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‘CSI’ Finally Becomes a Chalk Outline With Series Finale (SPOILERS)

Appreciating the “CSI” finale – 15 years, countless bodies, piles of cash, and multiple spinoffs later – really requires going back to the beginning. This was a show that CBS had relatively little faith in, placing it behind what the network saw as its likely star in the class of 2000, “The Fugitive,” on Friday nights. Disney was so disappointed about the scheduling the studio, which developed it, backed out as a financier, one of those decisions that produce headaches and finger-pointing with eight or nine zeroes attached.

All that came to an end on Sunday night, with a two-hour movie intended to provide an element of closure. By now, of course, the ratings had shrunk to a fraction of where they were in the program’s heyday, with multiple cast changes and different leads (William Petersen, Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson) over the run.

Among the program’s more dubious contributions to society was something lawyers refer to as the “’CSI’ effect,” with juries expecting whiz-bang evidence, and regular viewers of the show suddenly considering themselves forensics experts. In that respect, it has something in common with that other durable crime franchise, “Law & Order,” which has caused plenty of people to wonder why the legal system can’t neatly wrap up a trial in a mere 30 minutes.

Not surprisingly, there was a “the gang’s all here” quality to the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), which concocted an excuse to bring back Grissom (Petersen) to work a case alongside Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) and ex-wife Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), all in the ostensible service of solving a crime that tied into his past, involving the dominatrix Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke). Frankly, anyone who has watched TV in the last 20-some-odd years should have instantly known whodunit when Doug Hutchison (who has been playing a psycho as far back as Tombs in “The X-Files”) showed up, but that really wasn’t the issue.

No, the other pretty well-telegraphed payoff was that Grissom and Sara would use this reunion – which began with a bombing in a casino – as an excuse to get back together, literally sailing off into the sunset together. It was sort of sweet and undeniably sentimental, although not nearly as funny as that ridiculously long story about the lonely whale that Grissom told the killer.

Danson, for his part, played a relatively minor role, as the script (credited to series creator Anthony E. Zuiker) was devoted almost entirely to the old guard, which felt appropriate. That said, if anyone can explain that whole bit of business about how the color-coded bees would lead Grissom and company to the murderer’s location, more power to them.

Plenty of viewers (including this one) drifted away from “CSI” years ago, meaning some of the small character notes probably didn’t resonate as fully as they might have. (Zuiker did throw in a not-so-subtle joke near the outset about “jumping the shark,” which hit a little too close to home.)

Granted, a workplace procedural like “CSI” doesn’t readily and organically lend itself to a big finish in the manner that, say, serialized dramas do. Life – and for the purposes of this particular career path, death – goes on. So give the creative team some credit for seeking a way to make this feel like something approaching a proper sendoff, despite the somewhat clunky and unapologetically sappy nature of it.

In the final analysis, “CSI” remains a testament to Hollywood’s famous “nobody knows anything” maxim, a series that not only became the linchpin of CBS’ programming strategy for most of this century but which turned an unknown writer and former Vegas tram driver prone to talking about himself in the third person, Zuiker, into a millionaire many times over. Unlike the finale, in show-business terms, that really is a whale of a tale.

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