Social media plays a significant role in society today, and is also the hot topic in this week’s episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. After a one-week hiatus, CSI returns with a new installment titled “Trends with Benefits,” an episode that finds the Las Vegas Crime Lab focusing on the death of a college student whose lifeless body is photographed and found trending on the Internet. And while the episode marks Jack Gutowitz‘s first writing credit on the series, his history with the show dates back to July, 2007 when he was first hired on as an assistant to the director. From there, the aspiring writer tackled several other positions on staff before landing a gig as a script coordinator in the writer’s offices. To discuss his first episode, Gutowitz talks with Shane Saunders on topics that include pitching a story to producers, bringing back a character from the past, and how he got his start on the world’s most-watched show.
CSI Files: You have an impressive résumé with credits on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War… just some really great films and TV shows, but this is only your second script that’s been produced. How exciting was it to step back into the writers’ room and pitch an idea?
Jack Gutowitz: It was fantastic, I loved it. Since I started script coordinating I’ve been able to get into the room more often, which is a fantastic place with a great set of minds. I’ve been very fortunate to always work with people I really respect for my entire career. I had this standard when I first got out here that I would never take a job on a show that I didn’t respect. I’ve been really lucky. I love working with Carol Mendelsohn [Executive Producer]. She’s not only an amazing human being, but writer as well. She always finds the best part of your story. It’s been really nice. Hopefully it’ll rub off. [Laughs.] [Executive Producer] Don McGill has been a huge support and trained me to get a CSI episode in tip top shape.
CSI Files: The story was pitched back in December. What was the process like; did Carol come to you or did you go to her?
Gutowitz: [Laughs.] I pitched some episodes last year, because I’ve been on the show for a while and I’m always writing. They wanted to give me a shot, I showed them some storylines and they really liked this one. Don gave me some great guidelines to prepare the story before we went into the room and break it. Then I worked with this amazing talented writing staff in the room and we came up with something pretty special.
CSI Files: The installment is titled “Trends with Benefits,” and deals with the repercussions from social media. How did you come up with the idea for the episode?
Gutowitz: A big portion of it was to do an episode on a college campus, do more of a youth-oriented show. I’m a huge fan of social media–Chris Barbour [Executive Story Editor], Michael Cano [Don McGill’s assistant] and I worked on a bunch of the CSI Facebook games. The Internet is such an interesting open-crowd world where you can get away with saying very mean spirited slurs without fear of retribution.
Gutowitz: We did a cyber-bullying episode last year [“Unleashed”]. This is less about the cyber-bullying and more about gossip and how that affects people. Yes, the victim who runs a gossip site on campus is gay, and we do talk about whether it’s a hate crime. It’s not even so much a hate crime because of his sexual preference, but it’s a hate crime because the kid who basically became Perez Hilton on campus turns the other students’ lives into his playground for spectacle. Everybody loves and hates this guy. And our CSIs have to explore the students’ world through their social media to better understand them. There’s a lot of A/V lab scenes and Archie [Archie Kao] is working really hard in this episode.
We deal with issues like sexual preference, social media, pressures of college life and the side effects of gossip. Our director Louis Milito approached the material with some astute sensibilities. He made the performances really shine on the screen and captured some heartbreaking scenes. We recently watched a cut of the episode and I guarantee it will be a show you won’t want to miss.
CSI Files: Out of the CSI team, who do you think embraces social networking the most?
Gutowitz: That’s a good question. We kind of made them all aware of it; we made Russell [Ted Danson] less aware. I would say Greg [Sanders, Eric Szmanda], all the computer savy lab rats, Morgan [Brody, Elisabeth Harnois], just the more youthful culture of it.
CSI Files: There’s also the return of Russell’s son, Charlie (Brandon Jones). The two have an interesting dynamic which I imagine the writers have a lot of fun exploring. What can viewers expect from them in the episode?
Gutowitz: This is the second time we’ve seen Charlie, and we wanted him to kind of have a connection to the college campus and to the trending world. He’s such a brilliant actor; Brandon is so good. He’s really smart and wants to make sure he understands every scene about his character. And the interaction we explored with Russell balancing his work and personal life comes to fruition in the episode. The other cool thing is we see Finn [Elisabeth Shue] interact with Charlie. She was with Russell in Seattle and knew Charlie since he was a little boy.
CSI Files: Is there a chance he’ll appear again before season’s end?
Gutowitz: It’s possible. And we might meet Mrs. Russell, too.
CSI Files: Is there a certain character from the series that you can relate to/gravitate towards?
Gutowitz: Nick’s [George Eads] humanity, I really like Morgan’s newness, Finn’s passion, I love Russell’s patience; I don’t think any of them are just me. That’s a tough question, I don’t think I can choose just one.
CSI Files: As a script coordinator, what are you responsible for? Did you have to juggle both writing and script coordinating on your episode?
Gutowitz: Yeah, that was interesting. I was coordinating scripts while working on set. There were long days, but it was worth it.
CSI Files: Your first job on the show was as director Kenneth Fink‘s assistant. How did the opportunity to work on CSI come about?
Gutowitz: Studio 60 had just ended and I was looking for my next gig. I was looking for a writing assistant position because that’s what I did before. Ken and I had a mutual friend who introduced us and said we both have a very dark and disturbed sense of humor. I had lunch with him; we were only gonna have lunch for thirty minutes but we ended up sitting there for four hours just talking. He was talking about CSI and to be completely honest, I had never seen the show before. The day I met him was the same day “Living Doll” was going to air. He said, “Check out this show, I think you’ll like it.” I watched it and was blown away. So he sent me five more episode that he had directed: “Sweet Jane,” “Blood Drops,” “Killer,” “A Bullet Runs Through It, Parts One & Two,” and “Weeping Willows.” I watched those all in a row and then started watching the series a lot. [Laughs.] They were starting up for Season Eight and I think their first day of production was July 5, and his assistant took a new job. Ken called me on a Friday with an offer. I jumped at the opportunity and started the following Tuesday. And haven’t regretted a minute since.
CSI Files: What is next season looking like for you? Is there a chance you could become a full-time writer on the staff?
Gutowitz: Right now we’re focused on finishing up this season. I have some interesting pitches ready in case I have the opportunity to write for the show again. Let’s hope.
CSI Files: There’s a cliff-hanger coming up and there’s only a few episodes remaining. What can you tease about the rest of the season?
Gutowitz: I can tell you it’s going to be amazing, some very interesting stories. For the fans, there will be a lot more character moments; we meet Hodges’ [Wallace Langham] mother, someone close to Detective Sam Vega, and more of Finn and Russell’s history. There’s some thrilling stories, some funny moments, cool new science, some Vegas stories and of course, great crime scenes. It keeps getting better.
Thanks Shane, for the interview and all you’ve done for the show in the past ten years. We love our show and we love our audience even more.