The satirical series Robot Chicken once ran a generic episode of Law & Order with animated giant chickens, dressed as cops, perps, judges, etc.
All the dialogue consisted of clucking, but the episode was utterly familiar -- from the discovery of the body to the good-cop/bad-cop interrogation of the suspect, to the thoughtful "Buck-ah" of the judge who gave the investigators leeway on controversial evidence.
Law & Order finished in 2010 after 20 years, but lives on in its Law & Order: SVU incarnation.
As such, it has nearly a decade on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which airs its 300th episode Wednesday. But they have much in common, including an oft well-written, but by now predictable three-act structure, in-and-out casts, and franchise spin-offs that don't deviate from the formula and could be convincingly acted by giant chickens (or, in the case of CSI: Miami, by David Caruso).
I was a day one fan of CSI on its debut in 2000. I'll admit I've been only an occasional viewer since Grissom (William Petersen) left the show in Season 9. But what strikes me is how easily you can miss whole seasons and just drop back in as a viewer, most recently with Ted Danson as D.B. Russell, Grissom's heir, twice-removed, as night shift supervisor for the Las Vegas PD forensics unit.
These are supposed to be the dark days for network TV, just as they are for newspapers, the music and movie industries. But at a time when Google "hits" demark the latest cool cable show, old, uncool CSI routinely pulls more viewers every week than did the finale of Breaking Bad. And at that, it sits at about 25th in the primetime network ratings.
And despite the departure of beloved characters (Yay! Marg Helgenberger is back Wednesday reprising her role as Catherine Willows!), it's familiarity that the show peddles - including day-oners Nick Stokes (George Eads), Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), fieldworker Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda) and Capt. Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle). Nothing like job security.
There was a time in the early '00s, when CSI's sexual explicitness (for primetime TV, anyway), violence and graphic forensic content (for primetime TV, anyway), got groups like the Parents Television Council's knickers in a knot. Today, a typical episode of Game Of Thrones - another cable darling CSI beats handily in viewership - would make their heads explode.
It seems as if TV viewers people haven't ever embraced the familiar to this extent. In the days when television was decried as "a vast wasteland," shows did not last into second and third decades unless they were soap operas or Gunsmoke. Now there's a combined 46 years of Law & Order and its spinoffs (SVU, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury and L.A.), a quarter-century of CSI and its spinoffs, 24 years of The Simpsons. NCIS (the number one show on TV) and Grey's Anatomy are practically youngsters in their 11th and 10th seasons respectively.
Although, if you draw a straight line from NCIS back to JAG (the show from which it was spun off), we're going back to 1995.
Adding to the familiarity, Jason Priestley guest stars on Wednesday's 300th CSI as a casino mogul. Quite a step up from when he flipped burgers at the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210 back in, um, 1995.