The pastiche was once a radical choice in mainstream television. Layering the tropes of different (and usually older) genres atop familiar storyworlds offered intriguing challenges for writers, cast and crew, and challenged viewers’ ability to juggle multiple references and allusions. Experiments are peppered throughout the 1950s through 1970s, but it was in the 1980s where it became one of the key markers of a series’ aims for “quality.” Shows like Moonlighting, St. Elsewhere and thirtysomething ostentatiously aired the occasional episode drenched in pastiche, self-consciously reveling in the exercise. A few entire series in those years and thereafter (e.g., Max Headroom, Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks) even made such exercise their primary flavor. It’s not for nothing that these moments have long been hailed by media scholars as postmodern exemplars.
By now, however, these episodes are hardly radical. They’ve moved through a baroque phase and have now settled into being just another sort of pleasant, easy-to-enjoy, unthreatening bit of television. Older viewers have seen the likes of this for going on 30 years, after all. If anything, they’re now even more reassuring than normal episodes, in that they trade largely on nostalgia (not only for the past, but for the distilled present). After 11 seasons, CSI is certainly no stranger to these waters, with everything from Frankenstein to Rashomon to (of course) Casino and even Word Wars getting pleasantly Bruckheimered. Thus, it is to the series’ credit that they know that we know the score, and instead of trying hard to surprise us, they let us kick back and watch it all unfold, just as we’ve seen it many, many times before.
In this case, the source material is proto films noir: i.e., the classic detective films of the 1940s (best exemplified by The Maltese Falcon) filled with odd characters, double crosses, and dark secrets. The grainy, brutal, and quick circa 1940s-looking monochrome opening tipped us off, but the second the woman claiming to be Ellen Whitebridge (a fantastically Hammett-like name) slid into the lab (on a tour) and made eyes with Greg, the pieces all fell into place. He was smitten. A schoolteacher moonlighting as a burlesque performer, she was a classic femme fatale, seemingly pure (as the driven snow, they used to say), but “drawn that way” (as soul-sister Jessica Rabbit once described herself).
There were some effective moments of uncertainty, at least initially. The shock revival of the grotesquely burned first victim was a nice “gotcha!” moment, and the side trip into the South African apartheid enforcer feinted to an entirely different kind of revenge story. But the revelation tying the cryptic footage from the teaser to the present was as comforting as the umpteenth novel from your favorite mystery writer. While hardly plausible, the clues add up, and the show delivers the familiar flavors with verve. We know just what’s going to go down as soon as Greg gets that call in the last few minutes, and that’s perfectly fine. It lacks suspense, but scores some style points.
Particular notice to Eric Szmanda, who still rarely gets the leading turn to this degree, but delivered nicely here; renowned neo-burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, coolly vamping it up as both Ellen and her doomed grandmother, Agnes La Plouffe; and writer Evan Dunsky, who duly laid on the clichés yet never made them too tacky (a lesson Weddle and Thompson still need to learn on their run on the show). Great, genre-specific lines include Greg telling Nick: “She’s a beautiful woman who has no idea how beautiful she is,” Catherine comforting Greg at the end: “I’ve been blinded by lust once or twice…I’ve got an eye for the rotten ones,” and Ellen’s lovely parting line, “For what it’s worth, I’ve loved you since Tuesday.”
Again, none of this was earth-shattering, but that’s not the point anymore. This was a series unwinding a bit more in its old age, taking us on a familiar trip, and letting us relax and enjoy the scenery.
Semi-Obligatory Grissom Reference: None. Holding back for 1.13, “The Two Mrs. Grissoms,” probably.
Going Off Shift: Although it ended badly for him, it was nice to see Greg get to unwind on screen, getting flirty over martinis and dinner with Ellen. Sara again did not appear in this episode, but will have much to do coming down the road.
Morbid moment: Stolen from Se7en, true, but the “I’m not dead yet!” shocker in the open was a nice surprise. I loved Dave’s deadpan response as the almost-corpse is put an ambulance: “Call me if his condition worsens.” Similarly, Ray had fun putting together his own electric chair and zapping a gel dummy.
I remember this one time…: Lots of apocryphal Old Vegas lore undergirding the revenge tale; I wonder if the life of Bugsy Siegel is just fair game for such speculation. In addition, both Catherine and Nick offer Greg some earned advice (seen several times over the years) on getting carried away with lust.