Rob Zombie did a funny thing between 2009’s “Halloween II” and 2012’s “The Lords of Salem” — he directed an episode of “CSI: Miami,” the CBS crime procedural that gifted us all with the David Caruso comeback nobody asked for.
By the time Zombie chose to sit behind the camera for the series, “CSI: Miami” was well underway. The crime drama was in its eighth season and Caruso’s one-liners and peculiar way of fumbling with sunglasses had already swept the nation. Zombie and the show were an odd pairing, to say the least, but the rocker by day/director by night was a genuine fan and producers were likely trying to replicate the success they had previously when they invited Quentin Tarantino to direct to a two-part episode of the original “CSI.”
Zombie’s 2010 episode was advertised nearly as much as Tarantino’s episode of the original series was. “Director Rob Zombie takes ‘CSI: Miami’ to the scariest place on Earth,” the trailer for the episode announced before revealing Detective Horatio Crane (Caruso) was headed to Los Angeles for the hour.
The episode, which was the 16th of the eighth season, was packed with character actors in guest spots, many of them Zombie regulars. There was William Forsythe as a mysterious police captain, Malcolm McDowell as a slithery lawyer and even Michael Madsen as a football star turned bodyguard.
The trailer for the episode and the allure of Zombie’s name drove many people who had no interest in “CSI: Miami” to finally tune in. The episode — which was titled “L.A.” — drew 12.07 million viewers; every remaining episode of the season, except for the finale, ended up bringing in lower viewership. “L.A.” was an event, a new Rob Zombie movie you only knew about because you happened to glance up at the television set at the right time. It promised to be different and to be a genuine product from the mind that had brought us both “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects.” The hour of television did not disappoint, as Zombie’s fingerprints can be seen all over the place.
From the opening scene at a mask party to the visiting sharp-witted, edgy cast to the L.A. setting, Zombie managed to do with the episode what was most important — he made it his own.
As a young teenager with no interest in any show aired by CBS, I made it a point to stay up to watch an episode of a show I’d only seen parodied before. It was like a secret Rob Zombie movie only for the lucky fans who had managed to discover it. What ended up being disappointing about “L.A.” is what is disappointing about every episode of “CSI: Miami” — it’s “CSI Miami.” David Caruso is a stiff mess with eye-rolling one-liners and the plot is often predictable. The style clashed with the story Zombie was trying to tell and it made for a mixed watch as a young Zombie fan.
However, as an adult I find Rob Zombie’s “CSI: Miami” episode one of his most enjoyable works to revisit. The fact that his style clashes so harshly with the vibe of the show is what makes it a hypnotic 40 minutes of procedural television. The specific story finds Horatio Crane confronted with a man he is all too familiar with. Tony Enright (Paul Blackthorne) is a well to do pornographer who previously beat a murder rap over the death of his wife. He and his bodyguard (Michael Madsen) are now caught up in a new murder and Crane is sure Enright is responsible from the get-go.
Crane travels to Los Angeles to dive deeper into the murder charge Enright beat. In Los Angeles, he is connected to a mysterious police captain (William Forsythe) and a shady, but charismatic lawyer (Malcolm McDowell). With actors like Forsythe and McDowell guest starring, the performances in Zombie’s “L.A.” are much better than your typical “CSI” episode. In fact, if the episode had been blessed with another 40 minutes, it could have turned into a pretty compelling feature-length thriller.
To make Zombie’s episode even more kooky and worth checking out, he has since spoken about how miserable the job was. The directing gig has led to some pretty amusing stories from the rocker/director. “Longest three weeks of my life,” Zombie joked in a 2010 interview on Fox News’ former late-night program “Red Eye.”
The director revealed that working with Caruso was a challenge. The show’s lead actor struggled with doing anything more than being the center of a hero shot and spouting off a one liner. Zombie was informed Caruso didn’t like walking, driving, dealing with doors, you name it.
One behind the scenes bright spot was Malcolm McDowell; as Zombie revealed at a screening of his film “Lords of Salem,” the actor only took the guest role on the CBS drama so he could amuse himself by annoying Caruso. One of McDowell’s assaults on Caruso’s ego would be making sure to use the bathroom at inconvenient times to make the lead actor have to wait. There’s even a scene in the episode where McDowell happily chats away on a telephone while Caruso’s Horatio impatiently waits. Horatio eventually tells the self-absorbed lawyer to get off the phone with a level of intensity rarely seen by the actor in “CSI: Miami.” Zombie has revealed on several occasions that this hostility was real. McDowell was improvising on the phone and he refused to stop until Caruso actually lost his temper for real. Maybe it’s those struggles that make the episode such an odd, but lovable piece of pop culture history.
Or maybe it’s just the fact that some producers felt risky enough to give an hour of a straight-laced cop procedural over to someone as out there as Rob Zombie. What came out of it was something undeniably unique for both good and bad reasons.
Zombie’s episode of “CSI: Miami” is a wonderful pit stop in his filmography to revisit or dive into for the first time. There’s plenty of recognizable stuff for Zombie fans to enjoy, but there’s also the pleasure of watching his style go to war with the more straightforward style of a show like “CSI: Miami.”
There was nothing like it then and there’s still nothing like it now.