CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - The Complete Fifth Season Review

I always love the start of a CSI episode…

The uncanny Gil Grissom (William Petersen), a genuine “textbook on legs”, surveys the latest crime scene, before offering a word of wisdom to his colleagues. Seems normal, but the good doctor has an endless supply of wise observations; often relevant to the grisly crime at hand. He’s the 21st Century’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Committed to his job, rarely if ever wrong, and content to let life pass him by, he’s a poster boy for intellect. But it’s those first encounters with a body that make Grissom so loveable. You can almost see those cogs turning, so nuanced is Petersen’s portrayal. I love Grissom because of his zeal; his excitement when faced with a new challenge. A teaser won’t end without those famous words of wisdom, but you know they’re coming. And then Who Are You? hit’s the airwaves, and the producers have you hooked.

CSI is a brilliant show. That much is obvious, although it often requires a suspension of disbelief. Like many American dramas, the series is a glossy collection of exciting set pieces; trademarks of executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Yet, creator Anthony Zuiker brings a great deal of intelligence to his crime procedural, often matching the production values in terms of creativity. The stories surprise in their variety and scope, even this far into CSI’s run. It barely seems to matter that the actors are all so gorgeous; the Las Vegas setting is ridiculously cool, and the team’s ability to crack puzzling cases holds no bounds. It’s a royally entertaining concoction. Over it’s five-year lifespan (its sixth begins on Ch. 5 soon), the show has become evermore streamlined, fun and courageous. CSI might seem like a load of good-looking tosh, but there’s plenty of educational value too. Budding scientists take note: Grissom is the teacher you’ve always wanted…

Season 5 is perhaps the shows most successful year to date. It’s always been a ratings winner - ever since the “Pilot” - but it’s clear from watching the fifth series that the producers have grown supremely confident. The budget seems even higher than before, helping CSI to match (or, in some cases, exceed) your average crime movie. The formula has become routine, and audiences know exactly what to expect. It’s a phenomenon in television terms, and a fully-fledged franchise (no matter how good Miami and NY are, I still rate the original higher). Therefore, you’d expect the writers to sit back and take it easy - they aren’t inventing the wheel anymore. But they didn’t. Safe from cancellation, and revelling in the joys of syndication, they decided to rock the boat. Season 5 concentrates much-more on the team dynamic than previous series; effectively playing with the group we’ve come to love, and even developing characters. CSI is largely about collecting the evidence, and rarely gives the characters room to evolve. Fortunately, there are several episodes here that buck the trend, and the finale in particular promises to change one of the character’s forever.

Such risks with an ageing formula made some fans uneasy; proclaiming that CSI was about to “jump the shark”. Pish-posh! Solving crimes is still the main focus, and the increase in character development merely helps to give the series extra allure. As it hit the mighty 100th episode, the show took a U-turn; executing a sub-plot that had been building for some time. That villainous day-shift manager Conrad Ecklie (Marc Vann) got his promotion as assistant head of the lab, and proceeded to split-up Grissom’s team. One of the highlights of a busy season, “Mea Culpa” sees the team questioned at every turn by the goon, who is taking great relish in screwing with Grissom. Ooh, that Ecklie! Boo, hiss! The result mixes up the team; Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) gets Nick (George Eads) and Warrick (Gary Dourdan), who end up working the swing shift. At least Grissom still has Sara (Jorja Fox), although their romantic sub-plot has disappeared.

While this fun slice of office politics allows the writers to introduce new plot threads, few of the characters face fresh challenges. Gaining the biggest boost this year, is clearly Greg (Eric Szmanda). Out of the lab, and onto the streets, Greg finally gets to prove his worth as a budding CSI; taking his final proficiency test. I’ve always appreciated Szmanda’s character, as his comic relief is often memorable. But his new role on the show has given birth to a “serious” Greg, and the buffoon is fading away. Any character development is good, although I miss the old chap. At least his camaraderie with the lab assistants is present and correct, and his futile aim to score with new DNA analyst Mia (Aisha Tyler) provides some typical CSI humour.

