The accused: CSI:, “19 Down” and “One to Go” (Season 9, Episodes 9 and 10)
The crime: Embodying the internal tension between character and procedural in contemporary network crime series
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Today’s #TVFail entry might be a little different. When I was crafting the fall schedule for the feature over the summer, I opened it up to you folks. Crowdsourcing options brought me this double feature from CSI:’s ninth season. I will be the first to admit that I am not a long-time viewer of CSI:, and in fact, I’m not sure if I have ever paid complete attention to a full episode in my life. I’m very aware of the series’ origins and its storytelling rhythms and generally aware of the characters and their relationships with one another. In short, I’m not what you would call a CSI: expert and it feels necessary for me to tell you that up front. My lack of deep knowledge about the series will certainly color my opinion on matters and if you think I’m totally off-base or just flat-out missing something, you should absolutely let me know.
Nevertheless, I think my lack of diehard interest gives me a different perspective on the series and this two-part event, which was arguably the biggest moment in CSI: history at the time. Obviously, I’m not going to point out all the small character ticks and such, but the reason procedurals are so popular with executives is because audiences are supposed to be able to come in at any time and understand, right? So I should have little problem.*
* Seriously though, I’d like to know how this was the most popular scripted program for almost a decade when it is so dark you can barely see what the heck is going on. I’m all for series have their own stylistic flourishes and specific color pallets, but PITCH BLACK with a side of metallic isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing approach to set design, lighting and cinematography. Everyone working at this place surely had an aversion to sunlight, right?
You might know this about me, but I’m very intrigued by contemporary procedurals. We like to talk about how simplistic procedurals are and while that is absolutely true in a lot of contexts, there has to be more reasoning for why the format is so popular. Clearly, police, legal and medical procedurals have dominated broadcast television network schedules for what seems like forever, but the contemporary procedural – you know, the one that you can find on CBS every single night of the week – are so interesting to me, particularly in relationship to how they treat their characters and character development.
The evolution of the procedural and television as a whole, shifted with the debut of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere in the early 1980s. Those series, and the many that followed soon after, made it possible for stories and vocations that were previously disconnected from character development focus on the people saving lives and preventing crime. Hill Street and its peers pulled television into a new era of complexity, storytelling possibilities and overall quality. But in the aughts, network procedurals went back the other way. Whereas Hill Street Blues used the police station as a way to explore a cross-section of themes and issues related to police work, series like CSI: or NCIS or Criminal Minds have the same large number of characters, but generally use them as vessels for expository dialogue about the case.
If there’s anything that defines the contemporary procedural, particularly those super-popular ones mentioned above, it is people standing around talking about stuff. Everyone on these series are geniuses, and as long as they squat around a long table or look at a few computer screens for a couple minutes at a time, the crime gets solved. I know that the time restraints of a weekly television episode don’t allow for a fully-formed representation of a criminal investigation, but there’s something so dramatically inert and tension-less about people just pulling crap out of their super-smart brains and then having that assumption mostly confirmed (but not completely, so the episode can continue).
So amid all the standing around, coming up with hyper-intelligent ideas and littering around in human remains, where is the room for character development in the contemporary procedural? Well, there really isn’t much. Certain series like House get by because of one truly fascinating character at the center that makes up for all the poorly-defined and annoying characters around him, but the CSI:s and the Criminal Minds of the world foreground crime scene technology or horrid, grim treatment of women instead. As a result, the contemporary procedural seems way more interested in the psychology and quick development of that week’s criminals (or patients or defendants) that focusing on the long-term investment of those things in the people who are in our living rooms every week. It’s a really weird and still compelling way to approach character and television writing in general, and obviously it works because these series are so damn popular.*
*On a related note, I’ve never quite understood why these series have such rabid fans online. I’m not saying these series aren’t worthy of fandom, but it’s always a bit staggering to me that people are clamoring for spoilers about what’s going to happen on Criminal Minds or hoping for juicy shipper details on two people from CSI:. The series themselves don’t actually give the audience that much material to work with, but the spoiler industry has sure figured out how to gussy up vague details from a random episode and make it sound like relationship progression. And on FanFiction.net, CSI:, Criminal Minds and NCIS are all in the top 10 most-written about series. The internet is a confounding place sometimes.
