Photo: Sonja Flemming / CBS

So Long, C.S.I., And Thanks For All The Ick

The same traits that kept people tuning in to C.S.I. -- low-stakes episodic storytelling larded through with flashy special effects -- will be why this show will quietly fade into history.

One of the side effects of living through the dual phenomena of the so-called golden age of television and the so-called surfeit of good television is how easy it is to forget what terrible taste the American public has in television shows. But as the entire existence of the CBS network proves, Americans really love wretched television, and this perfervid devotion is beautifully illustrated by C.S.I.'s inexplicable success and improbable longevity.

From a technical perspective, C.S.I. got a lot of things right very early on. It shamelessly cribbed two key elements from Law & Order: a cast where some comely young thing gazed adoringly at her older know-it-all boss while a few meatsticks cracked wise in the background, and an episodic format that did not require viewers to remember anything from week to week. And indeed, each C.S.I. episode was soothingly predictable: some victim was discovered in a way that straddled the line between macabre and hilarious; Gil Grissom quipped; the meatsticks chased false leads; the murderer was caught; the team got to sigh at the perdify of the human heart. Rarely did anyone get away with murder. The show assured you that the system was peopled with beautiful, Lawful Good lab techs who would stop at nothing to uphold justice, all on a civil servant's salary.

I began watching this show for the most American of reasons -- financial incentive -- and stuck it out for five years. What is moderately remarkable is that in 100 episodes of work for Television Without Pity, or approximately 700 hours of paying attention to this show via a lot of rewinding, rewatching, and recapping, almost nothing stuck to my long-term memory. I went back and read summaries of episodes that I had spent literally thousands of words describing scene-by-scene and was surprised to realize that all I could remember of those seven hundred hours of my life was how I could predict when false suspect A would show up, when William Petersen's Gil Grissom would dispense some gnomic koan when one of his direct reports asked a question, when false suspect B would be cleared, when it was time for Marg Helgenberger to fling a cynical quip at someone.

It is peculiarly telling that C.S.I.'s lingering cultural punchline comes from David Caruso's sunglasses-removal ritual in the spinoff C.S.I.: Miami. It is not unlike the permanent cultural markers Law & Order left us: TV watchers' ability to recite "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups...," and the sound effect. These transcend the writing, as does Caruso's ability to squint meaningfully into the middle distance.

Perhaps C.S.I.'s episodic sensibility is why two of the three spinoffs C.S.I. has spawned are dead. (I still have high hopes for C.S.I.: Cyber because Patricia Arquette seems to have a knack for keeping middling shows alive long beyond reasonable expectation, and because the Wikipedia summary on those characters is insane, which suggests a level of devotion Nina Tassler's successors would do well to notice.) If anyone at CBS was hoping to launch the Star Trek of the forensic procedural franchise, they are probably still drinking to assuage the disappointment.

This is mostly because C.S.I. is nothing like Star Trek as a franchise. For one thing, the special effects are infinitely superior on C.S.I., to the eternal credit of the server farms that render all that CGI. For another, Star Trek in unencumbered by C.S.I.'s novel take on the virgin-whore dichotomy; the crime-scene shows always had it in for women who enjoyed sex, while simultaneously exalting the forensic nuns who were married to the PCR machines and/or justice.

If C.S.I. is like any franchise, it's McDonald's: predictable, unchallenging, mildly nauseating. You can find it anywhere in the world, and some days, you will end up there because you lack the will to do anything more challenging.

This week, the mothership puttered into the sunset in a two-hour movie. If you hadn't watched the series on purpose in ten years, the result was not unlike attending a school reunion: everyone looked puffy and tired, every conversation opened with a reminder of the good ol' days, everyone fell into the same dumb and predictable behavior they'd displayed back when you saw them regularly.

The people responsible for the finale pulled the usual gimmicks out of their bag of tricks -- a serial killer who spends an inordinate amount of time and energy constructing elaborate ways to off people, children being victimized, Melinda Clarke's Lady Heather. But what was shocking in the early 2000s is pretty much a date-night movie in 2015, and in a post-Sandy Hook world, is it actually entertaining to see footage of an elementary school's auditorium studded with shrapnel from a mad bomber's blast? Real life has lapped this show in terms of everyday horror.

Naturally, the episode ended with Jorja Fox's Sara Sidle character sleepwalking away from a much-longed-for promotion because the prospect of living on a tiny boat with Gil Grissom, environmental terrorist, was simply too compelling to refuse. The last shot has them literally sailing off into a sunset, presumably to be never heard from again until C.S.I.: Cyber is on its last legs and deploys the nostalgia casting in a doomed effort to get people to tune in.

The entire experience had started off like a class reunion -- hey, it's that lab tech who's now a senior CSI! Hey, it's the glaring absence of the original meatsticks! Look, Marg Helgenberger and Melinda Clarke are dueling for Queen Of The Fillers! But consuming it was basically the TV equivalent of eating a McDonald's value meal. The predictability and convenience don't excuse the fundamental reality that this product is skillfully executed for what it is -- but at the end of the day, disposable junk is all it is, was, and shall be.

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