Somewhat unaccountably, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which spawned two spin-offs and inspired countless other shows with its fuel-efficient production model and narrative structure, as well as its predominantly flashy and sardonic visual style, soldiers on 12-plus years and counting. I had an interesting conversation with television historian Stephen Bowie a couple of years back in which he rightly pegged CSI's similarly structured spin-offs, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY, as positively terrible in spite of their similarity to the original, while admiring CSI's longevity and how, despite numerous cast changes and an obvious straining for new story material, it has managed to remain entertaining.
The Twelfth Season is marked by more major cast changes. Laurence Fishburne, who replaced original series star William Petersen, is gone, having been replaced by Ted Danson. Even more significantly Marg Helgenberger, a major part of CSI from day one, leaves the series roughly halfway through this season, her role as CSI Asst. Night-Shift Supervisor taken over by Elizabeth Shue, an actress until now best known for Leaving Las Vegas.
In one of those increasingly frustrating marketing moves, while several years ago CBS/Paramount released CSI's first and ninth seasons to Blu-ray, as well as the Quentin Tarantino "Grave Digger" two-parter, no other Blu-rays have been forthcoming nor do they seem likely in the near future. Seasons ten, eleven, and now season twelve are on DVD only. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Twelfth Season (2011-12) is a compact, well-produced set offering good picture and audio, as far as DVD goes, and it includes loads of extra features, including six featurettes, deleted scenes, and two audio commentaries.
For the uninitiated, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a crime drama/mystery series set in Las Vegas, with most episodes divided between several concurrent, often bizarre fatal crime scenes, with their very strangeness often functioning as the sting in the pre-credits teaser. The work is divided among the CSI lab's night shift personnel which, at the beginning of Season 12 includes new, eccentric night-shift supervisor D.B. Russell (Ted Danson). He replaces Dr. Ray Langston (Laurence Fishburne) after the latter goes off the deep end, viciously torturing and killing serial killer Nate Haskell (a recurring character since season 9) in the season 11 finale.
Other than minimal fallout impacting the rest of the CSI team, it's pretty much business as usual for Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), the former exotic dancer and single-mom; Nick Stokes (George Eads), the thoughtful ex-frat boy and university baseball player; Sara Siddle (Jorja Fox), the veteran CSI who for a time left the team and married Gil Grissom (William Petersen, star of CSI's early seasons); and Capt. Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle), of the LVPD's homicide division who acts as liaison to the CSIers. Also keeping busy are CSI Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda), the former DNA technician; pathologist Al Robbins, M.E. (Robert David Hall); trace technician David Hodges (Wallace Langham); assistant medical examiner Dr. David Phillips (David Berman); and new CSI Morgan Brody (Elisabeth Harnois), estranged daughter of Clark County under-sheriff Conrad Ecklie (Marc Vann).
Season twelve of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is pretty much the same series it's been since season one: an entertaining popcorn show, slickly produced on an extravagant budget allowing for lots of glossy production value. There's much location shooting, elaborate visual and makeup effects, good sets and music, and an extremely evocative photographic and editing style it practically owns. It is, however, showing its age and episodes run the gamut from excellent to poor.
As people once joked about Murder, She Wrote's Cabot Cove, after a dozen seasons of CSI, Las Vegas looks like the Bizarre Murder Capitol of the United States. In one episode the CSI team attends the grand opening of a mob museum where the former mayor of Las Vegas (played by Oscar B. Goodman, former mayor of Las Vegas) is himself shot, along with several others. In another a shooting victim responsible for a separate CSI team investigation kidnaps CSI Brody and a rescue helicopter crew. The chopper crashes spectacularly (spectacularly bad CGI) on Main Street of an abandoned Old West theme park, where crash survivors, gang members, and police shoot it out.
As these episode descriptions suggest, season 12 scripts more frequently put CSI's characters at the scene of the crime as it happens, and/or make them a participant/victim/witness to a crime-in-progress or an ongoing investigation, including Helgenberger's two-episode departure. They also spend a lot more time away from crime scenes and the lab, doing police and investigation work real CSIs never get near, further contributing to what's been termed "the CSI effect."
Replacing William Petersen with Laurence Fishburne was an interesting, wise move, his character being almost exactly the opposite of Petersen's. (Almost always a wise move, M*A*S*H being perhaps the first series to recognize the wisdom of this strategy.) Ted Danson, however, plays a wild eccentric whose bizarre behavior and seeming non-sequiturs make his character play like a second-string Gil Grissom (Petersen's character). Where Grissom's humanity was always visible through his eccentric behavior, on Danson, at least so far, it merely plays like an affectation.
Helgenberger's departure is unfortunate as her character was singularly believable as a working-class, self-made local. Like those played by Eads and Fox, there was always the sense of a character with a life and relationships outside and independent of work, which was never the case on CSI's lame spin-offs. Shue is an interesting choice to replace her; time will tell.
I'm no fan of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's movies (Top Gun, Armageddon, etc.) but his high-concept approach for once is a good match with creator Anthony E. Zuiker's characters and situations. The Las Vegas setting provides a glamorous backdrop of bright neon in every direction, ostentatious hotel suites, and casinos buzzing with activity 24-7, which in turn facilitate an endless supply of chronic gamblers, crooked blackjack dealers, Mafioso types, drug addicts and the like with motives for murder to spare.
Video & Audio
Apparently still filmed in Super 35, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation looks terrific in this 16:9 presentation. The show's signature visual style of bright primary colors, boosted film grain, desaturated (or heavily filtered) flashbacks, fluid camerawork, etc. are really an eyeful though I'd still prefer to see it on Blu-ray rather than DVD. The set packs four shows on the first five region 1 discs and two on the last, plus a lot of extra features located throughout. A hard-to-see episode guide is buried beneath Disc 1's hub.
The equally impressive audio, up to the best contemporary television standards, includes English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo Surround tracks, with optional English SDH subtitles.
Supplements include six featurettes: "A Crime a Dozen: Season 12 of 'CSI,'" "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas," "A Farewell to Marg," "Putting on a Freak Show," "A Family Affair," and "Death, Trucks, and Rock n' Roll." Also included are deleted scenes on the first three discs, and audio commentaries by the cast and crew on Helgenberger's two-part swan song.
It's not as good as it once was, but CSI: Crime Scene Investigation still entertains and, at its best, shows surprisingly sturdy legs after a dozen years and hundreds of oddball and vicious crimes. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.