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Anthony E. Zuiker

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at April 6, 2005 - 10:44 PM GMT

Anthony ZuikerIt's been a rollercoaster ride of a year for Anthony E. Zuiker, professionally speaking.

After four years of work on his first major television creation, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, 36-year-old Zuiker felt ready to take on the position of showrunner of CSI: New York, the franchise's third show, which debuted in the Fall of 2004. Zuiker readily and frankly admits that the job took him by surprise.

"This was my showrunning debut," he says. "What I never anticipated was that it would be difficult beyond belief, that it would be this much of a challenge."

Zuiker wasn't alone in his surprise at CSI: New York's rocky beginnings. Before the show's September debut, CBS President Les Moonves predicted it would be the highest-rated new drama this season. In a bold move, CBS scheduled New York against the flagship of the long running Law & Order franchise. Zuiker himself was deferential to the competition, but confident the many fans of CSI and its first spin-off, CSI: Miami would turn out for the new show.

"I felt that the CSI name would sort of carry us through the first season, but I've learned that we had to earn a new audience," Zuiker states frankly. "We have stiff competition going up against Law & Order. And there were a lot more science-oriented shows [when New York debuted]. When Miami first spun off, there was CSI, Crossing Jordan and maybe John Doe--we still had sort of a monopoly on the [forensic science genre]. Now I think there's probably fifteen or twenty shows on the air so it's been difficult to establish a vision for the show, and its own identity."

It's hard to imagine that a show that premiered to 18.5 million viewers and regularly pulls in anywhere between 12 and 17 million viewers could be looked at as anything but a smashing success, but concerns popped up almost immediately about the show's dark themes and hues, and the somewhat somber characters.

"I think when I wrote the first episode entitled "Blink", it was a little too dark for everyone's appetite," Zuiker says. "And I had to sort adapt. I had an idea about a therapist who would be talking to Mac Taylor once an episode and [gradually uncover] what he was going through with his wife. When doing research, almost everyone I talked to had a 9/11 story to tell, and they all wanted to share their story--it was therapeutic for them. So I thought that's a pretty good direction--I thought maybe we could put Mac Taylor into the identifiable situation of somebody who lost someone in 9/11, and through therapy we can actually see what's going on inside his head, and have a breakthrough--have the first season be about closure. [In the original plan for the first season finale, I figured we'd be] finding a part of Mac Taylor's wife Claire, and then burying her, and then season 2 would be about moving forward."

But CBS wanted changes, and Zuiker was willing to go back to the drawing board.

"Well, that game plan changed almost after the first episode," Zuiker notes. "CBS felt we were going too dark, too grim, with too much character information about Mac Taylor. And we needed to have our own identity and our own stories before we got into the heaviness. It's almost like going on a date where you take out a woman and you start talking about all your bad relationships, which is too much information. So we wanted to just have the show where you fall in love with the man and the woman--Gary [Sinise] (Mac Taylor) and Melina [Kanakaredes] (Stella Bonasera)--so we really abandoned all of the therapy stuff, we abandoned all of the 9/11 stuff for that matter."

The turning point in the season came when Zuiker penned the episode "Tanglewood", which involved Mac and Stella investigating a mob related murder and in the process discovering that one of their teammates, Danny Messer, is hiding a shady past.

"I think the turning point of the season was a show called "Tanglewood." I think that's when we really began to put a character off-center. Danny Messer has a secret--that became sort of interesting," Zuiker comments. The episode scored in the ratings as well, pulling in 17.3 million viewers and intriguing fans with a mystery of a different kind: the backstory of one of the characters.

Zuiker promises a "Tanglewood" follow-up is forthcoming, though not until next season. "I didn't do a very good job paying that off this season [because we ran out of time], but it should be part of the November sweeps. I have the part two of that in my head. I know where the storyline's going," he vows.

In addition to being one of the show's strongest outings, "Tanglewood" also got a break when NBC didn't air Law & Order that week. It couldn't have come at a better time. The first half of CSI: NY's freshman season was plagued with preemptions and just plain bad luck: the final five minutes of one of the stronger episodes was cut off by a news interruption.

