The Rear-View Mirror: CSI Crime Scene Investigation (2000)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Today, my dearly beloveds, let’s talk about guilty pleasures. I know you have them because I have them. In a way, it’s the emotional continuation of reading under the covers when you’re a kid, flashlight in hand, way until after midnight. And already I’ve talked myself into a corner because now I have to reveal one of my guilty pleasures while you can keep silent about yours. Here goes, then: one of my guilty pleasures was, and still is, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the original one set in Las Vegas. Would you believe that it ran from 2000 to 2015? Its finale is only three years old. And yes, I watched every single sodding episode, until the bitter, bitter end. It wasn’t easy. I’m not proud of it. The guilt had outweighed the pleasure years ago.

You can throw all kinds of criticism at the series, and most of them would stick, too. But when it worked, it worked wonderfully. CSI did what other series did later: for the first time, the cops had to step aside and let the nerds solve the cases. There might have been other shows with forensic experts before 2000, such as Waking the Dead or Silent Witness, but all the other successful shows such as Crossing Jordan or Bones or even The Big Bang Theory came later and took from CSI what they could use and took it from there. There was now a whole gang cordonning off grisly crime scenes and meticulously examining evidence. Sience was rock’n’roll, almost punk. Plus, there was a kind of supercool style, trademark of Danny Cannon, a Scotsman, who gave the series that glass and steel coolness that sort of fitted the atmosphere because at its center, there was a guy with an infuriating calmness bordering on a kind of self-imposed autism.

Gil Grissom, named after the astronaut. Our Grissom preferred science to human contact; sometimes his perfectionism saved the day, and I could admire him; sometimes his insensitivity drove his team (and me) insane. Originally, Grissom (played for seven seasons by William Petersen, who also co-produced the series) was a lively investigator, on the same gung-ho level as Catherine Willows or Nick Stokes, and he only eventually turned into a squint during season one. It was a bit like watching Mr. Spock smile and frown in the pilot and only later become the rational introvert he was famous for. Grissom had moments of greatness, for instance in the episode called Butterflied (s4e12), where the young victim, a nurse, is played for a very brief moment by his colleague Sara Sidle, whom Grissom – oh shock – had feelings for. Grissom knows who killed the nurse, he just can’t prove it, but he tells the killer in a calm voice what men of his age feel when in the presence of a younger woman who shows interest in them. It’s one of those rare moments where Grissom talks about feelings, and his own at that, in a calm, measured voice.

And the series had fun. Proof of that is Fur and Loathing in Las Vegas (s4e5), featuring an orgy of humans dressed up as furry animals. It’s called scritching. In the immortal words of Catherine Willows: “Well, I like hairy chests, but I’m not about to bop a six-foot weasel.” To make matters even weirded, that episode features Patrick Fischler. There was also Rashomama (s6e21), about a wedding told from different perspectives, with great guest performances by Veronica Cartwright, Amanda Seyfried and Rachel Miner. Throughout the years, there were recurrent characters I liked, such as Paul Millander, Tammy Felton, and Lady Heather. Or the lab rats: Wendy and Mandy and Hodges. Tarantino liked the series so much that he shot the two-part season 5 finale called Grave Danger. And the series introduced me to a few names before they became big: Jeremy Renner, Elle Fanning and Tricia Helfer, among many others. And the late Pamela Gidley turns up quite unexpectedly.

CSI peaked in season 7 with the advent of the miniature killer. There is that cinematic gimmick to pull the focus in such a way that the landscape you are watching suddenly looks like a miniature, and CSI always started with a helicopter shot of Sin City, mostly at night. Hereditary does that more than once, and it was first done here. Grissom chased the killer who left miniatures of the crime scene at the crime scenes themselves. Convoluted? Well, of course, but it did make for very good popcorn TV. And it got to Grissom so much that the first cracks started showing, until he had his meltdown and went on his sabbatical.

And then they brought in Michael Keppler, played by Liev Schreiber, and it’s Catherine Willows and Keppler and a dentist played by Ned Beatty who make the episode Sweet Jane (s7e12) one of the best. It starts with the Velvet Underground song of the same name and ends with the Cowboy Junkies cover, two wholly different songs as bookends who fit the episode perfectly.

And that would be that. Grissom left soon after, and the series never recovered from that. It could have been a mediocre series, bumbling along in its own insignificance, but it was bad, really bad. The writing had no longer any spark in it, and the plot twists got just too weird. I like both Lawrence Fishburne and Bill Irwin (Hannibal and Legion), but they couldn’t save a series that kept repeating itself, and their antagonistic characters were badly drawn and simply not interesting at all. Guest actors who had played parts in the early seasons were used again in a later episode for different roles, which is something that irritates me no end. There were guest roles from Tony Curtis, Scott Wilson and Tippi Hedren, but it was all too late. Ted Danson replaced Fishburne as the lead, which was a slight improvement, but far from sufficient; Taylor Swift did a not too shabby acting job, but the death knell for CSI sounded loud and clear when Justin Bieber turned up in order to prove that he couldn’t act. And yet I stayed on because you don’t stop cheering for your favourite team just because the players change and they have a couple of bad seasons or, let’s say, five in a row. Or maybe the guilt became all too familiar.

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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