CSI: Cyber follows the tried-and-true CSI formula: A rag-tag team led by a calm über-detective (Patricia Arquette) solves mysteries, enhanced by flashy graphics and out-there crimes past the scope of the Law & Orders of the world. Recent Academy Award-winner Arquette plays Avery Ryan, a former behavioral psychologist compelled by revenge to work on cyber crimes. Way back when the Internet was new, as Ryan tells it, her files were hacked, leading to the public release of all of her clients’ deepest and darkest secrets. Her career was destroyed, and worse: One of her patients was killed (it’s not clear if said patient died at the hands of the hacker or because her information was leaked, but that is for future episodes to decide) and it’s her mission to find the man who destroyed her erstwhile life. Ryan is joined by a former Marine (James Van Der Beek) with a penchant for video games, hackers galore (Charley Koontz, Hayley Kiyoko, and Shad Moss, a.k.a Bow Wow), and their boss man (Peter MacNicol).
Cyber is the first show in the CSI franchise not to be location-based. Instead of working for a metropolitan police department (Las Vegas, Miami, New York), Ryan and her team are part of the FBI, so cases take place all over the country. But the biggest difference between Cyber and the three other CSI entries is obvious: The focus of the investigation isn’t an autopsy or DNA fibers, but what can be gleaned from the technology we use every day. Ultra close-up shots of victims accompanied by attractive investigators detailing every step of what they’re doing are replaced by visually stimulating computer code.
The scare tactics at the heart of Cyber lie in not knowing. While other CSIs center around gruesome acts of violence, Cyber instead relies on the idea that our carelessness and general ignorance about the technology we use will be our downfall, putting us all on a path to a death-by-ride-share serial killer. Each episode sent out for review has one piece of seemingly innocuous technology at its core—baby monitors, roller coasters, an Uber-style app—that causes pain, or even death. Even Avery is supposed to act as a lesson to the audience: She was just like us when her life came crashing down because of a hacker. As MacNicol’s Simon Sifter lays out, “Technology has made life easier, but it hasn’t made it safer.”
While issues of privacy and the general lack of Internet security are legitimate issues, Cyber feels like a cautionary tale best suited for those who don’t really understand the aforementioned issues. But there are Easter eggs for the Internet-lovers: The third episode, “Killer En Route,” references the viral-story-turned-Super-Bowl-ad about a woman who called 911 for help by pretending to order a pizza.
Part of Ryan’s retribution is redemption for the criminal cases around her. She recruits Moss’ Brody Nelson to the FBI after her team locks him up. He was a “black hat,” or criminal hacker, and she wants to turn him into a “white hat,” impressing him by taking the skill that he once used for his own gain to do good (Kiyoko’s Raven Ramirez also lived the seeming high life of an ex-hacker before turning to the light). The perspective of Ryan-as-savior positions her as the fearless leader, but it also leads to a scary view of the Internet. Look at all these attractive, seemingly nice people doing bad for bad’s sake, when all they needed was someone to give them the proper-hued hat.
Cyber is not meant to break the mold, just to change the evidence from bodies to computers, keeping a comforting story arc alongside a season-long mystery to keep viewers tuning in. But the show doesn’t help its own case by harboring such talented actors and not giving them any heavy lifting to do. Arquette is the obvious bearer of this torch, having earned her Oscar in a role that showed off her bare realness. Even in Medium, Arquette was able to to tap into something deeper than she does in Cyber’s outset. MacNicol and Van Der Beek have proven themselves as solid comedians in Ally McBeal and Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23, respectively, yet here they carry the dour weight of investigators saddled with iron-laden lines. But because it fits that oh-so-successful CSI mold, it’s likely these actors will be entrenched in Cyber for quite a long time.