PEBNAV: A Look At The FIrst 2 Episodes of "CSI: Cyber"
- by Leo Stableford, 10 October 2015
When I used to work in IT support we used to have a code phrase. A ticket could be resolved due to a PEBKAC Error. PEBKAC stood for: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair. It was a way of saying that the hardware and software were fine, but that the user was dumb as a brick.
CSI: Cyber has forced me to coin a variation on this abbreviation: PEBNAV. This is an acronym for Problem Exists Between Network And Viewer. This was probably something you could have anticipated, right? I mean after Hackers, The Net, and NCIS we know the level at which mass media likes to talk about cyber crime. So after the recent UK premiere of the show I thought I'd produce this mini-review. I figured it would be like shooting cyber-fish in a hacker-barrel.
I wasn't exactly wrong, but maybe a little mistaken. Say I was presented with a barrel of squid rather than straight up fish. That would about cover us, metaphorically speaking.
I was ready to roll up with a bunch of stories about egregious caricatures and terrible computer talk. I find that CSI: Cyber has so much more wrong with it than that, those are the least of its problems.
The most surprising thing is that for a show called CSI: Cyber it hasn't got much computer stuff in it. Leaves you with plenty of time to wonder about the title, I suppose. I mean did nobody twig it sounds like some kind of Internet-based forensics fetish?
I can see the problem at the studio. I'm sure somewhere in the production team are people dedicated to the premise. The type of people who love Enigma, the Imitation Game and Person of Interest. This kind of project must be of interest to people who like tech and science news. On the other hand couldn't all that stuff be kind of, you know, boring to the usual CSI audience?
People want to see laser grids approximating bullet trajectories, cool explosions and grisly autopsies. A couple of techs sitting around discussing encryption algorithms? Snoozeville, amirite?
Maybe this is why every wince-inducing second of CSI Cyber appears to be in a confidence crisis. It is clear that some important network people had no confidence in this show at all. They wanted to make sure you know they think it's a loser in every way possible.
Most obnoxiously, the show is drenched in overdramatic music. At one point in the first episode Special Agent Elijah Mundo walks across a porch. At the end of his three step journey he discovers that a pair of wires have been cut. The music accompanying this shot would imply that he was about to find a pile of dead bodies. It's as if the show is face palming itself and squirming with embarrassment. "Yes, I know it's just Dawson from Dawson's Creek finding a couple of severed wires. Can't we all at least pretend it's exciting?"
Let's move on... Patricia Arquette's Avery Brooks is the main character in this show. Below Brooks are a small group of techs of various flavours. There are two unfeasibly young and attractive hackers. Twenty somethings who watched Hackers at kindergarten and believed it to be the truth. Then there's a classic bearded basement dweller because... Well, television can't resist a cheap stereotype.
The whole thing invokes the shadow of Ryan Phillipe in Anti-trust. The two attractive twenty somethings say they're computer experts. At home you just can't buy it for a second.
Not that I want to say that attractive young men and women can't be computing experts. I'm rather saying that these two don't do a convincing job, at all. I remember Reiko Aylesworth playing Michelle Dessler in 24. Aylesworth worked hard to make her computer science based federal agent plausible. In CSI: Cyber neither Shad Moss nor Hayley Kiyoko seem that bothered. They don't even twitch near a keyboard. They never so much as click a mouse. You see no code in the vicinity of either of them.
So the cast are unconvincing and the show itself appears embarrassed to exist. The next thing that might be expected is that its tech talk is ludicrous. I was hoping for something of the level of the famous NCIS "two hackers, one keyboard" incident.
No such luck here. The show team seem to be aware of how crucified they will get for putting a foot wrong. So aware that they do back flips to play down the tech angle of the show. This is insane. In the course of two episodes nothing particularly computery happens.
They still manage to grate on techie viewers with chat about "the deep web". Also there's a truly ridiculous moment involving a twenty character password. Even so, most of the crime solving parts of the procedural involve the use of technology. All of that usage is pretty mundane. Your grandparents would stand a chance of being able to participate in the investigations.
I don't believe for a second that this was entirely intentional. Little relics of the original vision for the show can be seen. The CSI Cyber team is based, for example, in Washington DC. This makes sense. Most cyber crime is white collar. I can believe there's a requirement for digital expertise in DC. It's the location of the most vital governmental institutions in the US.
However the CSI Cyber team spend time in their first two outings taking down less mundane targets. They bust an Eastern European baby auction site. Following this they find a weirdo who is causing accidents in order to access a chat room. These crimes are pretty small scale. They're also not the kind of cases that need top-level cyber crime fighters to crack them.
The solutions to both cases require a large number of shoot outs and car chases. Meanwhile the cyber component is definitely small 'c'. The problem here is only exacerbated because the digital to-ing and fro-ing is minimal. The cyber criminals are portrayed as stupid and unimaginative. These dimwitted ne'er do wells take only basic precautions against being found. The CSI Cyber team barely has to break a sweat to beat them on a technical level.
The show stands in the shadow of greater forebears like the Canadian ReGenesis or even Suits. The former was appreciated by a small but devoted fanbase as one of the most sciency sci fi shows ever. The latter rejoices in the complex levels of duplicity the characters are capable of. CSI is neither sciency nor smart. It's just more CSI. Without cool animations of bones breaking or bullets tearing flesh it's not a great follow up.
Pining for lost glory days at one point we get a fancy-shmancy animation of a hand removing an SD card from a nanny cam. Come on guys, that's not a knife grazing someone's internal organs or severing an artery. We know what it looks like when someone steals an SD card.
And here is the thing I hate most. I wanted to come here and explain where their tech story had failed. I can't, there wasn't a tech story in either of the first two episodes. It was just boring, standard, grindy police procedural.
After all is said and done there was only one thing about the show that should ring true for techies everywhere. The computer genii in the show were all ground level, they are the team. The Special Agent in Charge? Not a techie. It would appear that law enforcement and business share a common failing. Technical experts are often lead by people long on MBAs and short on technical knowledge.
Maybe if the team had the right management they wouldn't spend all their time out of office. They wouldn't do so much chasing after people in black jeeps, guns drawn. Pwning some hacker's hard drive by remote access wouldn't make great television, would it? Sadly, neither does this.
So, are you watching CSI: Cyber? How did you like all the code and the holographs and the viruses?! Let us know in the comments!
Tagged: movies & TV.