The forensics detective show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was something of a critics’ darling when it premiered in the fall of 2000. Writers such as James Wolcott and Joyce Millman praised it—in Millman’s words, it was a “crisp, technowhizzy whodunit.”
Slightly more than a month after giving the show honorable mention status in her yearly top ten list, Millman was having second thoughts. CSI, she wrote, “means to be hip and edgy, but doesn’t quite have the moves to pull it off. (Still, compared to most of what passes for drama on CBS, CSI looks like The Sopranos.)”
The passing reference to The Sopranos says a lot. Midway into its first season, CSI was already on its way to becoming a ratings juggernaut that would make it a rival to the reigning king of formula crime series and spin-off franchises, Law & Order. At a time when TV finally appeared to be growing up, what Millman calls “the show’s modest pleasures” gave it an old-school charm so long as it knew its place. But those same qualities could make it seem ominously counter-revolutionary once the show became a huge hit, claiming attention and eyeballs that would have been better lavished on edgier, more deserving shows.
In the 13 years since, CSI has kept plugging along. It’s produced more than 300 episodes, two spin-off series (not counting the forthcoming CSI: Cyber, starring Patricia Arquette), comic books, novels, and video games. It’s weathered cast changes, turning over the position of male lead twice—not counting a four-episode story arc during the seventh season when Liev Schreiber filled in for the show’s original star, William Petersen, while Petersen was acting in a play. It’s even inspired a term used by legal professionals: The “CSI effect” describes the discouraging phenomenon of juries expecting to see an impossible amount of meticulously assembled, incontrovertible forensic evidence in court cases, and deadlocking or automatically voting to acquit when they don’t get it. And somehow, we still managed to get The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Rick And Morty. Now that we know for certain that adventurous TV can peacefully coexist with the homey pleasures of CSI, maybe it’s time to revisit the show and try to determine why those modest pleasures once felt fresh, and why they’ve proven so durable.
For a start, by making heroes of scientists who solved crimes using their brains and lab equipment, the show made a refreshing change from all those post-Dirty Harry tough guys who relied on their guts to tell them who to shoot next. When it premiered, the show’s nerdy, brainiac crime busters and high-tech hardware suggested The X-Files without the alien abductions. (The show’s trademark Fantastic Voyage depictions of fatal injuries, seen from inside the body, were probably inspired by a scene in David O. Russell’s Three Kings.) Now, Gil Grissom (William Petersen), TV’s first entomologist detective hero, looks like the harbinger of a trend, the first of many attempts to re-conceive Sherlock Holmes (House, Sherlock, Elementary) for the age of geek chic. In Petersen’s hands, Grissom’s advice to his more hotheaded charges that they always “follow the evidence” because the evidence “cannot lie,” takes on the weight of Jean-Luc Picard’s good-nerd mantra: “Make it so.”
Petersen came to the role at the right time. In movies, Petersen started at the top, playing the pathologically revenge-fixated secret serviceman antihero of William Friedkin’s To Live And Die In L.A. (1985) and perhaps the best known of all forensicdetective heroes, the spooky FBI profiler Will Graham in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1985). Those movies failed to make Petersen a star, and for good reason: He came across as cold blooded and unnervingly intense, without any leavening of charm or humor. Very quickly, he was downgraded to starring in TV movies and miniseries and appearing in such supporting roles as the bad husband in Cousins (1989) who drives his wife, Isabella Rossellini, into the arms of current CSI star Ted Danson.
By the time he signed on to play Grissom, he was 47 and had begun to trade in the lean, mean, and hungry look of his early roles for a fleshier, graying papa-bear quality that suited him and made him more likable then he’d been before.
