"CSI" loses Marg Helgenberger, prepares for a slow death

Quick - without checking IMDb or Wikipedia, how long do you think the original CSI has been on the air? It still surprises me that they’re going into their 12th season in September, after 251 episodes. If you’re a regular reader of Professionally Incoherent, you might know that a recurring theme on this blog is how I think most TV shows and movie series (especially American ones) should not be run to excessive lengths. Such is the case with CSI – but I have a feeling that CSI may be about to run itself into the ground.

Why? Yesterday, series star Marg Helgenberger, who plays senior CSI supervisor Catherine Willows, will be leaving the show in January 2012. This comes on the heels of fellow lead actor Laurence Fishburne also announcing his exit from the show, and news that Damages star Ted Danson will be replacing Fishburne in a new role. I have a feeling this will cause an irreversible bleed of viewers from the show, and soon we may only be left with the spinoff programs CSI: Miami and CSI: New York.

If you’re a fan of the show, you already know that headliner William Petersen called it quits in 2009. Petersen played Gil Grissom, the original night shift supervisor of the Las Vegas Police Department forensics team, and endeared himself to viewers with his portrayal of the shy, brilliant forensic scientist.

William Petersen as CSI Supervisor Dr. Gil Grissom

Petersen’s character retired, but made an uncredited guest star appearance last season, inspiring much fan excitement. His departure upset more than a few fans, even though Fishburne was introduced as Dr. Raymond Langston, a similar “quiet doctor” role. It all played out in the numbers: CBS noticed a loss of 4 million regular viewers following Petersen’s exit, a drop in ratings that would be fatal to a less-popular show.

With the news that Marg Helgenberger is leaving, I expect a similar (maybe even more severe) dip in viewership as we saw in 2009. After all, Helgenberger’s Catherine character has been around since CSI premiered, and earned praise for her performance as a street-smart, sisterly counterpart to the Grissom character.

Over CSI’s run, the writers have done a lot with Catharine Willows, revealing her past as a stripper and exploring her struggles as a single mother and the daughter of a casino owner/mobster. The character has always demonstrated a gritty sex appeal and a knack for fast-talking repartee, so to lose her now could be a lethal blow for the series.

Then we have the revelation that Ted Danson will be joining CSI as D.B. Russell, described by Reuters’ Jill Serjeant as “a family man with four children, an unconventional hippie upbringing, and a good sex life”. Danson is perhaps best known as Sam Malone on 80s sitcom Cheers, where he played a skirt-chasing bartender (Check out his IMDb page here).

More recently, he demonstrated his serious side on the legal drama Damages, in the role of Arthur Frobisher, a corrupt billionaire CEO. After scanning a few clips of both characters on YouTube, I imagine Danson can handle any job on CSI, but the show’s future will depend on how his character is used. As if to pre-emptively address this, longtime CSI producer Carol Mendelsohn explained to Reuters that “the season will be a little lighter. There is more humor than there was last season”.

That should immediately set up some red flags. The show is supposed to be about forensic scientists solving murders and other nasty crimes, and to suddenly inject more comedy could end up feeling artificial and forced – a last ditch effort to squeeze life out of the show. On top of that, interviews with Mendelsohn and CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler in the Reuters piece imply that CBS intends to do just that: keep the show going no matter what.

An early look at Danson in character as D.B Russell on Season 12

Mendelsohn explains: “Season 12 -- that's a lot of years, and we wanted to excite the audience and excite ourselves as writers”, and Tassler hopes that Danson will bring his fans over from his other roles on Cheers and Damages. To me, this smacks of an extremely transparent money-making strategy rather than a desire to make good TV. CBS is trying from the outset to carry over Danson’s popularity on unrelated programs, rather than build interest on the merits of Danson’s new character. It’s done in Hollywood all the time, but to have it waved in our face like this borders on insulting.

Danson is being introduced to a show that has really seemed to be on its last legs for a while. Case in point: the numerous sickeningly obvious guest star appearances of recent seasons. They’ve had everyone from Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters, pop sensation Justin Bieber, and prop comedy personality  Carrot Top, all in performances that stand out like sore thumbs from the continuity of the show. The Mythbusters one was particularly grating, with Adam and Jamie appearing as lab techs in the CSI facility, who give character Nick Stokes (George Eads) a thumbs-up after he performs an explosive experiment in the lab:


As much as I love Mythbusters, the writers made no attempt to justify Savage and Hyneman’s cameo, other than their visibility on another hit show. Bieber’s cameo was equally silly, giving the singer a drug-peddling role completely out of character with his clean-cut image. That was followed by a now-viral follow-up appearance where Bieber is ultimately killed in a shootout with the LVPD. I find it hard to believe that Danson will be able to reinvigorate a show that is not only long in the tooth but limping along with silly guest characters and an implausible number of murder stories (how many murderers can they really find in Las Vegas?).

In a way, I’m not sure why I’m complaining. I haven’t been a “regular viewer” of CSI for at least a few years. But as I’ve stated in the past, I hate to see formerly good programming go down the tube because a major network feels like milking some more profit from it. Goodbye CSI – I’ll play The Who’s “Who Are You? a couple of times in memoriam.


What do you think of the upcoming casting changes on CSI? Does it bode ill for the show, or will it survive, as American crime shows are wont to do (à la Law and Order)? Post a comment below, and check out a couple of my related articles on the TV industry:

TV is dead, and the YouTube model is king

Why (American) TV shows should be cut short