A while back we got into the habit of reviewing the shows of the previous week, at first in depth, and then, when it became apparent that it was cutting into my eating and sleeping time, with a bunch of quick comments. I was enjoying doing it, before the strike came and threw everything into total disarray, thus making such a project untenable. When shows slowly dribbled back onto the screen, we barely even noticed. Ugly Betty returned with such little fanfare (in the UK, that is) that we have only just caught up with it. Same with Reaper. Some shows didn’t bother coming back (Pushing Daisies, Heroes), the showrunners deciding to start afresh next year, and some will never come back at all (Bionical Woman, the unfairly cancelled Journeyman). Of those that came back, many of them had lost whatever momentum they had prior to the strike. A pity, but still, over the last couple of weeks, the season finales made up for some of those missteps. We intend to have a look at the state of these shows at the end of the season, but please bear in mind, the quality of the shows was damaged by the strike, and nothing managed to escape losing energy as a result (even my beloved Lost has struggled to cope with the disruption to its schedule). We accept that judging them too harshly would be unfair.
CSI returned with some not so great episodes, much to our disappointment. Though my love for the show remains, I think they’ve passed their high-water mark, which for me would be season six, which featured the aftermath of the amazing Tarantino-helmed season five finale, the introduction of the evil Hannah West, and the incredible two-parter A Bullet Runs Through It, which I maintain is better than almost all crime films I’ve seen in the past ten years. Season seven memorably featured the brilliant Miniature Killer arc (and my personal favourite CSI episode ever, Monster In The Box), and Greg’s ongoing woes after killing a mugger, which fitted in perfectly with his growth as a CSI; everyone else on the team acted like his difficulties were just part of the job, and no worse than anything they had gone through themselves. It also featured the intriguing mid-season Liev Shrieber arc, which was marred only by the actual presence of Shrieber himself. However, on a week-to-week basis, I thought season six was stronger. Perhaps if I rewatch I will disagree with myself, but for now I’ll rely on my memory of that slight deflation I felt as season seven progressed.
This season was weaker still, with some very strong episodes scattered throughout. The best was probably Sara’s departure, Goodbye and Good Luck, which featured the return of Hannah West at her creepiest. Brilliantly directed by Kenneth Fink, it was moving and gripping in perfect balance, and since then hardly anything on the show has matched up (again, bear in mind we’re aware the show was damaged by the strike, and are just glad it came back at all this year). Post-strike, we saw the return of Method Man as Drops, in his most entertaining episode yet, though that’s not saying much as his previous appearances were in the horrible Big Shots and Poppin’ Tags, memorable only because of the running joke with Brass ineptly talking like a rapper and not getting laughed off the screen by everyone around him. It’s kind of embarrassing, and while I’m all for more Method Man, I wish his episodes were stronger.
There was also the classy A Thousand Days On Earth, which saw the team investigate a child death, with some of the team jumping to conclusions and investigating someone on the child sex register, only to find that every one of their assumptions was incorrect. By the time they realise their mistakes, lives have been destroyed everywhere, and Catherine ends up with a new enemy. It was a brilliant examination of how disparate facts do not count as evidence of guilt, no matter how completely those facts apply to the crime in question, and how assumptions make an “ass” out of “u” and “mption”. (A non-Chim Chim Cookie to the firsts person who names the film I just quoted!)
Another highlight was the peculiar The Theory of Everything, with a teleplay from David Rambo and Buffy ace Douglas Petrie that felt like a semi-comedic X-Files episode. Only a tenuous grasp of physics let it down, trying to link the connectivity of a series of crimes with string theory, and including characters called Bohr and Planck. Other than that it was a well-paced head-scratcher, quirky but funny, and not “funny” as many comedy episodes end up being. Speaking of that, following on from the half-comedic/half-serious The Chick Chop Flick Shop, which I thought would be the low point of the season, CBS foolishly came up with a writers-swap plan, with Evan Dunsky, Sarah Goldfinger, Carol Mendelsohn, and Naren Shankar writing an episode of the nigh-unwatchable Two and a Half Men, and Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn derailing a beautiful procedural just so they could settle some old scores with an underwritten parody poking fun at their time spent working on Roseanne, Grace Under Fire and Cybill.