Grissom was one of the good guys, but he still had an eerie, faintly creepy edge to his eccentricity that saved him from blandness. Grissom was the night shift supervisor of CSI, and while that gave his team first pick of the most garish cases and the most shadowy, film noir crime scenes, nobody gets stuck being the night shift supervisor of anything without looking like a loser, or at least a weirdo. Grissom proved his bravery not by putting himself in physical danger but by refusing to play politics when it got in the way of doing his job. So he was left in the dust by his charmless rival, Ecklie (Marc Vann), who knew how to play the game. Grissom seemed to like being left behind to concentrate on his corpses and bugs, but the show kept viewers guessing: Was his single-minded devotion to his scientific work the result of moral integrity, or is he a person with Asperger’s? The one thing that was clear was that Grissom, who was fond of saying that he and his team “speak for the dead,” was the guy you’d want speaking for you if someone cut short your time on this Earth.
Petersen left the show partway through the ninth season, eager to return to the stage and get away from all those bugs and corpses. He was replaced by Laurence Fishburne, an actor capable of great performing with great power and slyness, who is also capable of stiffening up and inflating himself with so much stentorian pomposity that he suggests an Animatronic escapee from Disney World’s Hall Of Presidents. He stayed locked in humorless gasbag mode for most of his three seasons at the helm. The show went a ways toward remaking itself in the 12th season, when Ted Danson, fresh from his own career-making role as a pothead magazine editor on Bored To Death, took over as Supervisor D.B. Russell. The contrast between the stern heavyweight thespian Fishburne and the nimble, cheerfully oddball Danson could give viewers whiplash. Since the show debuted, other regular cast members have left (Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan), arrived (Elisabeth Shue, Wallace Langham), or both come and gone (Jorja Fox). But 14 seasons is a long time, and CSI’s cast roster is the Rock Of Gibraltar compared to that of Law & Order or any of its offshoots. Another difference between the two shows is that Law & Order—with its “torn from the headlines” cases and jaundiced view of the criminal justice system—could tell its viewers something about the real world. CSI, set in a world where cops clear a path for forensic scientists to gather data in a pristine setting and haul it back to their well-funded labs to produce the clear-cut results that solve cases definitively, is a fantasy. But to look at the show’s best episodes is to confirm that it is a beguiling fantasy, just as to look at any of its imitators (including its own “official” spin-offs) is to confirm that it’s not an easy one to pull off.
“Unfriendly Skies” (season one, episode nine): A Rashomon-style episode with a Murder On The Orient Express-style conclusion, set in an airport; a plane has landed with a man laid out in first class looking as if he’d fallen under a buffalo stampede, and none of his fellow passengers can account for how he got that way. The climactic scene of the CSI crew putting the solution together by acting it out on the plane shows the cast settling into an easy groove that would distinguish the show for years.
“Sex, Lies And Larvae” (season one, episode 10): This episode—in which Grissom uses the insects at a crime scene to determine both the time of death and to establish that the murder was committed far from where the body was dumped—makes it clear that Grissom’s field of entomology was not a random choice. It also helps establish the seething, angry desire for justice that would define Jorja Fox’s character, Sara Sidle, to the point that even Grissom would gently suggest that she take a breath and find some off-duty hobbies besides listening to her police scanner.
“The Finger” (season two, episode 14): A twisty kidnapping for ransom story, complete with a severed digit and a sinister figure in a bunny rabbit mask, but mostly notable as a star showcase for Marg Helgenberger, who took a character that was always on the verge of being a conceit—Catherine Willows, Vegas stripper turned single mom master detective—and turned it into one of the strongest characters on a long running network TV show of its era.
“Lady Heather’s Box” (season three, episode 15): Sorry about the title, which should come with an audio clip of Mike Myers exclaiming, “Oh, behave!” This is still the best of the half-dozen episodes featuring Melinda Clarke as the smooth-as-silk dominatrix Lady Heather, who has a tantalizing rapport with Grissom: In one improbably sexy scene, they take tea and chat about the “fascinating” medical apparatus she uses for her diabetes. Clarke brings out the best in her other costars too. Check out her teamwork with Paul Guilfoyle in the interrogation room scene, and his hilarious reading of the line, “It’s tough being me.”
