Why CSI?

Grissom ponders the futureAnnouncing the first in a season-long series of CSI posts. My study of CSI will be published by Wiley-Blackwell in a few weeks, and I thought I could apply my thoughts on the series on an ongoing basis throughout this season. This investigation will also take into account the fact that this is CSI‘s eleventh season, and that what once appeared fresh and exciting is now tired and creaky. Most of the revered prime-time shows in TV history had a long, but still limited run, usually between three and seven years. But what happens to popular long-running series as they age? Are later seasons even worth considering critically, or are they simply weary props for advertising staffed by an increasingly exhausted cast and crew? In other words, does, and should, a series still really matter in season 10 (Smallville), 11 (CSI), 12 (Law & Order: SVU), or 22 (The Simpsons)?

In the case of CSI, much of the “twilight years” feel  is down to one factor: William Petersen’s decision to leave the series in 2009. While Lawrence Fishburne, Petersen’s replacement, as new CSI Ray Langston, is certainly no slouch, the show has felt unbalanced without Petersen’s eccentric, iconic Gil Grissom at its center. The return of Jorja Fox as Sara Sidle last season was a naked attempt to correct this, and rekindle the original CSI sensibility, as producers decided to punt her ostensible replacement, Lauren Lee Smith. However, despite these cast changes, CSI has felt less vital and more dilatory, as if the series was afraid to truly move on. I don’t blame the actors: Fox, Fishburne and the rest of the regulars (old hands Marg Helgenberger and George Eads in particular) are gamely contributing. I blame the producers, all of whom are accomplished enough to relish this opportunity, and CBS, who should hardly be docile right now, for coasting rather than pushing.

Here I have to confess that I skipped almost the entirety of Season 10. After an intense review of the first nine seasons in writing my book, I felt I had earned a break. From what it looks like, however, I didn’t miss much. The series, still in the top ten, still drawing nearly 15 million weekly viewers, is no imminent danger of cancellation due to ratings. However, it is in considerable danger of creative exhaustion, and the question it must answer is existential enough to keep Carol Mendelsohn, Anthony Zuiker, all the writers, and even Jerry Bruckheimer up at night: why CSI? Why, other than making CBS fat and happy, should it continue to exist? As a fan of its first seven seasons, I know that it’s capable of making a compelling case for itself. I’m just not sure if it wants to anymore.

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