Typical of the "actors second" mentality exhibited throughout TV's crime procedurals, William Petersen's departure and Laurence Fishburne's arrival -- ostensibly big news in "CSI"-land -- must share the spotlight with a creepy serial killer. Although almost every existing character is given a chance during the first half of this two-parter to essentially protest, "Billy, we're still a Top 10 series! Why rock the boat?," it's pretty well clear that under the show's rules, cast members may come and go, but life (and death) goes on.

Typical of the “actors second” mentality exhibited throughout TV’s crime procedurals, William Petersen’s departure and Laurence Fishburne’s arrival — ostensibly big news in “CSI”-land — must share the spotlight with a creepy serial killer. Although almost every existing character is given a chance during the first half of this two-parter to essentially protest, “Billy, we’re still a Top 10 series! Why rock the boat?,” it’s pretty well clear that under the show’s rules, cast members may come and go, but life (and death) goes on.

Petersen’s Gil Grissom doesn’t experience any obvious crisis that triggers his decision to seek livelier company. He just rather abruptly announces that he’s leaving, causing his co-stars to look at him quizzically, which is probably what many of them thought when they heard the real-life guy intended to walk away from a lucrative star gig (though he will retain ties as a producer).

As for Fishburne, he makes his debut as Raymond Langston, a criminal pathologist teaching a class that probes the warped murderer’s mind via satellite interviews with a jailed psychopath (Bill Irwin), who might be linked to a recently discovered corpse on the outside. As part of the investigation, Grissom sits in on Langston’s class, providing the new character’s introduction to the series’ there’s-a-sucker-killed-every-minute world.

Incorporating new faces is one of the few ways to temporarily breathe life into the well-oiled “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises, and keeping the regulars expendable certainly comes in handy when anybody has the temerity to ask for a raise. And while toying with chemistry is always dicey — especially when somebody as prominent as Grissom is involved — the storytelling remains the star, a fact neatly underscored by the casual nature the Petersen-Fishburne baton pass plays at least within this fast-paced hour. (The conclusion is slated for January.)

Most amusing, in the blending of art and life, is how Grissom’s colleagues respond to his planned exit, handling the news with varying levels of tact and bewilderment. “I think you’re nuts,” the show’s doctor (Robert David Hall) says in the most blunt appraisal.

More likely he’s a trifle bored, which is understandable. As for Fishburne, it’s difficult to diagnose how his character’s going to develop, but it’s a safe bet that we’ll find out only as much about this steely crime-solver as is absolutely necessary to keep him interesting, without shifting the focus from his pulse-pounding day job. When plugging into a template as successful as “CSI,” you don’t mess with the matrix.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

CBS, Thurs. Dec. 11, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by Jerry Bruckheimer Television in association with CBS Paramount Television. Executive producers, Bruckheimer, Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue, Anthony E. Zuiker, Naren Shankar, Jonathan Littman, William Petersen, Cynthia Chvatal, Kenneth Fink; director, Fink; writers, Shankar, Mendelsohn.

Crew

RUNNING TIME: 60 MIN.

Cast

Gil Grissom - William Petersen Catherine Willows - Marg Helgenberger Dr. Raymond Langston - Laurence Fishburne Nick Stokes - George Eads Captain Jim Brass - Paul Guilfoyle Greg Sanders - Eric Szmanda Dr. Robbins - Robert David Hall David Phillips - David Berman Hodges - Wallace Langham Wendy Simms - Liz Vassey Riley Adams - Lauren Lee Smith
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