“Fur And Loathing” (season four, episode five): One of several episodes written by Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight), who can always be trusted to push the envelope in terms of subject matter. The death of a man in a raccoon costume leads the crime scene investigators to interrogate the people at a PAF (Plushies And Furries) convention. At the time, this episode was genuinely controversial, not just among people who complained about such weirdness being depicted in prime time, but among Plushies and Furries who felt that the show had misrepresented their scene for the sake of a few snarky laughs. Some may find the jokey “this is really bizarre—not that there’s anything wrong with that” tone un-enlightened, but it’s a long way from the condemnatory attitude of a ’60s Dragnet show. And considering the series’ Vegas setting, the Hunter S. Thompson references were way overdue.
“Grave Danger” (season five, episodes 24-25): This two parter—which was originally aired in a single two-hour block as the fifth season finale—is probably the best known CSI episode, and the one that people who have never followed the show regularly are most likely to have seen. It’s the one directed by Quentin Tarantino, in which Nick (George Eads) is kidnapped and buried alive—a concept that Tarantino apparently failed to completely get out of his system with Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Tarantino’s fingerprints can be felt not just in the sweaty pulp thrills but in such touches as the early throwaway moments in which Ecklie, of all people, is allowed to make wisecracks that undermine the very premise of the show. Tarantino, with his eternal fondness for seedy-looking characters on the margin of the narrative, may be the first person ever to work on the show who dared suggest that Ecklie might have a human side, and his take on the character actually stuck.
“Gum Drops” (season six, episode five): George Eads is the Jonathan Frakes of CSI, a sturdy presence who fits comfortably in the background—except that after so many years on the job, Eads has given no indication that he’s just been killing time until he can get his directing career lined up on the tarmac, so he must really like the work. Eads stepped into the lead investigator role for this episode when a family tragedy sidelined William Petersen for an episode, and while it doesn’t offer him the showy opportunities that “Grave Danger” does, the ease with which he carries the ball at a moment’s notice testifies to the strength of the show’s whole ensemble.
“Monster In The Box” (season seven, episode 16): CSI was conceived at a time when federal guidelines required every crime series on TV to have a shadowy, mad genius serial killer, or a string of them, who could pop up from time to time to taunt and frustrate the protagonist. For its seventh season, CSI’s was the Miniature Killer, who was not, as the name suggests, a short statured lunatic with a lethal Napoleon complex, but rather a cunning psychopath who left beautifully constructed scale models of her victims’ homes at the crime scenes. This episode, which might have been presented to William Petersen as a welcome-back present after his brief hiatus from the show, sets up the final season arc that leads to the killer’s capture.
“You Kill Me” (season eight, episode eight): A mostly comic showcase for the backroom lab technicians relegated to recurring cast member status, and a surprisingly effective launch for the most unlikely “will they/won’t they” scenario since, well, Grissom and Sara: Wendy Simms (Liz Vassey) and the prickly, cringe-inducing Hodges, played by Wallace Langham, the Larry Linville of his generation.
“73 Seconds” (season 12, episode one): In the first scene of his first episode, Ted Danson establishes himself as the center of the series while commenting on and redefining the show around him. If Petersen’s CSI showed some of the influence of The X-Files, Danson, with his “not of this world” vibe, connects it to Doctor Who. Even in Las Vegas, there’s something alien about him. But viewers can believe he’s come to use his powers on our species’ behalf.
And if you liked those, try these: “Boom” (season one, episode 13); “Caged” (season two, episode seven); “And Then There Were None” (season two, episode nine); “Butterflied” (season four, episode 12); “A Bullet Runs Through It” (season six, episodes seven-eight); “Rashomama” (season six, episode 21); “Dead Doll” (season eight, episode one); “If I Had A Hammer…” (season nine, episode 21); “House Of Hoarders” (season 11, episode five); “The Devil And D.B. Russell” (season 14, episode one).
Availability: All seasons have been released on DVD and can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. Recent episodes can be viewed for no charge at the CBS website.