Long-running original CSI put forensic crime-solving science on the public map. Now it's “terminated.” But will it get a decent Viking funeral?

Ted Danson.
Ted Danson as head CSI D.B. Cooper in "CSI's" current season finale. Will this be the end of D.B.'s career? (Still image via CBS TV)

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2015 – This just in: Wednesday morning, CBS finally provided the answer to the network’s long-standing mystery regarding the fate of its still popular flagship crime series, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” You know, the one set amidst the glitter, glamor and seediness of Las Vegas.

Is the show really canceled? The answer: Yes. Sort of.

Word this morning was that the original “CSI” will return this fall for one episode only—a two-hour, series-wrapping, made-for-TV movie that will tie up loose ends and ring down the final curtain on the CBS network’s original franchise-maker.

To air tentatively on Sept. 27, 2015, the final episode will bring back former series star Marg Helgenberger for a final bow. Allegedly, even the series’ original lead CSI and franchise star William Peterson is also expected to return for the special finale.

Avidly followed around the world for what seems like decades—15 years, actually—“CSI” has long been a big ratings winner for CBS. In more recent seasons, however, ratings began to tumble, putting the network in a quandary. Should they try to crank the series up a notch and see whether it could regain some traction? Or should it get the ax?

Arguably, Bill Peterson, the series’ original top investigator, was the actor who really put this show on the map. Peterson’s Gil Grissom was the kind of character TV viewers rarely got a chance to see: a dogged investigator who generally worked without packing heat (which real CSIs generally don’t do anyway), and a genuine scientific nerd who sometimes got so involved in solving crime puzzles that he had little time for deep, personal interactions with his staff.

The enigmatic Grissom proved to be the heart and soul of this series, although each show was goosed by the kind of realistically gruesome crime scenes that earned it a fair share of parental criticism over the years.

Once Peterson decided to hang up his electron microscopes and try on other projects, including live theater, which he loves, the series began to lose its grip, at least in this writer’s opinion. It began with the awkward swap-out of Peterson for Laurence Fishburne, whose moody, troubled but brilliant MD-turned-professor, Ray Langston, decides to jettison his academic career and join the Vegas CSI staff as a Level 1 (rookie) investigator.

Fishburne’s consistently enigmatic character, not to mention the placement of a big-name movie star (Morpheus in the “Matrix” franchise) in a subordinate position on the CSI staff didn’t particularly gel. Nor did the bizarrely mysterious backplot involving his character’s somewhat questionable personal background.

It’s also possible that CBS and Fishburne were at odds on salary demands, an increasing issue for network TV as it tries to slim down programming budgets by getting stingy in salary negotiations with its better known or more popular stars.

In any event, Fishburne’s character was written out of the series after just three seasons in a particularly and almost implausibly violent series of episodes.

Portrayed as a onetime exotic dancer-turned-detective, Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger), Grissom’s No. 2 CSI, stepped into the supervisory role upon Grissom’s departure. From the start, the show’s plot arcs frequently put Helgenberger’s character under absurd levels of pressure, which, for better or worse, left the team adrift without the kind of firm leadership Peterson’s Grissom once provided.

Not surprisingly, Helgenberger, too, departed one season after Fishburne left, possibly also having to do with salary issues on top of everything else.

To replace Helgenberger’s character, onetime “Cheers” star Ted Danson’s D.B. Russell dropped into Vegas from his former CSI post in Seattle, bringing with him some subtle family baggage, but also a Grissom-firm style of leadership that promised to improve the series cohesion.

Another addition, Elisabeth Shue’s Julie Finlay—hired and fired by D.B. in Seattle for reasons eventually made clear—was rehired by him in Vegas. She, in turn, was joined by a formerly minor female character, Morgan Brody (Elisabeth Harnois), another Level 3 CSI.

As the youngest member of the staff, Harnois’ cute, pert but strong-minded character was likely the network honchos’ belated attempt to inject some youthfulness into “CSI’s” cast, which by then had begun to show its age. And age is a no-no in the rarified universe of the 18-49 demographic, which, as the networks always tell is, includes the only people in the world who buy advertisers’ products.

Danson’s D.B. Cooper seemed to have the respect and authority to buck up “CSI’s” increasingly fractious cast. But Shue’s character, while physically attractive, was also handicapped by Finlay’s projection as an incautious, oversexed cougar, which for this writer created a vague sense of unease and unprofessionalism that stretched beyond the moral dimension. At the same time, Harnois’ character also had credibility issues, often seeming far too smart and far too self-possessed for her age.

In the meantime, the remaining veteran characters tended to have smaller and smaller roles in later seasons, particularly George Eads (Nick Stokes) who began to have serious creative differences with the series masterminds, leading to his incompletely explained sabbaticals in later episodes.

Most likely at the core of “CSI’s” recent problems, however, were the scriptwriters. Seemingly devoid of fresh ideas, they increasingly came up with lame plot twists and unbelievable (and tedious) multi-episode plot arcs. With actors tiring of the whole enterprise and with writers seeming at times to phone scripts in, “CSI” gradually lost its mojo.

By last fall, after disastrously ratings-damaging moves first to the Friday Death Valley slot and then, even worse, to the often football canceled Sunday night slot, it was clear CBS no longer cared about its “CSI” mother ship.

Unceremoniously cutting its current season short, the better to preempt most of its spring semester to make room for its latest series spinoff, “CSI: Cyber,” it was clear to everyone that CBS was planning to give its Vegas crime-fighters the boot.

But inexplicably, the network continued to generate ill will either by evading the whole question of the show’s future or by outright lying about it when everyone pretty much knew this was the end, given that this was more or less the thoughtless way the axing of “CSI’s” two original spinoffs − “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: New York” − had been handled previously.

Left up in the air are current problems with the series that has replaced the original “CSI,” namely “CSI: Cyber.” In a serendipitous bit of programming, the new spinoff—first auditioned via “CSI” episodes—got lucky when new series star Patricia Arquette copped an Academy Award right about the time the new series was launched. That’s one way of guaranteeing great PR.

Unfortunately, the new series seems already to have lost some traction, and it looks like the network is trying to give it some help over the summer.

Latest word is that nearly-former “CSI” star Ted Danson will be traveling to Quantico, Va., to help out Arquette’s character, FBI special agent Avery Ryan. At least in the rarified realm of TV verisimilitude, the switch is plausible. It’s already been made clear during transition “CSI” episodes that Danson’s and Arquette’s characters have been professionally involved before. (Too bad lateral career moves and promotions for the rest of us aren’t this easy.)

Whether more surgery will be performed on “CSI: Cyber’s” fall cast lineup—and whether that nip-tuck might involve other original “CSI” cast members in addition to Danson—remains an unknown at this point.

Stay tuned.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17