Wednesday night’s CSI was an episode titled “Willows in the Wind.” The tortured play on words, crossing “in the wind” with the Kenneth Grahame book title (does this make Ted Danson’s CSI leader Toad of Toad Hall?) was matched by the excruciatingly tedious plotline that’s been playing out over the past couple of weeks, something about FBI agents (including one played by Friday Night Lights‘ Matt Lauria) and “black ops boys” trying to run roughshod over our CSI heroes, especially Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows, who had an old friend (played by Annabeth Gish) involved.

But plotting hasn’t been CSI‘s strong point for a while now. Its ongoing attractions reside in its core characters; what energy it has, ever since the departure of William Petersen, derives mostly from Danson and Helgenberger. The latter’s character has been defined by her past — the neglected daughter of a cocktail waitress and an absent father (who turned out to be a pretty nice casino boss); a single mom who before turning to blood-sample analysis “worked a pole” in Vegas, to use the infelicitous phrase Catherine did herself this night.

In Catherine, Helgenberger found a role, especially in CSI‘s early seasons, that helped redefine her in the popular imagination — finally, a part that made viewers understand she was more than just K.C. Koloski, the drug-addicted prostitute performance for which she won an Emmy on the much-admired China Beach. Willows was a tough but sensitive character, something of a hard-boiled-fiction cliche on paper, but Helgenberger invested her with a distinctive flintiness and a droll way of delivering her lines.

Little of that was in evidence in the farewell episode. Once the FBI-black-ops nonsense was dispatched, we got what we’d come to see: Catherine saying goodbye to her team (the plot device was a job offer from the FBI), and by extension, to us. She was compelled to make a speech rife with cliches (“how brilliant I think you are…it’s gone by too fast…the hardest decision I’ve ever made”), and once again, Helgenberger saved much of this purely on the strength of her acting commitment.

It wasn’t quite the send-off Catherine and the actress who played her deserved, but it’ll have to do. Here’s hoping Helgenberger finds a third redefining TV role in the future, if she wants it.

Twitter: @kentucker

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