Water Rats: articles

Calling in the cops

WHEN you're in trouble, call the cops. It's always good advice, even if you're a television network.

Australians love a good police drama. Even in this post-Cop Shop era, two out of three of the most popular drama series on television are about life on the beat: Blue Heelers and The Bill.

Neither of these two shows, of course, belong to the once-omnipotent Nine Network. And that's why the station has dialled 911, bringing in the smart-talking crew of American crime fighters from the new hit show CSI to help out in their battle for ratings.

Nowhere is Nine's much-reported slip in audience numbers -- since the introduction of a new ratings system two months ago -- more obvious than what is happening on Tuesday nights at 8.30pm, where CSI will live.

Once, Nine was the undisputed king of this slot, thanks to its homegrown band of police in Water Rats. The Rats, in their heyday when Colin Friels roamed the water, were regularly in the top five highest-ranking shows of the week, even long after Channel 7 tried to whittle away its audience by putting its Aussie hospital drama All Saints on at the same time.

Last week, however, Nine was languishing ahead of only SBS in the valuable slot in the all-important Sydney market. Ten's Charmed was number one, followed by the bobbies of The Bill on the ABC, then All Saints. Overall, Water Rats ranked as only the 47th most watched program in the very city in which it is filmed.

Next week, therefore, the tired old Rats have been moved back to 9.30pm on Tuesdays, and in their place are the fresh and shiny

Las Vegas forensic police investigators from CSI, the first TV

series to be produced by action movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer (best known for Con Air and Armageddon).

Now Nine is hoping that this latest show to go by an acronym (it stands for Crime Scene Investigation, by the way) manages to do the same for its ratings as the other. ER is, after all, still the

most popular drama series in the country.

Nine programming executive Len Downs believes that the show -- which has rated in the top five programs in the US since its debut late last year -- has the same magic quality as ER.

"There's that same slight edge to it," he says. "It's certainly doing a very good job in the States, it's been a big hit, and we'd expect it will do the same here."

Downs says Water Rats will benefit from its time change, gaining viewers coming to Nine to watch CSI.

"We expect CSI to bring in a younger audience, who like their shows with a bit of a twist."

Of course, sometimes twist can come uncomfortably close to twisted, as executives at the US network CBS discovered last year.

When CSI creator Anthony Zuiker delivered the premiere episode of the show to CBS, the network insisted he re-edit it and tone it down. The close-up of maggots oozing out of a gunshot wound, in particular, was thought to be a little too gruesome to beam into the nation's lounge rooms.

The gross-out factor has been removed, but not the fascination with the minutiae of forensic evidence.

"The hero of the show is the evidence -- a toenail, a hair follicle, a teardrop, those kinds of things," says Zuiker.

To the team of forensic investigators working the graveyard shift at the Las Vegas "Criminalistics Bureau", as it is somewhat awkwardly known, this kind of evidence is by far the most important in any criminal investigation.

As team leader Gil Grissom tells a sidekick in the first episode: "Concentrate on what cannot lie: the evidence." These are not investigators who put much faith in what people say under interrogation.

Grissom, played by William Petersen, has a dark sense of irony, which sets him a little apart from the rest of the team.

"It takes a corpse to really get him fired up," says Petersen, who made his movie debut in 1985 as an impetuous Secret Service Agent in To Live And Die In LA. "He's more aware of the glory of humanity in death than he is in life."

Co-starring with Petersen is Marg Helgenberger as Catherine Willows, who is trying to juggle her love of the job with the pressures of life as a single mother.

If Helgenberger's name sounds familiar, it may be because she was thanked by Julia Roberts last week during her speech at the Oscars after winning the best actress award for her title role in Erin Brockovich. Helgenberger played the cancer-stricken plaintiff, Donna Jensen, in the movie.

However, Helgenberger is also well remembered as the sassy hooker Karen "KC" Koloski in the Vietnam war series China Beach, which won her an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress.

"KC was such a great part it was hard finding another role that would be as interesting and as challenging," she says during a break in filming CSI.

Both the Donna role in Erin Brockovich and the new role as Catherine Willows, however, fit the bill.

"I played Donna not so much as a dying woman but more a working-class mum with a good heart, who refused to acknowledge the seriousness of her condition in an attempt to keep her family happy," she explains.

"Catherine Willows, while a cop and a former stripper, is a working single mum, attempting to balance a career with parenthood."

Helgenberger also believes the script as a whole engages audiences in a special way.

"With CSI they get to follow clues through the use of flashbacks, which puts viewers into the investigators' minds and thought processes," she says.

"It's great when you're a part of something that gets up against the odds and succeeds."

CSI, Tuesday, Nine, 8.30pm.

Robert Fidgeon and Eleanor Sprawson
April 05, 2001
Daily Telegraph