The 12th season of C.S.I. debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.
In his best movie, Manhunter (the original film version of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon), William Petersen played one of those "It's my gift/ it's my curse" guys, an FBI profiler whose specialty was mentally projecting himself inside the skulls of the murderous freaks he was tracking, and he made you feel that touching his skin would leave frost on your fingertips. As Will Graham, Petersen was intense yet dead-faced and soft-spoken, as if he had too easy an access to his darker nature to trust himself to ever let go, even a little; having seen the horrors perpetrated by those who'd handed their own dark sides the keys to the car, he had his emotional life under permanent lockdown. The performance was especially impressive if you hadn't seen any of Petersen's other movie work. Starting with his first starring role, in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A., he was always getting cast as macho studs (tough guys in action dramas, loudmouths and louts in comedies), and he tended to play them pretty much the same way.
For a lot of years, I had Petersen figured for one of those guys who just think that a poker expression and a grumpy demeanor equal manliness. It wasn't until he started playing Gil Grissom on CSI that it occurred to me that he might be not just typecast but miscast and that he'd feel liberated as an actor if he ever got the chance to reel off data about DNA and semen stains, all the while blinking and staring at his fellow human beings as if they were strange, not altogether welcome creatures fogging up his microscope lens. For most of CSI's insanely long run, Petersen provided the show with the kind of solid, tentpole character that a formula show like CSI needs to survive. It's a difficult job that's more likely to get an actor taken for granted than to win him any awards, and a lot of air went out of the show when Petersen left the series and was replaced by Laurence Fishburne. Peterson had been giving a witty performance as a man who had a sense of humor about his own apparent humorlessness; Fishburne's humorlessness was the real thing.
With tonight's season premiere, Ted Danson steps in to replace the departed Fishburne, and he effortlessly fills the hole that began to appear in the show even before Fishburne's arrival, when Petersen (and his character) started looking longingly at the clock and politely nodding at whoever was talking to him while silently reviewing his pension deal and stock options in his head. Those who mostly know Danson as the cute-but-not-so-astute Sam Malone may find him an unlikely choice to play the head of a crime lab, but Danson has always enjoyed playing smart whenever he's had the chance. He also enjoys playing creeps and weirdos, and like many a former romantic lead, lately he's been rejuvenated as his advancing age has taken him out of the category of handsome, charming actors who only get cast as guys you'd love to bring home to mother. This has led to a phenomenal run of late-career work, highlighted by his lovable, aging-roue' character on Bored to Death and his eek!-he-touched-my-shoulder-burn-that-patch-of-skin-off-me aging roue' on Damages.
Danson's CSI character, D. B. Russell, may not be a creep, but he definitely has his own agenda, and he uses a protective coating of flakiness to throw others off his scent. (He's first seen lying on his back on the floor of a tram car that's turned into a bloody crime scene.) Danson's eccentricity and surreally unflappable manner are compulsively watchable and hugely entertaining, but they also serve a deeper purpose for his character: You can see how people would be too distracted by wondering if he's nuts to wonder if he might be plotting to shred their careers. (Catherine Willows, who's accumulated enough chips on her shoulder to stock a lumber yard, refers to him as "D. B. Moonbeam." Since Marg Helgenberger is reportedly leaving the show this season, this may just qualify as foreshadowing.) In the premiere, the two regulars he seems most comfortable around are the two that no one before in CSI history has ever rushed to connect with on Facebook, the smarmy careerist Eckley and the socially maladroit lab tech Hodges, whom even Grissom thought ought to maybe see somebody. In one sharp scene, Russell and Eckley watch the sweet-tempered meathead Nick go soft and bond with a suspect during an interrogation. With just the faintest hint of irritation coloring his incredulity, Danson murmurs, "He's not playing 'good cop,' right now, is he?"
As for the show itself, it's pretty much vintage late-period CSI, which is to say that it'll hold your attention scene by scene in exchange for your agreeing not to think too hard about it after all the pieces are in place. Every show that aims to be addictive while sticking religiously to a formula straightjacket needs a special asset in its back pocket to set it apart from the Dragnet rerun on some other channel. Law & Order had its New York setting, which meant an endless supply of theater-trained character actors ready to give their four-line parts an extra crackle; CSI has Las Vegas, which mostly means that a way can be found to justify any freakiness the writers just discovered while reviewing the recent history of their kids' online traffic. In honor of Danson's arrival, the show that introduced plushies to the nightmares of many of its aging fans has one plot that involves woman-on-octopus sex and another that goes deep into gross-out territory to make the point that people who hunt deer out of season are stupid enough to get killed in exceedingly stupid ways and probably venal enough to deserve it. Please note the "out of season" part before writing in to complain, all you law-abiding would-be killers of Bambi. I'm talking to you, Grandma.
If CSI jumped the shark during the Fishburne era, Danson may be able to single-handedly restore it to its place in the network skyline. It's still debatable just where that place might be. The show has always had its haters, and it's not as if it hasn't given them plenty to hate. Most of the influence it's had on the world has been bad, and that influence hasn't just been felt in the flood of bad spin-off shows and worse imitations. (Years ago, somebody coined the term "the CSI effect" to describe the phenomenon where juries, composed of people whose brains have been beaten in by too many devotional forensics shows, have taken to dismissing what once would have considered open-and-shut cases because they didn't understand why they weren't presented with a truckload of scientific evidence to prove conclusively that the guy at the defendant's table really did cross against the light.) Of course, the core of the show's audience consists of several million people who'd continue to tune in every week out of habit, even if Paul Guilfoyle started showing up for work in a Speedo. (I can kid Paul Guilfoyle because I love Paul Guilfoyle.)
Then there are the people like me, who got hooked on the show during its first season, enjoyed the hell out of it, kept catching it faithfully year after year, and were a little relieved when it slipped just enough in quality to give us an excuse to give it up, just because there ought to be only so many times you can watch the current lead actor swing by the morgue to make shop talk with the gruff-but-lovable chief medical examiner while standing over the special guest cadaver. CSI may never be as addictive again as it was back during the early years of the Harding administration, but for now, watching Ted Danson bring his passive-aggressive brand of office politics to the show is giving you something fresh to watch while waiting to see what Santa's left for you in the next body bag.
- Future trivia question spoiler: The octopus' name is Claude.
- Danson: "What do you think?" Helgenberger, with unconcealed hostility: "'What do I think?' You're the boss. I think you should stop asking me what I think." Danson, with a big cheery smile: "Glad we got that out of the way." Kind of says it all, really.