Warning: contains spoilers, criticism
When I think of a groundbreaking episode of a popular show that used silence as a means to convey meaning I think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the episode entitled Hush. The silent episode of CSI: NY aired Monday, October 22 2012 entitled Unspoken is trivial and obnoxious by comparison—although the music contained in the episode, played by Green Day, is quite good, the episode itself is contrived and terrible.
First, the inexplicable silence of the characters is barely explained as they go throughout their daily lives and jobs not conversing with one another, especially in situations where they would speak. There’s a certain amount of background vocalizations, but nothing from any of the main actors in any given scene. As a result, the scenes are punctuated by Green Day music and sometimes odd sounds that instead convey meaning.
The lack of communication lacks context, as a result it feels senseless and without a frame of reference. This fact makes the episode feel gimmicky and soulless—as a result, in order to heighten the emotional reaction to these wordless exchanges, the writers introduced gut-wrenching situations that tug at the heartstrings instead of telling a story.
In other episodes, the procedural aspect of the narrative led the day and that required a lot of communication between actors in order to build the mystery and boil the onion’s layers.
The most galling trope used in this episode in order to heighten emotional impact while giving up substance happened to be the shooting of a little girl near the beginning by her playmate. A totally unnecessary addition to the story that distracted from the main story instead of building on it—in fact, it felt so tacked on that it bent credibility and beggared disbelief that the writers felt like this was a good time to use this particular plot device.
The music did feel somewhat poignant to the conversationless scenes that it was inserted into; but instead of making the show feel like it was a silent story, it began to feel like a succession of montages. In a normal show, music would get played when evidence was being processed. The beginning has both the crime, the events thereof, and some of the procedure.
Then there’s the voiced second half as the story begins to wrap up. Instead of stitching the story together, it feels out of place—a strange juxtaposition built out of an island of words amidst an ocean of silence. It demonstrates the previously mentioned need for conversation in order to play out the procedural portion of the show and makes the quiet parts all the more aberrant.
The existence of the voiced section made the beginning forgettable—it gets referenced through the voiced section but it just makes the silence segment feel altogether less relevant. Almost like a dream before waking and the rest of the story, told with sound and voices, dominates.
The “hurt child” trope becomes even more obnoxious at the end when the shooter, who dropped the gun that was picked up, is confronted with the death of the child in the accidental shooting. Not only did it feel like cheap emotional manipulation initially, the full-circle back to the beginning made the entire episode feel like it had failed to use the silence to do anything other than highlight the vacancy of the investigative and procedural aspects.
Try again CSI: NY we’ve seen this done better both by Buffy and by you.