For a series that’s the most underrated top-rated show on network TV, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation sure is one odd duck, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s not often these days that a mass audience embraces entertainment as stubbornly eccentric, unpredictably prickly, and emotionally ambivalent as this psychological petri dish disguised as a high-tech mystery series.
CSI is coming off its best season, one that followed a particularly clever, multi-episode arc about the so-called MSK or ”miniature serial killer,” who built dioramas of her crime scenes, as well as a four-episode guest turn by Liev Schreiber as a broody investigator. Taking chances with a far-fetched criminal and the temporary replacement of a show’s star (William Petersen was written out so he could do a play in Rhode Island) are the sorts of things a show usually does when it’s going to be canceled or has lost the will to live. For CSI to cap its seventh season by doing what was once a no-no — delving into the personal life of Petersen’s Gil Grissom and his affair with co-worker Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) — and then cliff-hanging her unto near-death…well, that takes admirable nerve.
Now, of course, we know that Sara not only survived her trapped-under-the-car predicament but lived to, first, agree to marry Gil, and then abruptly leave the CSI unit (and the show). It was a terrific artistic decision: Grissom’s discreet romance was intriguing but lacking juice for prolonged life, and having Sara succumb to exhausted despair was a way of both acknowledging and flipping off fatuous critics such as the Parents Television Council who’ve long condemned CSI‘s walk on the sex-‘n’-violence wild side.
The current season has been more uneven, but the ebullient quirkiness of Grissom combined with the dogged, sometimes jaded persistence of his crew (including Marg Helgenberger, George Eads, and Gary Dourdan) remains cracklin’ good. I ascribe much of CSI‘s enduring appeal to its original DNA — that of creator Anthony Zuiker, who drove a Vegas hotel tram before he pitched producer Jerry Bruckheimer about a forensic-crime show. From what I’ve seen of him, Zuiker seems a variation on Grissom: an enthusiastic nerd with a tough hide on him, just the sort of auteur who can thrive in the TV industry.
A fan’s final notes: I’m hoping rookie CSI Ronnie (Jessica Lucas) — a smiley, chatty gal; who needs one of those in Gil’s geek grotto? — is not Sara’s replacement. Instead, I lobby for my favorite ”lab rat,” Liz Vassey’s DNA analyst Wendy Simms. She was considering applying for field agent in the Nov. 22 episode. Anyone who played Captain Liberty on The Tick (2001) could get under Grissom’s skin quite nicely. A-