Tyler isn’t the only new addition to the cast. Louise Lombard makes an impression as Sofia; more than a match for Grissom, and oozing sexual chemistry. She’s introduced in “Formalities”, and what an introduction it is - during a ceremony to announce Ecklie’s promotion, she is called to a crime scene with Grissom, and proceeds to get out of a slinky red dress, much to Gil’s chagrin. Their chemistry provides some interesting moments, especially when Sofia is taken under Grissom’s wing. Despite these innovations, the cases are still paramount when it comes to CSI. As before, Season 5 has a variety of memorable episodes, that manage to tell stories we haven’t seen before. The writing staff have always been interested in the darker sectors of society (“Lady Heather’s Box” and “Snuff” spring to mind), and the fifth series continues to probe the Las Vegas underworld.

“Ch-ch-changes” is a rather gruesome look at transsexuality, when the team discover the dangers of plastic surgery. It’s a grisly look at the human form, and the writers don’t shy away from the disturbing details. Other episodes are just plain odd, like “Snakes”, which has a distinctive Mexican flavour, new to the show. There’s also the wonderful “Who Shot Sherlock?”, in which a deceased man assumed the lifestyle of the fictional detective. It’s offbeat and well-executed, providing one of Season 5’s more amusing episodes. While the finale seems to take all of the accolades, I would cite “What’s Eating Gilbert Grissom?” as my favourite story of the year. A very dark and gritty instalment, it allows the group to face a killer from their past. The closing moments in particular, are extremely creepy; featuring one of CSI’s most hard-hitting stories yet. That said, there’s very little wrong with this collection of episodes. Other critics have dubbed “Hollywood Brass” as the only flub in the set, although it’s eminently watchable. It gives Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) a chance to shine, as he sets out to LA to help his troublesome daughter.

However, the finale was always going to take the attention. It was inevitable. A major fan of the show, Quentin Tarantino joined the crew to direct the two-part conclusion, called “Grave Danger”. Recycling his own work, his plot for the show was hardly original, but it did inject some real drama into the programme. In it, Nick is kidnapped by an enigmatic foe with mysterious motives. He buries Nick alive in a Plexiglas coffin, forcing the team to race against time to save their friend, and find the culprit. Featuring a great deal of tension (for long-time viewers at least), and QT’s trademark dark humour, “Grave Danger” is largely a success, although I’ll admit my affection for it has waned when viewed with the season as a whole. My thoughts have changed since I wrote my blog; only in that it’s far from the season’s highlight, and Tarantino’s pop-culture references seem a bit out of place. Despite these caveats, it’s still hugely enjoyable, and one of Season 5’s more memorable flourishes. A great end to a pretty impressive year, “Grave Danger” is proof of CSI’s ability to entertain and enthral. I look forward to Season 6. Lets hope it can maintain the momentum…


The Post-Mortem

Currently unavailable in the UK, CBS and Paramount have taken the slack with their region 1 presentation of Season 5. This 7-disc collection is outstanding and, in my opinion, one of the very best TV releases of 2005. As you’d expect from a widely popular, Emmy award-winning series, the technical specs and special features are above-average; showcasing CSI in admirable fashion.

The Details

With production values so high, it’s hardly surprising that CSI looks immaculate on DVD. Each episode is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), and the shows cutting-edge photography is one of its many selling points. The use of special effects, bright colours, moody lighting and filters, has given the show a unique look, that continues to impress. Zuiker’s show pops with detail. Grain is all-but eradicated - a blessing, considering the sheer amount of night-time footage. Lighter scenes also boast clarity, with good colour reproduction and a lack of artefacing. Other critics have highlighted the darkness of certain scenes - no doubt a creative choice - and the fluctuating contrasts are my only pet-peeve when it comes to these transfers. Ultimately, I was more than satisfied.

Like the equally-successful 24, CSI bucks the TV-on-DVD trend; giving each episode 5.1 soundtracks. While not demo material, the tracks are solid, and certainly more entertaining than most TV presentations. The surrounds give the show that much-needed ambience, and the frequent sound effects are often fun (you’ve got to love those “recreation” scenes, where the crime is played-out in grisly detail). Dialogue is crystal-clear, and the music is often strong; particularly the theme track by The Who. The mixes are memorable, despite lacking the impact of a motion picture. To say it simply, the visual and aural elements of CSI are first-rate.

