1236 words • 6~9 min read

Has CSI jumped the shark?

In the language of television reviews, the phrase “jump the shark” refers to a show that has been on the air too long and is out of good ideas. The original use refers to an episode of Happy Days where Fonzi literally jumped over a shark while waterskiing. A recent episode of CSI made me question if they are guilty of this same phenomenon. In episode 2 of season 11 (yes, the show has been on the air for 11 years), a woman is attacked by a shark. CSI watchers know that the show takes place in Las Vegas, Nevada, an unusual place for a shark attack. As it turns out, the shark attack took place in a Vegas hotel swimming pool. I’m not joking. Check out the preview:

Before I go into the details of this episode, I wanted to take a minute to comment on how this show has influenced American culture. For many years, before being replaced by NCIS, it was the most watched show on television. Other than SyFy’s Eureka, it’s arguably the most positive portrayal of science and scientists on television today (yes, I know that it’s applied science, and I know that it’s often incorrect). A positive portrayal of scientists in a popular show is undoubtedly a good thing for our field. Though certain SFS co-writers¬† don’t watch a lot of TV, most of the country does.

CSI’s influence isn’t always positive. The show’s tendency to present overwhelming evidence demonstrating the guilt of a criminal has been a boon for real-life criminal defense attorneys. This is called the “CSI effect“. Juries expect prosecutors to have the same overwhelming evidence that they see on their favorite TV show. While I think having a high standard of proof is a good thing for our criminal justice system, I can’t help but wonder if guilty people have gone free because of a television program.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss “Pool Shark” (yes, that’s really the name of the episode) and whether or not the shark science is accurate. Warning-¬† contains episode spoilers.

Observant readers who viewed the episode preview will have noticed that there is a shark tank next to the pool in question. However, after the shark attack occurs, all of that tank’s resident are accounted for, prompting one of the dumbest lines I’ve ever heard on television: “Would you like to count my sharks?”

The question facing the CSIs is simple- where did the shark come from? As it turns out, a rival casino owner (cleverly described as “the biggest shark in Vegas”) has his own shark tank with its associated “stable of sharks”.

The shark in question is a tiger shark. The aquarist in the episode claims that shark tanks can only have 3 or 4 tigers in a tank because they otherwise get too aggressive. My initial thought was that it is impossible to have a tiger shark in captivity in the first place, but as it turns out, I was incorrect. Several aquariums have been able to hold tiger sharks in captivty. Most only had one at a time, but at least one tank had two tiger sharks at once. That tank was at the Mandalay Bay exhibit in Las Vegas. All right, CSI, you’re reasonably accurate so far.

After surviving for several hours in the pool, the shark died, prompting a necropsy. The analysis of stomach contents proceeded much as it would in reality, except that the contents were all easily identifiable. This excellent post by Chuck shows how unrealistic this is. Also, a zebra shark was part of those contents, and it was described as being “found off the Florida Keys”, which is false. However, the vet doing the necropsy also claimed that the shark was clearly from the wild, which we later found out that he lied about to cover his own butt. I’m willing to concede that this was possibly a case of the vet lying to the police and not a scientific inaccuracy.

Interestingly, the episode had several pro-conservation moments. The vet lamented that “shark populations worldwide are in serious decline without stories like this”. After being offered a bowl of shark fin soup from the rival casino owner, CSI Willows replied “That’s one of the biggest reasons that sharks are going extinct, I’ll pass”. We eventually learn that the victim was dead before the shark bit her, so the shark didn’t even kill anyone. I was pleasantly surprised by all of this.

Seriously though, a show which claims that DNA fingerprinting takes only an hour or so and that you can locate a criminal’s house from a particular grain of sand must have some scientific inaccuracy in their shark episode. Right? TV and movies are infamous for portraying sharks in an inaccurate and negative light. As it turns out, I could find only one problem.

The coroner made one offhanded comment- “according to shark week, it only takes a drop of blood to draw a shark from 100 miles away”. That is clearly incorrect, as Andrew pointed out here.

In the end, the episode was reasonably scientifically accurate for a fictional program. The shark died as a result of being in chlorinated fresh water after a reasonable amount of time. The vet did a stomach contents analysis correctly (though the special effects people made the contents look too easily identifiable). The shark did not kill a person, it took a bite from a dead person who was bleeding. When the least accurate thing I can find is an exaggerated statistic quoted from a series infamous for exaggerated statistics, I can’t be too upset with how sharks were portrayed by CSI. They even got some solid conservation messages in.

Despite this, the episode was pretty ridiculous. Seriously, how did someone transport an 8 foot shark across the street (the Las Vegas strip, no less) and drop it into a crowded pool with no one noticing? The shark puns were maddening even for a show notorious for bad puns. “Would you like to count my sharks” remains one of the worst sentences I’ve ever heard on TV, and I watch a lot of TV. Even though the shark science was reasonable accurate, this episode may still be proof that CSI has been on the air too long.

~WhySharksMatter

H/T to the Dorsal Fin for alerting me to this episode.