CSI: the mystery of the unstoppable juggernaut

For the fourth time in five years CSI or one of its spin-offs has been named the world's most popular TV drama, possibly because of the illusion that the good guys always win.

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Justin Bieber is sitting opposite a detective in a moodily lit interrogation room. Spooky synths play in the background. "I didn't have anything to do with the bombs, I swear," Bieber mutters from behind his boy-band fringe. After some tense back-and-forth, he gives away the location of his brother, who has been attempting to bomb the Las Vegas police force. "You'd better hurry," he calls after the officer running from the room. "What happened at the funeral is just fireworks compared to what's coming next."

The scene happens during the opening episode of the 11th season of the series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which went on air last month. It was announced this summer at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival that the programme had knocked House off the top spot as the world's most-watched televison drama. Signing up the platinum-selling teenage pop star Bieber to take a guest role is just the latest canny move producers have made to ensure the show stays on top. Past guest spots have gone to the burlesque artist Dita von Teese, the singer Taylor Swift, and Travis Barker, the drummer with the punk band Blink-182.

But on-trend cameos cannot be the only thing that gives CSI such universal appeal, so what makes it such a juggernaut? Launched on US network CBS in 2000, the show was the most-watched on American TV by 2002, when its first spin-off CSI: Miami was launched. CSI: New York followed two years later, and they were all syndicated around the world. The Monte-Carlo Television Festival has named CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as the world's most popular drama in 2007 and 2008, as well as this year. CSI: Miami was at the top of the league in 2006. The franchise has also inspired imitators, caused applications to forensic science courses to rocket, and influenced a real police force (Norfolk Constabulary in the UK) to drop the designation "scene of crime officer" in favour of "crime scene investigator" for its forensic science staff. A season finale directed by Quentin Tarantino got 35 million viewers alone.

Like many popular detective series, CSI adheres to a strict formula, with one or two puzzles per episode that are neatly wrapped up by the time the closing credits roll. The structure is as old as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories or Poe's detective tales, and as confident in the talents of its heroes. CSI's forensic investigators are unflinching, decisive and dedicated to the chase. And the tools at their fingertips are almost magical in their potency: CCTV camera footage can be enlarged and refined until a suspect's face shows up in the reflection on a victim's eyeball.

In one episode from season 5, the identity of a killer is betrayed in a piece of pottery that had been shaped on a wheel as crucial information was spoken. The words captured in the grooves (in the same way that music is inscribed on vinyl) are recovered when the pot is later played back like a record by investigators (they use a handy computer application to clean up the fuzzy sound in a couple of clicks here, too.)

This over-the-top wizardry has often been the subject of derision from people who actually work in the field. For many fans, that is all part of the fun, although it's had some serious repercussions. There have been reports that as a direct result of watching CSI and shows like it, juries in America sometimes expect evidence gathered at crime scenes to be far stronger than is often possible. But, like many of the shows on the Monte Carlo top 10, CSI isn't about reflecting real life; it is unfettered escapism. The good guys win, mysteries are solved, and there's enough gritty content to keep pulses racing.

Recessions are a good time for escapist TV, as are times of crisis: the show's creator, Anthony Zuiker, has noted that CSI's ratings in the US shot up after the September 11 attacks in 2001. "People were rushing to us for their comfort food," he said. "There was a sense of justice in CSI - it helped to know that there were people like our characters out there helping to solve crimes. And, of course, 9/11 was the world's largest crime scene."

Real life might be more like The Wire, with its blurred morality and ambiguous resolutions, but it's comforting to imagine that, for an hour a week at least, it's like CSI, and that the good guys with the magical computer programs have our backs. * Jessica Holland