Just to make things worse, they cast the awful Katey Sagal as the screeching, egotistical sitcom lead, and her yokel-voiced double, which was an early warning sign the episode was going to be full of silly trickery and ineptly handled nods at the more melodramatic end of the whodunnit spectrum. Sagal seems fine as a dramatic actress (though at the moment I think my only experience of her playing a role straight is in Lost, as Locke’s lost love Helen, where she was terrific), but as a comedic actress she is appalling. Her flat, joke-killing line-readings in Futurama destroyed the show almost every week, and to see her continually cast in comedies amazes me. Why do people think she can do funny? She has no idea of how to tell a joke, and what’s worse is that her crappy timing is matched with eye-rolling hammery that Zero Mostel would have envied. Dear God, I hated this episode so completely. When the Shades of Caruso End of Season Awards are handed out, this is gonna be high on the horror list.
Luckily, the season ended strongly with For Gedda, at the end of which we lost another CSI, as trouble-laden Warrick’s involvement with the evil Lou Gedda came to a bloody head (literally!). Framed for Gedda’s murder and suffering from amnesia (a device I could normally do without, and yet was used well in this finale and that of House), the CSI team work to clear their colleague, which happens with uncharacteristic ease (and with a little help from the usually officious Ecklie. Obviously getting killed on Lost made his mood-swings more manageable). Of course, this being a season finale, it wasn’t going to end without a big event, and knowing that we were expecting something extra to happen, Warrick is cleared with several minutes of show left to go, and the pace slows right down so that we, the viewer, are left to agonise over what is going to happen. There’s the moment he is cleared, and a discussion with Gil, and a bit of team bonding over dinner, and a farewell to Nick, and a walk to his car… By this point we were in pieces, knowing that he would be leaving the show in a much more dramatic fashion than we’d previously thought, our nerves stretched to breaking point. For Warrick, there was no decision to quit, no suspension over his recklessness. Instead he got a bullet in the neck from the under-sheriff, revealed to have been complicit in Gedda’s criminal activity all along. It was a truly bleak and upsetting end to the season.
We’ve said it many times before; CSI is a rare show where we like every character, and it’s always hard to see them go. Jorja Fox has her fans and detractors, but even if she was our least-favourite character, we liked her enough to be sad to see her go (and seeing her relationship with Gil suffer made us sad too). This was even worse, though Dustin Lee Abraham and Richard Catalani were smart to put Warrick’s woes into perspective by referencing his gambling addiction and culpability in the death of Holly Griggs, who was killed in the very first episode. He’s always been heading towards this final tragedy, which maybe is what made it so hard to watch. To be honest, the denouement of his arc needed a bit more time spent on it prior to the final episode, but as with many shows, having a truncated season meant some plots got given short-shrift (I gather that, in particular, the final episode of Bones has enraged people for rushing a big development with one of the cast). We can’t hate on the show because of that.
Though it wasn’t the best season finale ever, it did feature some of the best filmmaking. Director Kenneth Fink (having a good year) and director of photography Nelson Cragg pulled out all the stops. This episode some of the most luminous and beautiful visual work of the whole season, with some gorgeous backlighting and bounced light giving everything a soft edge when not filling the frame with stark colour contrasts. It was a joy to look at. Most movies don’t look this good. Kudos to the crew and production staff for making such a gorgeous show.
So what next? According to Michael Ausiello, Jorja Fox and the real-life-naughty-man Dourdan will both be in the next season opener, though I doubt they’ll be around for long after that. Though I’m sorry to see those characters go, this season hinted that the format has been going without changes for too long. Though the ambition of the show has increased, it has strayed too closely to gimmickry this year, what with the Two and a Half Men project, the Without A Trace crossover, Hodges and the murder game (an episode I liked, but still thought was a jokey episode too far), and the other shenanigans listed above. Next season will feature at least one new character, Bryce Adams, played by Lauren Lee Smith, an actress who is utterly alien to me. I’m still happy about it, as the first choice for that role was Katee Sackhoff, who is utterly alien to everyone on planet Earth. As a Starbuck hater who thought Sackhoff was beyond laughable on Bionical Woman, I’m thrilled she won’t be stinking up this show.
The only other question is, will Ronnie Lake return? She got some screentime earlier this year and has yet to come back. Another Louise Lombard moment for the show? A quick IMDb check shows she’s been jinxed by taking centre stage in The Chick Chop Flick Shop and is now appearing almost exclusively in slasher flicks. I guess we’ll just have to hope the shake-up to the series extends to something more than just a cast change, and we’ll see an intelligent continuation of this murder plot, now that we have a bona fide sneaky asshole villain on the show. As Jon Stewart would say, just as he reflexively does in almost every edition of The Daily Show, Damn you, Undersheriff McKeen! Damn you all to hell!!!!