Discovery Channel // 2008 // 264 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // August 20th, 2009
Did you ever want to solve a murder?
Crime Scene University could be described as a competitive reality show, but that doesn't mean it's as unwatchable as something like Big Brother. Unlike most competitive reality shows, this one relies more on intellect and discipline than on shamelessness and treachery. There's no exploitation and no cheap manipulation for TV's sake. This is an enjoyable and enlightening show about how students learn to be crime scene analysts and work together as a team. You won't see any of the conventions of other competitive reality shows, but you'll be so enthralled that you won't even notice.
Crime Scene University, which originally aired on Discovery's ID channel, follows Dr. Robert Shaler's advanced criminal forensics course at Penn State University. The class is split up into two equal-sized teams (Blue and Gray) and each team is given an identical simulated crime scene at different locations. The students must then use forensics techniques they've learned from Dr. Shaler to process the evidence provided within a given time period and attempt to explain exactly what happened. The team that gets the closest to the truth wins, and the losers get to clean up both crime scenes. This set compiles all six episodes onto two discs, and in each the students handle crimes ranging from domestic violence to serial murders.
The competition is the hook that is meant to get viewers interested, but actually it's the least interesting part of the show. The real heart of the show is in explaining how the forensics techniques are used. Excerpts from Dr. Shaler's lectures are played to explain the science, but it's not until you see the students using it to gather evidence that you really understand it. How does one cast a tire tread? How does static electricity help gather invisible footprints? How can one estimate time of death using decomposition? This is the sort of thing that CSI uses regularly, but here you'll actually get to understand what it all does, besides providing cool flashy graphics. What's more, even the moments of conflict between team members aren't gratuitous, like with most other reality shows. Each student is chosen to lead his or her team in different episodes, and the conflicts that arise are not about contrived fights and personalities but about how the students are forced to learn leadership skills under pressure. These are vital skills that anyone who wants to work in law enforcement needs to have, so any squabbles and tension seem more understandable here than in most other shows.
As for the students themselves, they generally seem like a bookish and hardworking bunch. One or two come off as petulant or lazy, but for the most part they all try hard and seem excited to learn and put in the effort. Some regular viewers of reality TV may consider the fact that the students are not really defined a weakness -- there are no confessionals or biographies here and at times you may have a hard time telling the students apart. Still, this is hardly a grievous error. The show is less about the students than about the process of learning, so it's actually a blessed relief not to have to endure tearful speeches or tantrums. Everyone here sets aside their egos to do the job, and that job is far more interesting than any TV-friendly contrivances could be.
Technical specs are solid: anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack, both pristine. There are no extras, which wouldn't ordinarily be so notable. However, since there are only six episodes of the series overall, the lack of extras does make this set feel a little thin.
Nonetheless, Crime Scene University is an engaging and informative show. It strikes the right balance between entertaining and educational and will make you wish for more episodes than are seen here. Anyone who's ever watched CSI and wanted more depth into the science and techniques used on the show will find it worth a look.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Discovery Channel
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 264 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated