Bold locations, rich production values seduce auds

When it comes to romance, “CSI: Miami’s” Horatio Caine (David Caruso) may be one of the unluckiest men on television.

His first flame, Det. Megan Donner, left the force unexpectedly and in last season’s finale, his new wife was murdered only days after their wedding.

Yet while the show’s lead character can’t seem to catch a break, “CSI: Miami’s” real love affair is the offscreen romance between the series and the city itself.

Among the many elements that make “CSI: Miami” Monday night’s hottest show is the way it re-creates its hometown. Unlike the glaring neon of “Miami Vice,” the show that first embedded the south Florida party scene in America’s consciousness, “CSI” bathes Miami in deep, rich hues. Reds are fiery and vibrant; greens are lush and cool; sunlight sparkles through every opening.

Of course, the show’s richness is no accident, and production works overtime to do justice to Miami’s visual texture.

“When we started shooting,” says co-exec producer Sunil Nayar, “my sense of the city was the more glamorous nature of it — the beach and the sports teams. ‘Miami Vice’ was the closest my experience of Miami (came), so I went early to get a sense of the city. I had no idea, both in geography and urban layout, how diverse it really was.”

Capturing this diversity is much of what gives the show its flavor. Although nearly 80% of the show is shot in L.A., “CSI’s” writers are in constant contact with scouts and location managers on the ground in Florida.

“The writers come up with an idea and send me the script or outline,” says Miami-based production manager Terry Miller. “We’ll start letting them know if it’s something we can do, where we think we can shoot it and what we think it will cost.”

So far, Miami has failed to disappoint.

“We go the extra mile because we want to convince them to shoot all the episodes here,” says Robert Parente, director of the Miami Mayor’s Office of Film, Arts & Television. “For the last five years, our tourism numbers have gone up steadily. I’d be more than happy in giving ‘CSI: Miami’ a nod in helping make that happen.”

As the liaison between what locals call the “three amigos” (Miami, Miami Beach, and Dade County) and Hollywood, Parente not only helps find locations, but he finds himself in the enviable position of pitching story ideas as well.

Three years ago, for instance, Parente suggested Miami’s Grand Prix as the backdrop for an episode. The producers not only took his suggestion, but Parente arranged to shoot at the actual race — affording “CSI” the kind of production values usually too expensive for episodic television.

“The Everglades is another unique place,” says Miller, who once coordinated Miami’s departments of forestry and management to shoot a controlled burn (when ecologists burn large portions of swamp to curtail runaway growth). “In the past, they’ve relied on lightning and natural fires. But when that doesn’t happen, they have burns. They light it from a helicopter and control it. The writers found out about that and carved an episode around it.”

Because of production costs, however, the series finds itself more in Southern California than the Sunshine State. Twenty of its episodes are shot in the L.A. area, re-creating Miami’s urban neighborhoods (Long Beach) to the Everglades (a duck farm in Camarillo). And when the show can’t find a nearby location, there are always visual effects.

“When we come to something that looks L.A., we use set extensions, like a matte painting in the old film days,” says producer Don Tardino. “I take a picture in Miami, insert that picture at the top of my frame and it looks like you’re in Miami.”

But does all this research and trickery make up for shooting 3,000 miles away?

“There have been mistakes,” says Parente. “The occasional hills in the background, and Miami’s light is a little different. Richer and more sensuous. But you’d have to be a really good detective to find the differences.”

And then, chuckling, “My hat’s off to them … grudgingly.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more