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Why we should mourn CSI, a show I unabashedly loved

Ted Danson was the last lead on CSI — and one of the best.
Ted Danson was the last lead on CSI — and one of the best.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

CBS's fall schedule announcement Wednesday, May 13, brought with it the end of a television era — CSI, the network's original pseudoscientific crime drama, will end its 15-season run Sunday, September 27, with a two-hour series finale event .

The episode will bring back the series' original stars William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger, who will join current lead Ted Danson, presumably to solve their biggest case ever. After that, Danson will decamp for the show's third spinoff, CSI: Cyber (which is entering its second season), for the world must always have at least one CSI.

In recent years, it's become a little fashionable to poke fun at CSI. After all, it's a decidedly unsexy series about forensic specialists solving crimes, one that uses scientific techniques that are, at best, occasionally specious. If you were looking for a cool TV show, you would probably describe the opposite of this one.

But CSI once was a cool TV show, and even in its old age, it was a reliably entertaining warhorse, especially once Danson (who brought a kind of acid-tinged comedy to the proceedings) joined the cast in 2011. There was, indeed, a time when CSI received Emmy nominations and earned positive writeups from many critics and had Quentin Tarantino direct a pair of episodes for a stunt-tacular fifth-season finale.

And then the show stayed on the air too long, and attention gradually drifted away from it. But that shouldn't detract from what CSI did well. Because what it did well, it did really, really well. For its first several years, I unabashedly loved this show and its unique blend of slick surface and geeky soul.

CSI wasn't expected to succeed

When it debuted in 2000, CSI was buried on Fridays at 9 pm. While that wasn't the death slot it is now, nobody expected much from it. Indeed, much more attention was lavished on the Tim Daly–starring version of The Fugitive that aired before it. Yet the show's premiere drew 17.3 million viewers to The Fugitive's 13 million. Clearly, it was something America wanted.

And according to Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal — who claims in his memoir You're Lucky You're Funny to have been there when CBS executives deliberated between picking up CSI or another show — that was evident from the first.

Rosenthal says he was shown two drama pilots. In his book, he calls one of them "the Stupid Show." He obviously didn't think much of it — nor did CBS President Les Moonves — but it tested better than CSI did. However, writes Rosenthal:

The tape starts, and it's like a cop show, but it's kind of cool. There's cool music, and there are cool effects, and it's shot very well. And they're finding out stuff in an interesting way. And I thought, That's kind of cool.

Then it ends, and Les turns to me and asks, "What do you think of that?"

"Now that, I would watch."


"Because it's cool. I like seeing how they figure it out, and it's clever the way they find this and that."

That word "cool" crops up again and again in Rosenthal's description of CSI, and as weird as that might seem in 2015, the show's coolness was what attracted audiences in 2000. Reviews praised the show's flashy camera angles and hard-boiled dialogue. Its distinctive, slick visuals helped launch the career of TV director extraordinaire Danny Cannon, and its style defined what CBS shows looked like for more than a decade. The network is only just now beginning to leave the CSI visual template behind.

More viewers flocked to CSI with each passing week, and soon CBS had a hit on its hands — one that it promptly moved to Thursdays to join Survivor (which was only in its second season) in taking on the then-dominant NBC Must See TV juggernaut.

But the true secret of CSI's coolness stems not from the show itself but from the show it was a stealth copy of — a show that is about to be revived.

How CSI copied The X-Files

As I mentioned in an earlier article about Person of Interest, most of CBS's shows are built off the architecture of Fox's sci-fi megahit The X-Files.

Try revisiting early CSI after watching a couple of late-period X-Files episodes. If you strip out the monsters and replace them with gruesome killers, the two shows are all but identical.

The mistake so many X-Files clones made was in trying to top the show's sci-fi or conspiracy elements. The genius of CSI creator Anthony Zuiker was that he simply replaced the pseudoscience of X-Files with slightly more plausible pseudoscience.

Most of CSI's scenes were set in a lab. They involved scientists talking about blood spatter or DNA evidence. The vast majority of police departments in America didn't have this kind of equipment or analysis readily available, but that didn't matter. CSI was an early harbinger of a pop culture world where the sheen of scientific inquiry was cool, where the geeks were inheriting the Earth and saving the day.

It also helped that the series built everything around its own male-female pairing — even if main characters Gil Grissom and Catherine Willows never had the romantic chemistry of Mulder and Scully. William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger were terrific in their roles, and the show's format proved so malleable that eventually they could both carry their own cases on a regular basis.

Sure, the show lasted too long. So what?

CSI wasn't reliably good after roughly its fifth season. If you're watching the entire series on Hulu, you can probably skip around once you cross that threshold. (My rule of thumb is that when Grissom begins wearing his ridiculous hat on a regular basis, it's probably time to check out.)

Laurence Fishburne took over the lead role after Petersen opted to exit the program in season nine, and the show became far too dour. Eventually, CBS moved it off Thursdays, Danson replaced Fishburne, and the show finished its long slide into irrelevance. As with all shows that run for 15 seasons, there were eventually a lot of dud episodes, but the show maintained its geeky belief in science overcoming all up to the very end.

That CBS is giving the show a proper sendoff — something its closest comparison point, NBC's long-running Law & Order, never got — is only too appropriate. CSI made CBS, but it also made network television. That it was so roundly imitated has obscured that fact over time, but that shouldn't take away from all the show accomplished.

And in its geek heroes, it's not so hard to see real-life figures who would gain pop cultural prominence in the years to come. Sure, one is a real scientist and the other only plays a pseudoscientist on TV, but is it really that far of a leap from Gil Grissom to Neil deGrasse Tyson? I would submit no. If The X-Files made geek TV safe for the cool crowd and magazine covers, it was CSI that made it safe for everybody else.

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