CSI: New York

It’s a rare day when Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise) doesn’t have a pithy quip to assess a grisly situation. True to form, he observes the bloody remains of a man who’d been killed at a high-end auction, he pronounces, “Guess some people are recession-proof.” Nicely done, you think. When Hawkes (Hill Harper) delivers a suitable set-up (“The auction house stood to make a killing”), the boss demonstrates just why he’s at the top of the one-liner game: “They’re not the only ones!”

It’s the sort of exchange that commences most episodes of CSI: New York. Tonight, however, Mac undergoes something of a shift in tone, when he comes up against a case that defies glib dismissal. In “Yahrzeit,” he is called on to dig into history, and learns not only the sort of overarching lesson that typifies any series’ Very Special Episode (the Holocaust was bad), but also discovers something long unknown about his father, Boyd McCanna Taylor, who helped to liberate Buchenwald as a young marine.

Mac has always had a grim streak, of course, introduced in 2004 as he was still reeling from his wife’s death in the Towers on 9/11. While his own history as a marine is plain in his set jaw and tough-guy affect, not to mention his occasionally noted hand-to-hand combat skills, he has for the most part in CSI: NY appeared low-key, despite his impatience with the inevitable ambiguities of crime-solving in Manhattan. He believes in right and wrong, in forensic science, and in justice, however it might be achieved.

No matter the frequent testing of Mac’s resolve, he tends to remain brusque. This episode leads to something of a crescendo in volume and moral fury, including one of the most egregious of those infamous CSI explications (he actually defines “Nazi Youth” while accusing a suspect of being a former member, the sort of awkward, overstated didactic moment that characterizes the franchise: “A paramilitary organization of the Hitler Party assigned to round up Jews trying to escape the Final Solution!”) Still, for much of the running time, Mac keeps his entertaining cool.

The crime Mac and Co. are investigating at episode’s start is, typically, not quite what it seems. This has to do with an evolving context of neo-Nazism. Hawkes is the first to set that scene, indirectly, when his uncle’s passing gets him thinking out loud for Danny (Carmine Giovinazzo) about prejudice in America. The uncle, he recalls, “was in Memphis the day Dr. King was assassinated, he couldn’t have been more than 10 years old.” The experience shaped him, Hawkes notes, such that his own experience “on the front lines of racism” was founded on stanch self-restraint, not letting the villains win because of his own righteous outbursts or “giving them what they wanted.” When they go to question a suspect on the auction murder, he turns out to be Michael Elgers (Matt McTighe), “everybody’s favorite skinhead.” The guy baits the cops (he questions “Nation of Islam”‘s identification papers and suggests he’d like to lynch him), soliciting Danny’s undisciplined rage and landing in a room with Mac.

Here Danny and Hawkes get to observe the master at work. Elgers threatens to bring a brutality case, doing his best to get under Mac’s righteous white-guy skin: “What the hell happened to this country?” he snipes. “Back in the day, you and I wouldn’t been having this conversation.” Mac takes aim: “Back in the day, I would have shot your racist ass!” Elgers tries again, suggesting that Mac is “Super white man… Niggers, zipperheads, little queer faggots: you save ’em all.” It’s strong language for network, even today, and Mac proves his excellence, again, by refusing to be rattled. When the villain takes pride in his own ignorance (“Any beaner can get an education in America, I’m fourth-generation American, that’s all the success”), Mac makes clear that he’s not even the target here. “Even without the diploma,” he hisses, “I bet you can see where this is going.” It’s not before Elgers has given up an especially intriguing name.

That would be Abraham Klein (Ed Asner), whose convoluted story provides the rest of the episode’s plot. While this plot in itself is inelegant in the way the franchise tends to be (that is, the turns are obvious and over-explained), it does offer an opportunity for Sinise and Asner to work through the subtleties of secrecy and revelation. If you ignore the big showdown moment — when Mac explodes uncharacteristically, in order to underline needlessly the significance of the history — their conversation is compellingly reserved, even as each man acts out an unnerving moral certainty.

RATING 5 / 10