"With "Tanglewood," it's literally, we got lucky," Zuiker acknowledges. "We had about 5 or 6 bad things happen to us: one was Boston came back four games in a row--that fell on a Wednesday; we had episode 107, "Outside Man"--that got cut off for Arafat's death; we had game four of the Boston sweep on a Wednesday; we had the Presidential debate; we had the State of a Union address on a Wednesday. We were in such a frantic pattern, not being consistent in our air schedule because of outside powers we couldn't control. We finally got a break when NBC didn't put a Law & Order rerun on and we had a chance to air one of our best episodes of the year. That really helped. Everybody came, and some of those folks stayed. That was a turning point for the show--we really needed a break and that was the break. Law & Order is very stiff competition--this is a 15-year institution with a fanbase as loyal as any fanbase in TV history. And to be able to be anywhere near them, to be pretty much tied for the season, is a home run."

According to Zuiker, it's all part of the learning process he's been in immersed in this year. His efforts to find his footing as a showrunner have mirrored CSI: New York's attempts to find its voice as a show. Both have come a long way.

"The biggest challenge [of being a showrunner] was I didn't have any time to do what I did, which was create and write," Zuiker says. "It's a lot of managing--a lot of post time, and problems on the set, and hirings and firings, and trying to bring in new people where we were deficient in some key areas, like production. And I found myself not being in [the writers'] room, not doing as much writing. Then I made the mistake to take on too much, writing every script, which didn't help things either. I much like being a leader more than a boss. There's a good cop and a bad cop, and I like to think of myself as the good cop. So it's not only managing people in terms of running the show, but it's also to keep the vision in your head when everybody is telling you what the vision of the show should be."

As he found his own way as a showrunner, Zuiker's vision for CSI: New York became clear. He decided to go to the heart of the show, its setting, and focus on distinguishing it from other shows by focusing on the Big Apple.

"What I wanted to do was sit down and figure out, 'what is this show?' I had a game plan, and then the book was taken away," Zuiker admits. "Then I fell into a rabbit hole for a good half of the season, and [it was like,] 'how do I get out of it?' "Tanglewood" was the turning point where we were like, okay, we're going to tell New York stories and we're going to start to lighten up our characters, and we're going to go in a character direction, starting with the mysteries. What I did in "Blink" was I put the mystery in the background, which is what I promised Gary. I told him the show was going to be about him, and him and Melina, and once that game plan changed, I had a difficult time trying to fix that. In "Tanglewood," we threw in the Tanglewood boys, which was a real story in Yonkers, then the circus [in "Blood, Sweat & Tears"], then we did the wedding dress [in "Til Death Do We Part"], and then we did "The Fall" where we put one of our characters in jeopardy. We decided Mac is a moral man in an immoral city. He's fighting for the little guy. So we give him more obstacles, more political obstacles."

Zuiker plans to continue the New York-centric stories, and shares tidbits from upcoming episodes.

"We're going to do the murder of a Red Sox fan, a very New York story. We're also going to do a nanny park story, where a nanny dies in a nanny park," Zuiker reveals. "So we're going to establish ourselves in a New York identity by telling stories that could only be done in New York. And we're going to loosen the characters up. That's sort of our game plan. We'll be planning on putting our characters off balance, and we'll have a really fun, creative blueprint for season two. Very character driven [though] I think the franchise as a whole will always live and die by the mystery."

Those characters are in for some interesting developments ahead. Mac Taylor might be getting a love interest in the form of DNA tech Jane Parsons.

"We wanted to involve Gary in some sort of possible friendly love interest to show he's moved on from Claire's death and 9/11," Zuiker notes.

Zuiker reveals that Stella Bonasera's original back story--that she discovered her father's body after his murder--has been abandoned, in part because of its similarities to Sara Sidle's recently-revealed back story on CSI. But Stella, orphaned as an infant, has ulterior motives for pursuing a career as a CSI: "For the character of Stella Bonasera, we're really cementing her back story in terms of her being in the system through the age of 18 and getting into law enforcement, where she moved to a very rigorous environment, with a lot of order, where she feels comfortable and getting into forensic science, secretly wanting to somehow find her sister," Zuiker reveals.

Danny's big secret won't be revealed until the second season, but Zuiker promises the "Tanglewood" sequel will elucidate his involvement with the Tanglewood gang.

"What I can tell you is that Danny Messer had a lot more involvement with the Tanglewood Boys than he's leading on. I believe if all goes well, "Tanglewood part 2" will air during November sweeps," Zuiker says, and adds, "The Mac Taylor/Danny Messer relationship will get a little more complicated. I always saw Danny Messer as the Sonny Corleone of the show--hot tempered, not trusting. He is right now the most off-center character that we have."

Danny has a fierce ally in the team's youngest member, Aiden Burn, who is becoming a tougher character as the season progresses.

