The "CSI" television crime drama franchise shows no signs of slowing down with all three series going strong. Over at "CSI: Miami," season eight gets underway with the crew led by Horatio Caine (David Caruso) going back in time (1997, to be exact) to show the origins of the Florida based team. Executive producer Ann Donahue took time out from time jumping to talk to our Jim Halterman about what is to come this year, how the show plans to integrate new characters without shaking things up too much and a David Milch theory on television that resonates with the state of the business today.
Jim Halterman: Going into season eight, how do you approach each new season and make it fresh without changing why the audience watches in the first place?
Ann Donahue: I'll tell you the way we approached this season was to go back to basics. That's why we went back 12 years in time to the beginning in a way to reinvigorate ourselves and then, in turn, our actors loved it and then hope our audience will.
JH: Had you been thinking about doing a flashback episode for a while?
AD: Honestly, no. It just occurred to me and I always think at the end of the previous season - "How are we going to cliff this or end this season so people have to come back?" It just came to us that way and we all thought it would be so interesting to see this team before they were this team. It's like when you want to go back and see yourself at your first day of kindergarten or your first day of high school and see who you were and how you met and really how shiny you were back then. Emily Proctor (Calleigh) made this choice where she played it so optimistic and brand new knowing that she really hadn't seen a dead body; she was really so charming. David Caruso was just great because he was discovering science and his character was realizing the science of the future. We also, of course, got to see where his sunglasses came from. In the episode, Eric Delko (Adam Rodriguez) is still a tow-truck driver and he and Horatio keep meeting up because there's so much water in Miami that tow-truck guys are always pulling stuff out of the waterways. Usually a dead body. And Eric keeps telling him, "When I pull out a really great pair of sunglasses I'm going to give them to you." It's sweet and charming and we've done about 170 episodes and this one, if not the best then it's one of the best.
JH: As the series ages and people leave and new people come in, how do you integrate new characters like Eddie Cibrian's without upsetting the balance?
AD: You have to be respectful to the audience since they don't want to be inundated. We actually have two new characters - one being Eddie Cibrian and one being Omar Benson. When you mix a cake, you do it slowly and so we show Eddie in the flashback episode... actually I don't want to call it flashback because it's not that. It doesn't feel like a flashback, it feels like a genesis, a beginning. But we see Calleigh on her first day and it's Eddie Cibrian's character's last day. We see him momentarily and then in episode two he is coming back. We see him in the first five minutes of episode two and then a few members of "CSI: Miami" are taken hostage.
JH: Have you thought about what would happen if David Caruso left and Horatio was no longer the center of the show?
AD: Oh no. Never. The show rises and falls on David's back and I will say with modesty that it's sometimes the number one show in the world and I think that has to do with David. People adore him. I cannot imagine the show without him and I wouldn't want to.
JH: Creatively, you sound revitalized, so what are some of the big story arcs coming up?
AD: We're doing one where someone is able to kill someone from 30 miles away. I won't tell you how but it's a fabulous mystery and the science is great. We're doing one with a really interesting phenomenon about food in America. It's getting to the point where corporations literally trademark our food and they own it... like they own the seeds. There's a really good mystery where someone gets sick from E. coli and our people push to prove that it's a form of negligent homicide. Then we do an homage to "The Hangover" where we have two guys who wake up with blood all over them and the groom is missing. We're also doing the crossover with "CSI: NY" and the Vegas show in the first episode of sweeps. We're telling a lot of great stories and a lot of great mysteries.
JH: "Law & Order" is just going into its 20th season. Do you think "CSI: Miami" has the legs to run that long?
AD: I do. I do. It's our eighth season and we still are excited, we feel refreshed and we're excited to tell stories.
JH: With the character development that happens, how careful are you to be loyal to the audience and help the characters grow?
AD: We weigh them very heavily because we have to remember that this show is a success because people love forensic cases. We like to develop the characters but as long as it services the case.
JH: Assuming you get a lot of the forensic cases from your research and the press, is there anything that is just too horrific to approach?
AD: There is. I don't want to say what it is because it's just so awful.
JH: Looking ahead for yourself, do you think about cable and projects you'd like to do and where you'd like to do them?
AD: You know, it's truly an honor to be here and I mean that. Anthony Zuiker came up with something so fresh and I very often feel that it was the last train out in terms of a true mass television hit so I don't ever sit here and pine and think, "Oh, on cable I could do something different or deeper," because I love where I am and I love doing it and it's great entertainment. I have feature scripts I write when I find time. I'm working on one but, you know, we only get about 10 days off a year and I have three kids. Basically, no and [Donahue's partner Anne] McGrail laughs at me because I'm somebody who loves the 24-episodes-a-season and I don't think, "Oh my Gosh, I could do something else." I'm doing what I like... what I love, actually.
JH: As the TV business continues to change, what are your impressions on where things are going?
AD: You know, it's just economics and supply and demand. People demand that television will have the supply and that's just reality. [David] Milch used to say - I used to work with him on "Murder One" - that you have to think of network television as a sidewalk. It just is what it is and, to me, CBS has learned how to respond to the changes and what they've learned - and I don't know why everybody else hasn't - but the tried and the true works. People love stories that make sense because they're titillating and that's human drama. In a way, CBS knows that things have changed but not that much. I mean, "Naked City" was a huge hit in the early 60s. In a way, we're doing "Naked City." But whatever the business does, you just ride it, whatever it is. You just deal with it. You can't think backward. That's the worst thing is people thinking backwards.
JH: Any ideas as to whether the franchise is going to grow with another city?
AD: Um... we're not talking about that! [laughs] We're not talking about that. I can't imagine but I never say never. It's up to Anthony Zuiker, who has a new book out called 'Level 26.' There are 26 levels of evil.
The eighth season premiere of "CSI: Miami" airs tonight on CBS at 10:00/9:00c.