This year, the original Las Vegas-set CSI, about to begin its 12th season on the air, faced not one but two crossroads. A couple of years earlier, the show’s original star William L. Petersen had decided a decade was enough, and decided not to renew his contract. Conventional wisdom has it that an ensemble procedural doesn’t rely on any one actor (just ask Dick Wolf), so can withstand a star’s exit without much damage. It turned out, though, that Petersen’s Gil Grissom was the guiding spirit of the CSI enterprise, and his absence hurt. Even worse, the producers’ attempt to take the show in a new direction by bringing in Laurence Fishburne as a very different character didn’t work at all–Fishburne is an excellent actor, but his phlegmatic intensity was in no way a substitute for Petersen’s droll wit, and the show started feeling sluggish and old. So it was time to let Fishburne go and bring in a new lead. Actually, two new leads, because the show’s other original star Marg Helgenberger had decided that she would leave during the course of Season 12.
Against the odds, the show made two excellent decisions that have brought CSI back from the brink–in fact, it’s the only one of the 3 shows in the CSI franchise to have received a safe and early renewal for next season. (Sadly, this compares to CSI‘s contemporary–and direct competitor–SVU, which badly bungled this season’s exit of Christopher Meloni.) This past fall, Ted Danson arrived as D.B. Russell, the new head of the crime lab. And after Helgenberger’s midseason departure (her Willows left for greener professional pastures in Washington), Russell brought in old colleague Julie Finley, a blood specialist played by Elisabeth Shue. To be sure, Danson and Shue both outclass their roles, which consist mostly of staring fixedly at computer screens, laboratory equipment and mock-ups of corpses while spouting medical and technical jargon–and for those of us who gloried in Danson’s patrician stoner soulfulness in HBO’s Bored To Death, it’s particularly sad to see him opining on causes of death and DNA analysis. But a hit is a hit, and better to outclass than be outclassed.
Tonight’s episode being a season finale, the characters were given a little room to breathe amidst the procedural trappings. The hour, written by Christopher Barbour and Executive Producer Don McGill, from a story by Barbour and Larry M. Mitchell, and directed by Alec Smight, only had one crime to be solved, although naturally it had many twists. What appeared at first to be a straightforward triple murder among drug dealers morphed into a seeming plot by a local tycoon to murder his wife, until resolving as a frame-up of the tycoon by a jailed murderer, part of a police department-wide wave of corruption. Since the episode was at pains to feature prominent guest stars as family members of our regulars–Jaclyn Smith as Hodges (Wallace Langham)’s mother, Peri Gilpin introduced as DB’s wife–it was reasonable to expect some ulterior motive on the part of the writers, and sure enough, by the episode’s end, one character’s relative had been shot and another’s had been kidnapped, providing some cliffhangering for next season.
CSI is a formula show, and its machine operates smoothly. Every episode seems to have a scene where a character announces a shocking DNA discovery, and another where some obscure piece of technology finds a connection between an object and a suspect. Unlike, say, Bones, the show’s emphasis is always on the crime-solving, rather than the investigators’ private lives. So the little glimpses we get around the edges are important, like DB’s warm but firm paternal relationship with his subordinates, or Finley’s occasional outbursts of temper. Danson and Shue are able to make the most of these moments, and they give the show its hints of personality.
With its new cast and a move to the easier environment of 10PM on Wednesdays, CSI has shown renewed strength in the ratings, with weekly numbers in the mid-2s that frequently win the hour against Revenge and SVU. The new blood in its veins (when not splashed against the walls or otherwise drained from its victims) should allow this mothership to go on considerably longer.