Monday, October 18, 2021
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As ‘CSI’ prepares for end, its legacy lives on

🕐 7 min read

“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” arrived on television in October 2000 with a scream – the Who’s Roger Daltrey howling the catchy chorus of “Who Are You?” over the opening credits. It was a jaunty way to introduce the crack team of blood-spatter analysts, DNA experts and an entomologist who could determine a murder victim’s time of death from something the size of a beetle larva burrowed into a blunt-force trauma.

The graveyard shift of eccentrics, dweebs and one former stripper has provided audiences with salacious stories for the past decade and a half, but now it’s time for goodbyes. The Las Vegas-set series that made science sexy is going out with a bang – literally, there will be explosives – on Sunday with a two-hour movie.

Discerning critics won’t lament the death of “CSI.” It wasn’t a prestige drama. It wasn’t Dickensian like “The Wire,” and it didn’t elicit “Breaking Bad’s” comparisons to Shakespeare; no one is talking about its demise in the mythological terms of “Lost” fans. It was just splashy entertainment set in an otherworldly Sin City.

But it worked. The show aced the Nielsen ratings, climbing to the top spot in the mid-aughts, and spawned a billion-dollar franchise. And yet, a brief heyday and a couple of canceled spin-offs (plus one, “CSI: Cyber,” that’s still limping along) aren’t the show’s only legacies. The bagatelle of a diversion made an impact, for better and worse. And what, exactly, did it bestow on us? Let’s follow the evidence.

– Cops, cops and more cops

When “CSI” premiered, the television landscape was a very different place. Reality TV wasn’t a dominant force, and NBC was still riding high thanks to its Thursday night blitz of “Friends,” “Frasier” and “ER” The closest thing “CSI” had to an ancestor was “Law & Order,” which had debuted a decade earlier. The two shows had similarities – there was the procedural aspect, the ensemble casts and the fact that viewers were as likely to consume episodes during a reruns binge as to catch them on their regularly scheduled nights.

But “CSI” was distinct. If “Law & Order” strove for gritty realism (which it did back then, at least), the CBS hit aimed for slick and stylized. “CSI” became an immediate sensation, and the copycats were close behind. The show’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, was responsible for a few of his own, including “Cold Case,” “Without a Trace” and a handful of like-minded castaways. But there were so many others. Just consider that in 2000 none of the top-10 Nielsen-rated shows were crime dramas, but just five years later half of them were: “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “The Mentalist,” “Criminal Minds” and, of course, “CSI.”

– Nerd love

“CSI” wasn’t just about crime-fighting; it was about the scientific processes that lead cops to killers. The protagonists weren’t the cool kids. In the pilot, a couple of Las Vegas police officers watch as brainiac bossman Gil Grissom (William Petersen) approaches the crime scene and one says, “Here comes the nerd squad” with as much contempt as he can muster. (That line also encapsulates the show’s laughably detailed exposition. The fear that a single viewer might be confused by the proceedings was palpable.)

The lab rats and techies clacking on keyboards and chanting “enhance” may not have been hip, but they were lovable. And suddenly science was trending. Interest in forensics skyrocketed, and television began to reflect the shift with such new crime shows as “Bones” and “Body of Proof,” and geeky series in other genres – “The Big Bang Theory,” “Chuck” and “Fringe.” Score one for STEM.

– Cinematic television

“CSI” was Bruckheimer’s first major foray into television, and he brought with him the same spare-no-expense attitude that he used on such movies as “Bad Boys,” “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” It was obvious. The show was both flashy and moody with major thought put into cinematography. There also were stellar special effects, with computer-generated imagery usually reserved for the big screen letting viewers witness, for example, what happens when a bullet enters a body or see (and, sickeningly, hear) a bone break.

The fascinating grossness of it all was eye-catching enough to attract the attention of Quentin Tarantino, who loved the show and agreed to direct the two-part finale of Season 5, “Grave Danger.”

– The revolving door ensemble cast

“CSI” wasn’t the first show to see characters come and go. Every soap opera has done it, after all. Yet there was something noteworthy about the way “CSI” flaunted the expendability of its characters from the beginning. Within the show’s first couple of episodes, rookie agent Holly Gribbs (Chandra West) – ostensibly a member of the regular cast – was killed on the job and replaced by Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox). Apparently, test audiences didn’t like Holly. Easy come, easy go.

There hasn’t been a pretense of loyalty to a character since. The template was always more important than the personalities, and that fact was never more evident than when Fox and co-star George Eads tried to play hardball during contract negotiations in 2004 with a walk-out. CBS called their bluff by firing them. Both claimed it was all a misunderstanding, and the network rehired them. But the show still has had plenty of turnover, with Petersen leaving (replaced by Laurence Fishburne and then Ted Danson), Marg Helgenberger exiting the series, Elisabeth Shue joining the cast and Fox quitting and then returning a couple of seasons later. (Both Helgenberger and Petersen are returning for the finale.)

– Misinformed jurors and smarter criminals

The impact of the “CSI effect” has been hotly debated, but at worst it means that jurors now fancy themselves forensic experts, based on the unrealistic abilities of Grissom and company. Prosecutors have complained that juries are less likely to convict if cash-strapped police departments haven’t done high-tech testing with fancy, newfangled technology, but the effect has been pretty anecdotal. Meanwhile, any criminal with an antenna now knows that dousing a crime scene with bleach can destroy physical evidence. Thanks a lot, “CSI.”

– An inescapable, never-ending loop of the Who

“Whooooo are you? Who? Who? Who? Who?”

Will we ever escape that song? The Pete Townshend-penned track that provided the show with a catchy opening gave the Who a boost that multiplied when spin-offs “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: New York” and “CSI: Cyber” all used songs by the band, too – “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley” and “I Can See for Miles.”

– Confirmation of Justin Bieber’s true nature

Justin Bieber was one of many “CSI” guest stars over the years, a tribe that also includes Taylor Swift, a hammy, pre-famous Jeremy Renner and Faye Dunaway. The Biebs’ 2011 guest spot happened to coincide with the release of his concert documentary “Never Say Never,” which cast the pop star in a relentlessly angelic light. That was before his many tangles with the law.

But Helgenberger set the record straight while doing an interview on a French radio show. “He was kind of a brat,” she divulged before covering her mouth in faux horror at her loose-lipped confession. He was actually fairly nice to her, she explained, but he locked a producer in a closet and punched a cake for some reason. What kind of monster ruins a perfectly good cake?

– Exposure to fringey behavior audiences never knew existed

“CSI” was all about shock value. Villains inevitably had some bizarre baggage, whether it was the man who was a chimera, which explained why his DNA tested negative even though he really did rape and kill that poor woman, or the lady who stole people’s organs and blended them into smoothies to treat her porphyria.

But the show also opened our eyes to a world of fetishes – and some sexual content that was extremely risque for prime time – including a recurring character who was a dominatrix, an episode that featured a plushy and furry convention, and – freakier still – the grown man who liked to dress up like a baby, diapers and all. It was all so enlightening.

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