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Tuesday, August 25, 2009


The grandaddy of all those forensic detective shows with all the dead bodies and blood and guts and brains and other gooey stuff, all being searched and sifted and nitpicked for clues in homicides and other violent deaths, is...QUINCY? Okay, that groundbreaking Jack Klugman classic was old school forensic fun, but these days the big cheese in the cops 'n' corpses sweepstakes is CSI. And if CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION: THE NINTH SEASON is any indication, the show seems to be holding up rather well in its old age.

This 6-disc, 24-episode DVD set is non-stop entertainment. Set in Las Vegas, the show follows the exploits of a crack CSI team consisting of both field agents and lab rats, combining their talents to solve a wide variety of mysterious deaths. As always, it's fascinating to see how even the smallest and most seemingly insignificant clues, whether found at the scene of a crime or during an autopsy of the victim, can lead to breaking a case. And when the painstaking lab work yields answers, the field agents go into action.

As most CSI fans know, this is the season in which longtime star William Petersen finally ends his run as beloved chief consultant and father figure Gil Grissom. Petersen, long one of my favorite actors thanks to films such as MANHUNTER and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., hangs around for the first half of the season as his character makes the agonizing decision to quit the dead body business and resume his romance with former team member Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox). Grissom's final episode is a tad maudlin at times but these characters have such a long and rich history together that it's still pretty moving.

His departure sets the stage for a new big-name addition to the cast--Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ray Langston. Fishburne has evolved to the point where he can now play a distinguished, mild-mannered older gentleman with the same authority as Morpheus in THE MATRIX or that skinny city kid in APOCALYPSE NOW. His Dr. Langston joins the team with an eager intellectual fascination coupled with an endearing lack of experience and finesse, and Fishburne makes him an interesting and likable character.

With the emotional loss of Warrick (Gary Dourdan) last season, the first episode concludes his story as the team makes it a priority to track down his killer. His replacement is yet another new castmember, Lauren Lee Smith as the independent and somewhat abrasive Riley Adams. Her character is supposed to shake things up a bit, but it doesn't take long for Riley to settle in and get with the program. Maybe next season she'll be more disruptive--there are signs of a growing procedural conflict with Langston.

Marg Helgenberger's Catherine Willows moves easily into the positon of team leader and makes it her own. George Eads, a favorite of mine ever since he played "Shorty" in the TV remake of MONTE WALSH, is very good as solid, dependable field agent Nick Stokes. Lab rats Hodges (Wallace Langham), Simms (the beautiful Liz Vassey), and Johnson (Archie Kao) provide most of the show's comic interplay while coroner Dr. Robbins (Robert David Hall, STARSHIP TROOPERS) is the resident curmudgeon. Paul Guilfoyle (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, AIR FORCE ONE) is fine as veteran cop Captain Jim Brass.

The look of the show is a major factor in its appeal. Whereas you'd probably expect real-life CSI investigators to process their data in brightly-lit and nondescript offices and labs, here we find a dark, stylized environment so sleek and modern it could almost pass for a dance club, or maybe even the science deck of a starship. Black and blue (appropriately) dominate, highlighted with glowing warm and cool colors.

An interesting visual element is the way the camera zooms in and gives us close-up views of whatever evidence is being discussed. Often we find ourselves on microscopic tours through a victim's body, or sharing a plastic bag with a discarded cadaver to observe its time-lapse decomposition. With all the egghead techno-blab flying fast and furious, these visual aids are a big help in understanding what the hell the characters are talking about.

The tightly-written scripts are consistently compelling. Gleanne Hedley guest stars in "The Happy Place" as a hypnotist using her abilities for dark purposes. In "Art Imitates Life", Jeffrey Tambor gives one of his wonderfully oddball performances as an eccentric artist who may be involved with a series of bizarre "murder-as-art" crimes. Other episodes deal with such topics as S&M, reality talent programs, murder by toothpaste, skydiving sabotage, religious cults, and rabies.

In "Turn, Turn, Turn", George Eads gets his own episode as Stokes handles numerous cases occuring at the same seedy motel over the course of a year, all involving a troubled young girl (Taylor Swift). "Mascara", a weird tale of Mexican wrestlers and a series of murders involving a particular deadly chokehold, is the 200th episode and is directed by William Friedkin (THE EXORCIST, THE FRENCH CONNECTION), who worked with William Petersen in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

The two episodes which introduce Dr. Langston, "19 Down..." and "One to Go", are noteworthy as we get to see Fishburne and Petersen working together to solve Grissom's final case. It involves an imprisoned serial killer (Bill Irwin) who is somehow relaying instructions for murder to an admiring copycat killer on the outside. Matt O'Leary of FRAILTY also appears as a suspect and turns up again in a later episode.

One of the weirdest episodes, "A Space Oddity", is reminiscent of GALAXY QUEST as it focuses on the obsessive fans of a fictitious TREK-like series called "Astro Quest." Hodges and Simms run into each other at a sci-fi convention and discover a common nerd-dom that the lovesick Hodges hopes will blossom into love. The fact that a murder takes place at the convention takes a back seat to his fevered fantasies in which he's the dashing starship captain and Simms is either the beautiful yeoman, the naive alien girl who doesn't know about love (shades of Angelique Pettyjohn in "The Gamesters of Triskelion"), or the exotic belly-dancing animal woman who's right out of "The Cage." The reproductions of various "Star Trek" episodes are fun (though much cheesier than the actual show), and Liz Vassey is gorgeous enough in her different costumes to burn out any space geek's dilythium crystals.

The DVD set is very attractively packaged with the same dark, sleek look of the show. There are six discs with four episodes per disc. 16.9 image and 5.1 Dolby Digital are very good. English and Spanish stereo are also available. Special features include some brief deleted scenes for some episodes, and cast and crew commentaries for "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "A Space Oddity." There are also four featurettes: "Crime Scene Initiation", "Rats in Space", "From Zero to 200 in Nine Seasons", and "Goodbye Grissom." Dr. Langston's first case, "The Grave Shift", is accompanied by a text trivia option.

Not quite as flashy or fast-moving as some of the shows that have bobbed up in its wake, CSI is a rock-solid, effortlessly absorbing whodunnit whose intriguing mysteries and imaginative plot twists will keep you guessing until the final minutes. The only downside to watching this set is that I've had that damn catchy theme song, "Who Are You?" by The Who, stuck in my head for a week and it's driving me nuts.

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