But today, I wanted to talk a little bit about what happens when series have concentrated so much on the criminals/patients/defendants for so long and then they have to flip it back around. How do you craft a goodbye arc for a lead character while still staying true to your procedural roots? Do you dial back the casework and the group conversations around a computer screen? Do character goodbyes even matter, especially if they’re just going to be replaced with someone else immediately? There’s obviously a tension between traditional procedural aims and the character work necessary for a proper send-off.
“19 Down” and “One to Go” embody those tensions quite well, I think. After eight-plus seasons, William Petersen was ready to say goodbye and this two-parter sees his Gil Grissom exit CSI – but not before a dangerous serial killer appears to jump-start his murderous actions. Along the way, these episodes introduced the audience to Laurence Fishburne’s Raymond Langston, the character (and the star) meant to replace Petersen’s Grissom.
Again, I’m not a CSI: fan, but I was really surprised at how matter-of-fact Grissom’s departure was handled in these episodes. I’m aware of the events that led to the decision and yet, it was quite odd that he jaunted into the lab and just told everyone he was leaving. Five minutes into “19 Down,” that’s already taken care of. The next 80 minutes include a handful of minor goodbyes between Grissom and the other 81 members of the team,* but very little is actually made about the team leader/star saying goodbye.
*Seriously, I had no idea that CSI: featured so many characters. The credit chyrons took approximately 21 minutes into the episode to finish. There might have been more people in these episodes than in episodes of True Blood and I didn’t think that was possible.
Instead, this two-parter plays out just like I imagined any episode of CSI: would play out. The focus is still on the (surprisingly confounding) case, the science, the psychology of the criminal and the whole talking around a computer stuff. Grissom’s goodbye colors some of the conversations, but if I had randomly turned on these episodes 10 minutes in (after the opening, “Hey, I’m leaving”) without knowing that Petersen was leaving the series, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on too quickly. And I’m a smart dude, folks. Even though this is a planned goodbye for one of television’s most popular characters, that goodbye is all secondary or tertiary to CSI:’s fundamental elements.
There are two perspectives on this, I guess: On one hand, it is nice that the series did not try to make a massive deal about Grissom’s departure. CSI: isn’t above taking its stories and its characters to ridiculously overwrought “highs,” so perhaps I should be thankful that Grissom didn’t get captured, had to watch someone torture a loved one or find himself in the middle of a shootout. He could have been blown up.
On the other hand, “19 Down” and “One to Go” take this simplistic, bare-bones approach that ask the audience to feel something without really doing much work to evoke those emotions. Obviously, at the time, long-time fans of the series were going to be sad that Grissom was leaving no matter what and they would also pick up on the little inside jokes and beats that I missed while watching these episodes. Nevertheless, this two-parter is so hung up on staying true to murders and crime scene science that it feels like the writers just assumed a few nods and winks would be good enough. If this is a procedural and I’m supposed to understand everything that’s happening on the screen in front of me, why don’t I understand why Grissom’s leaving? Why don’t more characters engage with him?*
*Again, some definitely do. But still.
Folks might react to these things differently, especially long-time, fans, but no matter what, I think it’s very interesting to see how CSI: approached the departure of its lead character. Not only did these episodes focus on the general rhythms of the series more than Grissom, but they also focused more on the introduction of Langston. Clearly, there’s a need to introduce the audience to the man who is going to be a major player on the team very soon, but I was surprised at how much time Langston’s introduction got compared to Grissom’s exit.
Ultimately, the CSI:-ness of these episodes is both helpful and detrimental. Grissom’s departure could have been more outrageous and hyperbolic, yes. But it also could have been more focused and emotionally expansive. Instead, the science prevails. The investigation prevails. And the series is right on to the next leading man. Next in line, please. We don’t have time for your goodbye, there are murders to solve. The framework and the procedural nature of the story are most important.
I would be curious to see how CSI: handled its other departures. Fishburne was replaced with Ted Danson and now Elizabeth Shue is taking over for Marg Helgenberger. I’m guessing that their exits were similarly low-key. After all, there are crimes to solve!