On Feb. 22, Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for her supporting role in “Boyhood.” On March 4, her new series “CSI: Cyber” premiered on CBS.
She may not be the first actor with Oscar credit to topline a crime procedural franchise — Forest Whitaker in “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior,” Terrence Howard in “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and Elizabeth Shue in the “CSI” mothership, to name a few — but Arquette’s journey from Academy-darling to Jerry Bruckheimer’s leading lady is certainly the most intriguing. When the news broke that Arquette would star in the latest “CSI” spinoff on March 5 of last year, “Boyhood” was still a largely untested, 12-years-in-the-making experiment. And with no way to predict that the film would become her breakout film role at the age of 46, Arquette’s potential return to network television seemed like exactly the right move.
Let’s just say, a lot can change in a year.
As we all know, “Boyhood” became one of the year’s biggest success stories, with Arquette especially singled out for her role as Olivia Evans. TIME Magazine even declared: “Forget The Boy” — “With just a few alterations, Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ could just as easily have been called ‘Motherhood.’ ” In the end, Arquette not only won the Academy Award, but also the Golden Globe, the SAG Award and countless others. But unlike most awards season victors, for whom their next project is a source of much intrigue and chatter among the press, Arquette had already wrapped filming on her latest series. Less than two weeks after her groundbreaking and controversial acceptance speech calling for equal pay, the actress made her debut as Special Agent Avery Ryan, officially trading in Sundance for CBS. Ethan Hawke for James Van Der Beek. An Oscar-winning role for cyber sex with a chat-bot named Kitty.
If a “CSI” spinoff is already the lowest rung of the network television ladder, consider “CSI: Cyber” ’s feet planted firmly on the ground — an offensively terrible entry into the lucrative franchise, one that could only feasibly satisfy snarky bloggers or dozing grandparents. In the two episodes since its debut, Arquette and her team — also consisting of Shad “Bow Wow” Moss — have investigated online baby auctions and gore porn forums, twice-initiated online sex (“The more you pet me, the more I purr”), swabbed an infant’s dirty diaper for fingerprints and used a ham sandwich to explain computer technology. Even more so than the many “CSI” ’s or “NCIS” ’s that came before it, “Cyber” ’s character development is thin (Ryan was a victim of cyber crimes herself!). Its dialogue is laughable (“You work dark alleys, I work the dark web.”) and its be safe online mantra typed with quite the heavy hand. (It can, and most likely will, happen to you.)
It’s sad to see “CSI: Cyber” fail so spectacularly, not only given Arquette’s recent success, but also her history with this particular genre. As Allison Dubois on “Medium,” one of the greatest procedurals of all time, Arquette played a family woman with a supernatural gift, one that she used to solve crimes for the Phoenix District Attorney’s Office. Whereas “Cyber” is decidedly all crime, no character, “Medium” was a delicate balancing act — there was more to the NBC series than chasing clues and catching bad guys.
At its center was the Dubois family, Allison and Joe (Jake Weber, “The Following”) — a strong, equal partnership reminiscent of (dare I say) Eric and Tami Taylor — and their three daughters. The crimes were always of a secondary concern; they were important, of course, but informed a larger narrative goal that brought all of “Medium” ’s pieces together. They weren’t random or meaningless or entirely forgotten week-to-week. Their consequences — on Allison, on her family, on her colleagues — lingered. As a result, “Medium” was multi-dimensional and fully realized, intended for a more loyal audience than the late-night “CSI” rerun crowd.
“Medium” and “CSI: Cyber” represent opposite ends of the procedural spectrum — one original, thoughtful and sincere, the other a franchise cash cow. In fact, “Medium” is almost impossible to define in so few words, at once a master of the family drama, the crime procedural and the supernatural thriller. Ultimately, it’s not the jump-in-anywhere kind of crime series that any “CSI” thrives on, but rather one that demands its audience’s dedication. And at its core, Arquette’s Emmy-winning performance guides “Medium” ’s beauty, a narrative that accomplishes so much without spreading itself too thin.
“CSI: Cyber” is both “Boyhood” and “Medium” ’s foil. It’s experimental in no way. The stories span little time, emotions or growth. Character development is sacrificed for another trail that runs dry. And even with just one storyline, one angle and one goal, it always feels as though the wheels are spinning too fast. But worst of all, Arquette is wasted and interchangeable. Avery Ryan could be anybody and be played by anybody. And for a newly minted Oscar winner with an accomplished history within the genre, that is “CSI: Cyber” ’s most egregious downfall. Even worse than cyber sex with Kitty.