Do you remember that slew of Computers Are Magic movies from the nineties? You know, Hackers, The Net, that whole thing? They were the product of a simpler time, when Internet access was becoming increasingly ubiquitous but very few really understood what that meant. People were vaguely aware of “hackers” as computers took over more and more tasks, the idea of a kind of unstoppable cyber-wizard criminal was pretty scary. As the Internet matured, we came to set those fears—and those wildly inaccurate media portrayals—largely aside. Now everyone has a smartphone, and computers play a part in virtually everything we do. But the fears of the nineties live on in older generations. That can mean only one thing: more wildly inaccurate media portrayals!
CSI: Cyber has bravely stepped forward to fill that role, clearly poised to bring week-in, week-out fear and confusion straight to the living room. Not since The X-Files have we seen tales “ripped from the headlines” about things that hackers can’t or would have no reason to want to do. No, those episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit you were about to suggest don’t even come close.
It’s hard to say if the casting of James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek) as the show’s male lead is an intentional nod to this nineties heritage, but I’m going to applaud it as such regardless.
As much as CSI: Cyber relies on the “hack the planet!” madness of nineties movies, it could never have come to be without the runaway popularity of crime procedurals over the past decade and a half (including that of Medium, a mid-2000s vehicle for CSI: Cyber star Patricia Arquette). Because of that, this show seems like an incredibly safe bet from a network’s perspective: it’s a spin-off, it’s an actual new angle beyond CSI: Another Place Where Crimes Are Committed, and it’s a marriage of Baby Boomers’ preferred form of television (crime procedural) and one of their overarching concerns (the ubiquitous, powerful technology many of them struggle to understand). On that strength, it’s pulling in viewers at a pretty respectable rate so far, winning its time slot both weeks it’s aired.
So, what makes me say it’s so damn crazy?
To answer that, we’re going to have to dig into the plot of these episodes, so, beware, spoilers below. If you plan on watching the first two episodes for the thrill of the whodunit, stop now.
Now that those folks are gone, let’s start with the pilot, the earnestly titled “Kidnapping 2.0.” Before you ask, I don’t have patch notes for the update, but from what I can tell, it involves magically adding speakers to a baby-monitoring camera, that is just insecure enough for our criminals to easily infiltrate. They will then hold their baby auction over, not just the camera’s vulnerable network but also its brand new high-volume speakers, which the baby’s parents can still totally hear. Not only do these baby-snatchers conduct their auction in perhaps the most traceable way short of holding it physically in the baby’s bedroom, but they also all speak in their own various native tongues, which, even assuming the auctioneer is just, like, the best at languages, seems that it would interfere with everyone knowing what the current high bid is. I’m not saying I could run a better baby auction, but I am saying I’m available weekends and know a thing or two about event planning. Call me.
When the CSI team gets to the crime scene to begin…investigating, like they do, they immediately notice the baby camera’s SD card—where it for some creepy reason saves its videos of your baby—is missing. The hunt for the SD card leads them to a pair of drug mules who were involved in the kid grab. The two accomplices are shot dead by a motorcycle-mounted sniper who, when run down by Daws – er, Agent Mundo – is revealed to have burned off his fingerprints. Man, these guys are serious! Especially considering the skin would regrow eventually and he’d just have to keep burning them off whenever he was getting ready to go criming. Do you think they have a motorcycle sniper rotation to keep one guy from having to do that too often? Doesn’t the constant burning affect his trigger finger’s sensitivity? Lot of questions here.
In any case, they use the SD card they found in the sniper’s jacket pocket; find a glaring backdoor in the baby camera code; shut down the entire baby camera operation (which the seemingly lucrative corporation is totally OK with doing without a court order) and then the baby-selling ring threatens the FBI via a neighbor boy’s game console. After a garbled explanation of MAC addresses (the unique alphanumeric code assigned to Internet-connection-capable devices) the team traces the origin of the threat and busts the baby ring. Babies for everyone!
Then we have the second episode, “CMND:\Crash,” which is actually surprisingly close to (but still pretty far from) what a command to run an executable program called “crash” would look like. The episode begins with a fatal rollercoaster collision and quickly escalates to an attempt to slam a packed Boston train car into the line’s termination point, killing everyone inside. Why do this? Apparently the guy gets off on mass casualties. That sounds like a flippant, half-assed comment on my part, but that is literally the antagonist’s motive: he’s part of an online “goreporn” forum that encourages users to act on violent urges and attack groups of people because the destruction and ensuing instability are exciting for them. For some reason, the antagonist and his group are never referred to as “terrorists,” and I found that kind of-
I won’t bore you with my deeply technical but characteristically shade-throwing questions about choosing to commit felonies over Bluetooth using a standard smartphone, which seems to just be screaming, “Someone, please catch me!” No. What I want to know is how the hell the guy who sold him his rollercoaster- and subway-jacking hardware operates a cash-only business with no names and no (shipping) addresses, while still making enough money to keep himself alive. Are the people in his immediate vicinity just super interested in modular computing? Even assuming some sort of public key/drop point scenario, I’m still shocked the writers passed up a chance to hop on the Bitcoin boogeyman bandwagon.
Anyway, this very strange subterranean Speed remake concludes with Patricia Arquette whispering, “Hello, Otto,” to someone she saw smirking in a crowded subway station but did not see use any electronic device, much less hack a train. She immediately proceeds to kick this stranger’s legs out from under him like she’s fresh out the Cobra Kai dojo and cuffs him, just as James Van Der Beek is using the friendship bracelet his daughter made him to unhook the train-crashing device. You know, the stuff cybercrime cops do.
There’s a lot of “what” in the ongoing plot, too, like the remarkably sharp-dressed recently flipped former blackhat hacker Nelson (Shad Moss, né Lil’ Bow Wow) and his relationship with a current blackhat that seemingly ends when someone else answers his (completely unprotected and left on a desk—nice infosec, there) phone and makes a move on her, which she is all about. (Did she just love him for his phone number?) Or department-head Patricia Arquette’s back story, where she was a psychologist who got hacked, resulting in a patient’s murder, and in the course of her investigating the case on her own she somehow just ended up in the FBI, heading up a “team of cyber experts” despite the comprehensive list of her credentials for that position being “has been hacked.”
As you can see, this show is nonstop crazy with a somewhat loose grasp of its subject matter. So, if that’s your thing—which, if you loved those weirdo nineties hackers movies like I did, it is—then CSI: Cyber, airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS, just might be for you. As for me, to quote every Hollywood hacker in history, “I’m in.”