Is “auteur television” possible? As much as the medium has opened up in recent years to a more cinematic style, from the single-camera mock-documentary of The Office to the full-on desert noir of Breaking Bad, the visual template is generally rigid and demands consistency from week to week. (Louis C.K.’s show Louie, which seems to reinvent itself every episode—or half-episode even—may be an exception, though his level of autonomy and control is far from the norm.) Nevertheless, of CSI’s “Grave Danger,” the two-part Season Five finale he directed, Quentin Tarantino says, “I don’t know how to not do it like me.” In a blind taste test, it seems unlikely that anyone would instantly recognize “Grave Danger” as a Quentin Tarantino show, but they should recognize it as a solidly entertaining 85 minutes of television, and it doesn’t take a forensics expert to see Tarantino’s fingerprints all over it. Here’s a case of two forces that aren’t at war with each other: Tarantino loves the show, respects its conventions and mythology, and has tailored his story accordingly, and the show, in kind, smoothly incorporates stylistic elements and reference points that are at home in his universe.
The tense opening scene finds Nick Stokes (George Eads) called to a crime scene without an evident crime, just a pile of disembodied intestines and a Styrofoam cup curiously packaged in an evidence bag. When the man responsible for this staging abducts Stokes, it’s up to Gil Grissom (William Peterson), Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), and the CSI crew to track down one of their own. In an homage de moi, Tarantino shows Stokes being buried alive à la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Vol. 2, except here he’s in a Plexiglas coffin with nothing but some glow sticks (to see his dire situation), a tape recording (to hear his dire situation and perhaps record a few last words), and a handgun (to end his life). Another sick little twist: A bright light and a webcam have been installed so his colleagues can watch him suffer.
Originally intended as a single-hour episode, “Grave Danger” was expanded to two parts to accommodate Tarantino’s storytelling, but the extra time has more to do with building tension patiently and methodically than dragging it out needlessly. Tarantino wanted his episode to feel like a movie, and that’s where he makes the biggest difference, especially on a show like CSI, which has the production values and lurid crime stories to make it possible. The smattering of other Tarantino-isms are a bonus: Grissom proudly displaying his ownership certificate of Roy Rogers’ horse “Trigger,” a Dukes Of Hazzard board game, repeated use of Tarantino’s signature low-angle shot, pop songs (like The Turtles’ “Outside Chance”) layered over suspense sequences, a suspect with a Cabin Fever poster on his wall and a Herschell Gordon Lewis T-shirt. But “Grave Danger” turns out better than a curio for Tarantino completists—it’s good television.
Key features: The aforementioned featurette, “CSI—Tarantino Style,” is long enough, at 17 minutes, to get into behind-the-scenes details that many of its kind lack.