. “I took my phone as she was up there doing her acceptance speech, turned it around, and was in the video, like, ‘Patricia, you f—ing killed it!’ I sent it to her, and she said, ‘Bow, you are the craziest.'”
There is something at once confounding and exhilarating about that story: the former pre-teen protégé of Snoop Dogg sending an exuberant video to the woman who spent the ’90s acting for Burton and Lynch and Scorsese. (There are now zero degrees of separation between “Bow Wow (That’s My Name)” and True Romance.) “She’s so real,” says Moss. “I don’t think a lot of people know this. Patricia is real. Patricia’s real. There’s no other way to put it.” In context, this sounds like the coolest thing anyone has ever said about Patricia Arquette.
You could argue that this cross-generational dissonance is a central aspect of Cyber, a show that nobody will call a spinoff in my presence. “It’s a reboot,” says Van Der Beek. “There’s more emphasis on character than there’s ever been in previous CSIs. And it’s not just one city. The entire world wide web is our jurisdiction.” Van Der Beek plays Elijah Mundo—”I kick down a lot of doors, I chase people, I jump over cars, I jump off stairs”—and today he’s dressed in the CBS Procedural Man Uniform: dark gray Henley and jeans.
Van Der Beek is the first of many people will use the word “cyberworld” to describe the show. “Cyberworld” might sound a bit like something out of a William Gibson novel or a ’90s techno-thriller. And if you’re young enough to not remember a time before Instant Messenger, Cyber might vibe goofy and alarmist: The Internet For Grandpa. There’s a room on the Cyber set called “The Cave,” a “virtual reality world” that sounds a lot like the holodeck from The Next Generation and nothing at all like anything that has ever actually existed ever. (There’s also Moss, dressed in the CBS Young Person Uniform: purple plaid shirt, vest, purple tie.)
But there’s also the timing. Cyber will hit screens just a few months after the Sony hack. Don’t expect the show to rip plotlines straight from the headlines—unless there’s a headline I missed about someone hacking a roller coaster—but the grander implications of this show haven’t escaped the actors. “I thank God that Twitter didn’t exist when I was 21,” says Van Der Beek. The former Dawson’s Creek star is hardly a digital skeptic; this is the man who kickstarted a whole new act with Van Der Memes, a Funny or Die series that simultaneously satirized and perfected ’90s nostalgia for the social media age. “I used to be super private, and then I realized we don’t live in that age anymore.”
Arquette, for her part, uses social media, “in a very rudimentary, grandmotherly way.” Not so Moss, who tweets at least four times in the few hours I’m on the Cyber set. Like everyone under 30, Moss just lives online intuitively, shuttling freely between Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. (“I’m not on SnapChat,” he says, in a tone of voice that suggests a wine connoisseur insisting he doesn’t drink merlot.)
It is impossible to hang out on the Cyber set without giving into the paranoia a little bit. At various points, Arquette will explain to me that my email account should have dual verification, Moss will promise me that he will never join iCloud, and Van Der Beek will tell me, “Everything, everybody is hackable.”
But it’s also impossible to hang out on the Cyber set without just giving in to our digital reality. In between takes, I chat with Charley Koontz, who plays comic-relief super-genius Daniel Krumitz. Koontz is best known for playing (don’t-call-him-)Fat Neil on Community. (Season 6 of that show is actually filming nearby, in a basement of the CBS-Radford lot; Koontz just filmed a guest spot.) With the maybe-exception of Moss, nobody looks more stoked to be making Cyber than Koontz.
And late in the afternoon, as I’m walking off the set, I receive a notification that Koontz just started following me on Twitter. I have more followers than he does—I point this out only because this will almost certainly not be the case in a few weeks, when I am still a journalist and he is the fourth lead of a show with “CSI” in the title.
I follow him back. After all, we’re both citizens of the cyberworld.