I'm not a big television person (except on DVD), so while I've seen episodes of several flagship programs like "Mythbusters" and "Cash Cab", there have been (and are) lots of shows on The Discovery Channel that sound great but I haven't seen. Unfortunately, I'm starting to wonder if the greatness of the ones I have seen is raising my expectations too high for the ones I haven't. So far, I've watched two Discovery programs for the first time for DVDTalk, and both of them have been slightly disappointing. The latest is "Crime Scene University", which sounds great, but takes almost half of its incredibly short run to become engrossing due to the pacing and style issues.
"CSU" is a look inside a Penn State University forensics/criminal science class taught by Dr. Bob Shaler. In each episode, two teams of students (blue and gray) dive into a new crime scene set up by Shaler and his team. Using teamwork and Dr. Shaler's teachings, the goal is to try to figure out the details of each crime. Fingerprints, blood splatter, weapons, bullet holes and more provide evidence that will hopefully lead the teams to a conclusion about the scenario, and ultimately, the perpetrator. Whichever team gets the closest to accurately recreating the sequence of events is the episode's "winner", and the loser has to stay behind and clean up the sets so that another scene can be set up.
The most distracting thing about "Crime Scene University" is how artificially flashy it is. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, the unnecessarily hyperactive editing of the prologue and opening title sequence began to give me a headache. I don't want to sound like an old man, but I picked "CSU" because I thought forensic science and crime scene investigation would be informative, not because I wanted to watch a rock video. Almost every part of the show is painfully "stylish". During both the groups' arrival at each crime scene and their concluding mock staging of the crime for Dr. Shaler,, re-enactment footage or footage of Thaler's team creating the scene is annoyingly intercut, preventing us from seeing the entirety of each group's presentation. Unnecessary diagrams are constantly put on screen (perhaps Discovery was afraid viewers would become confused). There are even little factoids on topics like fingerprinting and DNA testing leading into each commercial break. What is this, a program for ten-year-olds?
Pacing is also an issue. Dr. Thaler's crime scenes are timed, and the time limit is always several hours. If the hyperactive direction were toned down, there should be plenty of footage to make up for all the missing edits, but the production is overpaced. The editing makes hour-long episodes seem like half-hour episodes, and I mean that in a bad way. Like "Deadliest Catch", the other Discovery show I watched for DVDTalk, "CSU" uses short talking-head interview clips to create more interpersonal drama. I never liked this technique much to begin with, since people's tension levels are pretty self-evident and it seems melodramatic, but even if I set that issue aside, it means less time for investigation.
Luckily, after three okay episodes, the show begins to pick up. As the crime scenes become more complicated, the show simply runs out of time for most of these problems, with no choice but to focus on the mysteries at hand. Episode 4, "Dismemberment", is the most entertaining in the set, with a complex mystery that takes place in two wildly different locations (indoors and outdoors) and involves all sorts of intriguing evidence (hacksaws, machetes, and several ominous, taped-up black plastic bags). Episode 5, "Murder/Suicide" is a close second, which has both teams investigating identical two-floor houses. The most interesting part of this episode is watching each team make seemingly innocuous but ultimately huge mistakes that ultimately affect their entire case.
Overall, "Crime Scene University" is a perfectly diverting way to kill 45 minutes, and I breezed through the set's six episodes in about a day. I was still a little let down, but is it a case of unrealistic expectations? Clearly, the show can't reveal every secret of Dr. Thaler's class, or nobody would take it (not to mention it sounds like a really bad idea to have a bunch of TV-junkie, wanna-be investigators running around thinking they've got the tricks of the trade). Still, I feel like the program could have gone deeper than it does, and by extension, been a more thoughtful and interesting program. "Crime Scene University" only ran for the one season, so we'll never know if it could have been better, but the existing episodes better illustrate a show that could have become great than one that actually was.
The episodes break down as follows:
Disc 1: "Master of the House", "Drugs and Dirty Deals", "Road Rage".
Disc 2: "Dismemberment", "Murder/Suicide", "Serial Killer Dumpsite."
"CSU" comes in a stylish-looking clear Amaray case. The front cover isn't exactly a great design, but it isn't off-putting, either. The back cover looks fine too, with a listing of the episodes. On the inside front as seen through the clear plastic is another episode list, this time with short summaries of each episode. The menus are so simple as to become boring, and the disc art features the same picture from the front cover.
The Video and Audio
Like the show itself, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation seems purposefully cranked up. The whole show looks like it runs a little hot, and it wears out the eyes a little, so you may find yourself turning the brightness on your TV down to compensate. Other than that, the picture quality is unremarkable. The quality of the footage varies, as it was likely shot on a multitude of digital cameras: night scenes and re-enactment footage is crawling with digital grain. and detail isn't particularly amazing. It looks acceptable, but not impressive.
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo gets the job done. While the video editing and picture are aggressive, the sound isn't quite as extreme as everything else, although it is still kind of melodramatic. On the whole though, it's a lot of people talking, which the track pulls off just fine. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are included.
Sadly, none. I would have really liked to see a bonus episode or featurette with Dr. Shaler discussing how he and his team go about devising and setting up the crime scenes for the students, or a retrospective from the students about their experience in the class.
I liked "Crime Scene University", but I didn't love it the way I'd hoped to. The DVD set is also barebones. I do think the two best episodes of the show are more than worth watching, but I don't think that anyone should buy the DVD set just to watch them. Rent the second disc using Netflix or wait for Discovery Channel to re-air the episodes.
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