TV

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

Even if CSI won't articulate its race politics, the introduction of Laurence Fishburne into this whiter-than-white team of investigators can't help but call up memories of the long-troubled Warrick (Gary Dourdan).

CSI

Airtime: Thursday, 9pm ET
Cast: William Petersen, Laurence Fishburne, Marg Helgenberger, George Eads, Eric Szmanda, Lauren Lee Smith, Bill Irwin
Subtitle: Crime Scene Investigation19 Down
Network: CBS
US release date: 2008-12-11
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All roads lead to Rome.

-- Grissom (William Petersen)

Another day on the job: Grissom (William Petersen) is seated near a hot swampy lake, his CSI badge displayed against his vest, a straw hat over his brow. A local deputy comes near, with news of how the body Grissom's poking at was discovered. What's on Grissom's mind, the kid asks. He smiles, sort of: "I just wondering what it would be like to go fly fishing."

It's not the usual thing Grissom wonders. It's not the sort of thing you'd actually like to have him wondering. But there it is: after eight years of crime scene investigating, the most thoughtful Las Vegas investigator ever has decided to leave. "It's been a tough year for all of us," he says by way of introducing the concept to his team. They're duly shocked, unsure what he means. Maybe he's not really leaving, maybe he's only taking a leave of absence or a vacation, muses Hodges (Wallace Langham), leaning over yet another sloppy corpse in a tray. No, says Catherine (Marg Helgenberger), "I think this is leaving leaving."

After a few months of fretting, this most drastic change in the CSI universe is in process. While replacing major players is commonplace that even longer-lived cop-show franchise (whose initials are "L" and "O"), Grissom has, since CSI's inception, provided its quirky, charismatic heartbeat. And his imminent absence has loomed large since Petersen announced it in July, even after the follow-up announcement, that Laurence Fishburne would step in to play "a forensics scientist with a secret" (that is, a forensics scientist like every other forensics scientist on the show). Now, the momentous hand-off begins, with the first of two episodes devoted to it airing 11 December.

The meeting of Grissom and Dr. Raymond Langston (Fishburne), set in a university lecture hall, is organized around their separate interrogations of an incarcerated serial killer. Posing as a sociology professor in order to decipher whether the killer has a partner still working on the outside or the current murderer (the one who made the aforementioned "soup") is a copycat, Grissom takes part in a forum Langston has arranged for his criminology students. They're querying Nathan Haskell (Bill Irwin), suspected -- as Grissom helpfully explains for his own team back at the office -- "of killing at least 14 people in Nevada, California and Arizona in the mid '90s." Named the "Dick and Jane Killer" because he targeted couples, Haskell appears by remote video hookup, providing a big-screen image that's part Hannibal Lecter and part Cheshire cat. Langston builds up the moment by warning his girl students to cover up their cleavage and describing Haskell as "the face of evil" (this as he replaces the gigantic slide photo of Ted Bundy that serves as opening screen in the lecture hall). In fact, Haskell is much like other known serial killers -- cocky, Caucasian, and crafty, a self-promoting trickster who's not nearly so clever as he thinks.

Langston opens the exchange with the usual baseline questions (about his father, his first time), then Grissom plays provocative, asking about his "definition of fun" or whether he's ever shared his exploits with a "buddy." "I don't have a buddy," Haskell sneers, perfectly obnoxious and pointedly adversarial. As such, he provides focus for Grissom and Langston's parallel investigations, which in turn become ground for the mini-drama of initial deception and distrust. Learning of Grissom's lie, Langston is aggrieved ("You hijacked my class without my consent for your investigation?!"), but it's clear where they're headed in episode two of this arc (airing in January), namely, toward a resolution of the case, declarations of mutual respect, and Langston's takeover of the Vegas unit.

The particulars of the transition involve the usual melodrama, as each regular cast member has a chance to express his or her feelings about Grissom's departure, however pissy or mundane: Hodges refuses even to talk with him, offering only "Have a nice life" as they pass in the hallway, while David Phillips (David Berman), working with his mentor over creepy-crawly maggots found on a gooey new body, laments that he'll "miss this." Grissom makes clear what they're both talking about: "There are bugs everywhere, David, I'll miss you though."

The episode doesn’t belabor details as to what has made this past year so "tough" for Grissom, that is, the loss of Warrick (Gary Dourdan). But even if CSI won't articulate its race politics, the introduction of Langston into this whiter-than-white team of investigators can't help but call up (fond or conflicted) memories of Grissom's long-troubled favorite. The whiteness of the current scripted-TV-scape is hard to miss, and has even been noted in the wake of Barack Obama's election: "The evidence seems to indicate that race neutrality has not produced a surge of black lead performers, at least in network dramas," writes the New York Times' Bill Carter. CSI's intervention into this dismaying hiring pattern has, of course, been attributed to Fishburne's eminent skills, without regard to his "ethnicity." Given the sheer number of actors who embody this particular change, it may be that what's happening in Vegas won't stay there.

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