The distributors also present the show in Spanish 2.0, but forgot to include any subtitles. Considering the widespread success of this series, the lack of subs is a sore note, and something that should have been included…

The Evidence

As with the previous box set, there’s a fair amount of material for fans to wade through. Much of it is presented on the final disc; a fun collection of video material and sound-bytes, that should interest anyone weaned on the show.

Commentaries

With two episodes added to the pile, it’s only natural that we get more commentary tracks for Season 5, although Tarantino has opted not to record a yack-track for “Grave Danger”. Ah, well…

Instead, we get the following:

"Viva Las Vegas" (director Danny Cannon and producer Carol Mendelsohn)
"Down the Drain" (director Kenneth Fink and writer Naren Shankar)
“Formalities" (writers Dustin Lee Abraham and Shankar)
"Who Shot Sherlock?" (technical advisor/writer Rich Catalani, Fink and writer David Rambo)
"Snakes" (director Richard J. Lewis, Abraham and actor George Eads)
"Spark of Life" (Fink and writer Allen MacDonald)
"4x4" (director Terrence O'Hara, Rambo, Abraham and Shankar)
"Committed" (Lewis and actress Jorja Fox)
"Weeping Willows (actress Marg Helgenberger and Fink)

Anyone familiar with prior CSI box sets should know what to expect from these detailed discussions; a nice mix between warm reflection and technical insight. As ever, much is made of the production process behind the show, with directors like Cannon offering a few titbits on how a show was achieved. Special effects and the crimes encountered by the characters are highlighted in sufficient depth, and it’s interesting to hear the writer’s perspective on a particular case. Luckily, we also get to hear from several cast members. Eads comes off the best, beaming with enthusiasm, and prepared to offer some trivia. Why he couldn’t record one for “Grave Danger”, with or without QT, is anyone’s guess! Fox and Helgenberger are just as willing to discuss making the show, and their opinions are welcome. A good collection of audio tracks, that are definitely worth a play for long-time followers.

Featurettes

Filling up disc 7, is a collection of intriguing featurettes, that are surprisingly worthwhile. They begin with “CSI: Season 5 - A Post Mortem”, the obligatory retrospective. While the discussion of character arcs and story elements might seem redundant, the piece does allow the cast and crew to ruminate on the year, and how the show developed. There’s talking head material with everyone from Zuiker to Guilfoyle, so there’s plenty here to keep your interest.

Easily the most enjoyable vignette, is the expected “CSI: Tarantino Style”; a great look at the director’s episodes. Featuring interview material with the man himself (who is joined by Eads), cast and crew, the doc is interspersed with a fine amount of behind-the-scenes footage. It was fun to see the crew working on the Plexiglas coffins, and attempting to achieve the various effects that Tarantino wanted. If you want to know how “Grave Danger” came into being, this featurette will tell you.

Last but not least, are two pieces looking at the real-life influences on the show; dubbed “The Research of C.S.I.: Maintaining the Accuracy” and “C.S.I: Forensic Procedures On the Scene vs. On the Screen”. A great deal of research goes into the writing of CSI, and the producers are always attempting to keep a sense of ‘reality’, by introducing gadgets and procedures that are true to life. Interesting while they last, these doc’s do a decent job of highlighting the scientific knowledge that the writers embrace.

Closing Remarks

Another outstanding year for TV’s top crime drama, Season 5 will always be remembered for Tarantino’s involvement; which does the series a disservice in my opinion. Not a single episode here is ‘weak’. Not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway - it’s a thoroughly consistent show, and Season 5 contains some of the best episodes yet. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grissom?”, “Weeping Willows” and “4x4” are superior to QT’s effort, yet “Grave Danger” is an exciting two-parter, that brings a much-needed character dynamic to the show. Such elements were glossed over in previous series. Perhaps the auteur’s meddling can inspire the writers to explore new avenues in Season 6?

As for the box set, CBS and Paramount continue to set a very high standard for television releases; giving CSI a wonderful presentation and some thoughtful extras. Fans would be foolish not to snap it up…

Film
9 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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