"She got in a little bit of trouble in "Officer Blue"--that was designed to show how new she was," Zuiker says. "She will sort of redeem herself and be a little tougher in episode 119, where she'll confront a criminal inside of a jail cell. But she is very loyal to Danny Messer and she will therefore be tarnished with the same brush."

Zuiker hopes to expand the role of Dr. Sheldon Hawkes, New York's quirky medical examiner.

"We'd like to see him file an application to be out in the field," Zuiker reveals. "Hill Harper is one of our brightest stars, electrifying on screen, and we'd like to see more of him out in the field with the CSIs."

Zuiker is very interested in exploring Detective Flack's background, especially his relationship with his father, a decorated police officer.

"We'd like to entertain a little bit of a back story on him. His father was a legendary officer, he was also part of the old school group," Zuiker says. "He's the kind of an officer who, during the sixties, if two men just killed a woman, they'd be tossed off a roof to their death, like a suicide--that kind of guy. He's never been busted for anything illegal, was a good cop, a legendary cop, and I think Detective Flack always wants to live up to what his father did, the example his father set. We may see his father in season two. We may explore of that dynamic: what happens when your father is a legend?"

With the season one CSI: New York DVDs slated for a September release, plans are already being made for extras on the set. Zuiker hopes to get some of the darker deleted scenes on the sets, in addition to commentary on some of the more prominent episodes.

"We plan on doing commentaries--probably one for "Blink"--we had the first footage of Ground Zero [in that episode]. They had never issued a permit before to film there," he notes. "Also [there will probably be commentaries] on "Officer Blue" and "Tanglewood." There also some lost scenes in the early shows. The ending of "Creatures of the Night" was the girl actually killing herself in the bathtub. We shot that--it was amazing, and also very sad. I hope to bring back some of those original endings. The [original] end of "Night, Mother" was when the mother was waving goodbye to her kid and then they got sideswiped, and she pulled the kid out, and it was so, so jarring. A little too much for TV in that climate."

One of the few drawbacks to running his own CSI show is that Zuiker doesn't have as much contact with Carol Mendelsohn and Ann Donahue, who head up CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami, respectively. The three started out working together on CSI back in 2000 on CSI.

"When I came to Hollywood, I was asked to interview showrunners because I obviously wasn't going to run the show. So I wanted two showrunners," Zuiker says of CSI's beginnings. "I liked Carol--she was from Chicago, too--and Carol hired Ann Donahue and most of the writers. So you had the new kid and two seasoned veterans, with a very talented cast and staff. I finally understand how difficult [running the show] must have been for them. It's ironic that we're all split up now. We call each other on the phone every once in a while. It's sad--we all miss being with each other. We've made each other's career."

There was even talk of a CSI: Miami/CSI: New York crossover for the end of the season, but the episode never materialized. "We talked about episode 20 this year [for the crossover], but we just weren't in a stable position to run the risk of pulling Ann Donahue from her show and me from mine [to write it]," Zuiker notes. He adds that the idea could still come to fruition in a later season.

Zuiker has encouraging words for both those wishing to pursue forensic science careers and those who long to make a break as writers in Hollywood.

"It's arguably the most important civil service this country needs," Zuiker says of forensic science, noting that the CSI shows feature donated equipment that is more expensive and higher tech than many labs across the country can afford. He's also familiar with the "CSI effect" on juries in criminal cases.

"Juries now have a preexisting knowledge of science," Zuiker says, noting the public's increased awareness when it comes to evidence. Movies aren't exempt either--Zuiker notes that they need to be "more accurate in their scientific research" in order to convince audiences.

As for the aspiring writers out there? "There is opportunity in this town," Zuiker assures. "It's filled with people called spotters whose job is to spot talent. It's so not about who you know. Contacts are important, but it's all about the material."

Zuiker himself got his start when childhood friend Dustin Lee Abraham, now a CSI scribe but then an actor, would get Zuiker to write him monologues for auditions. "I wrote a speech about a man, mentally retarded, watching his wife give birth. He's a degenerate gambler, and he went into an announcing [mode, a play by play]," Zuiker says of the monologue that got him attention in Hollywood. The speech was turned into a movie, The Runner, which was made for seven million dollars. It turned out to be Zuiker's gateway to Hollywood.

It's a move he hasn't regretted for a second. "I would not do anything else but this. I'll always be a writer and a creator," Zuiker says with absolute conviction.

Discuss this interviews at Talk CSI!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.

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