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Genius TV, a la 'CSI,' falls off the grid

We all owe "CSI" a lot.

It was, after all, the TV show that first brought us 21st century television. Suddenly, TV was celebrating scientific brains and eccentric, self-effacing personalities.

Yes, it reveled in its Las Vegas setting, because that's where Anthony Zuiker, the show's inventor, lived. And courtesy of producing honcho Jerry Bruckheimer, it co-starred "China Beach's" Marg Helgenberger as a criminologist who'd formerly worked the pole at strip clubs. (And, as we'd find out later, was the independently wealthy daughter of a Vegas gambling mogul.)

But "CSI" was TV's first prime-time "wizard" show -- a genre that would become of crucial importance as the Bush years brought ever-astonishing revelations of just how much dumbing down we were all getting used to from the very top of society.

When you know that behind the scenes, Hollywood mega-mogul Michael Eisner, no less, was trying his best to kill it before it even aired, "CSI" and what it ultimately wrought seem even more amazing.

Suddenly, in our crime fantasies we had the hard-working lab rats on "CSI" fiddling with their databases, microscopes and mass spectrometers and giving us a crime-solving world of hair follicles, bugs and on-camera putrefaction. Suddenly, prime-time TV watchers became familiar with what an autopsy looks like. ("Y" chest incisions anyone? Ever see one before "CSI?")

The show's hero, Gil Grissom (William Petersen), was prime-time television's first truly "cool" egghead -- the first man in our historically anti-intellectual mass medium who might actually prefer a good entomological textbook to televised football and even women.

Meanwhile, in the White House, the word "nuclear" was too difficult to pronounce correctly.

We have cerebral prodigies all over TV now -- stark-raving brainiacs whose endless eccentricities and quantum-leaping rationalities play off against tough, beautiful female cops who go by the book. They're everywhere -- "The Mentalist," "Castle," "House," the "Person of Interest" boys, etc. (Pick a TV night, any TV night. You'll find at least one male prodigy of ratiocination.) Maybe the wildest of all was the crime-solving genius mathematician on the late, lamented "Numb3rs" from the Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley.

The Bush years are decisively gone, and our fantasies of powerful brainiacs are changing.

Are they ever.

Let me submit this: Some new comic book religiosity is struggling to be born in American TV. You could see it all this week.

Marg Helgenberger's farewell to "CSI" on Wednesday ended a two-parter of profound awfulness that substituted sprays of bullets from experimental weapons for all that plodding lab work. It gave Helgenberger four minutes of tearful farewell, but it was otherwise a mockery of everything that had originally made "CSI" so good.

Tim Kring's "Touch" on Fox -- which doesn't actually go on the air weekly until March -- gave us, in preview, an autistic child who can't speak but is somehow connected to the number patterns of the universe and is, therefore, capable of doing almost anything that the big machine in "Person of Interest" can do.

Half an hour into the show, Danny Glover was throwing Fibonacci series number theory at hyperventilating Kiefer Sutherland and we were almost back to Charlie on "Numb3rs."

But, of course, the reigning genius on "Touch" is a child, and a mute one at that. Any resemblance between "Touch" and some of the better-known religious mythology of civilization may not be accidental. A little child is, indeed, leading them on "Touch." And saving lives by virtue of his silently superior understanding of the algorithms of existence.

That's what I mean about something new struggling to be born in prime time. We're way beyond ultra-rationality now and into a new TV era of quasi-religious something or other.

Have you watched "Alcatraz" yet?

Surely, we say to ourselves, there would be a show connected to grit and grime and the very real vicious world of the legendary prison.

Fat chance.

The show -- wild, woolly, and weirdly addictive -- is about a team of relentless investigators that finds former Alcatraz inmates who vanished into thin air decades ago and now hauls them back to jail cells, not a day older.

The leader of the team is the authoritatively vengeful and malevolent Sam Neill (long time, no see -- too long) but the reigning scholar of the team (yes, a beautiful by-the-book cop is also in evidence) is Jorge Garcia, playing an overweight Alcatraz historian who knows more about the place than anyone else alive. Remember him from the lunatic fantasies of "Lost."

Our Genius TV, in other words, has gone completely off the rational grid. We're in pure adolescent religious territory now where fantasy mega-machines and holy children know everything about the day-to-day operations of the universe and bad guys suddenly vanish from Alcatraz, only to be materialized out of the ether decades afterward and clapped into prison cells to rot the way the universe clearly intended.

Some of the wildest stuff on current TV is the kind of pseudo-religiosity and mythology you get from comic books.

I can't wait until this prevailing inspirational fantasy age drops even further.

Just wait and see what happens when our TV investigators start springing off from Dr. Seuss.