Thursday, January 15, 2009

Goodbye Grissom

One of my favourite TV characters is going away.

On Thursday night (which is tonight as I start to write this , but may very well be last night by the time I actually finish it) Gil Grissom will walk out of the Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigations lab for the last time and will probably go in the way he once told Warwick brown that he'd leave – no party with cake, he'd just be gone. William Petersen, who created the role of the smart controlled Grissom, has decided that – as Grissom said a couple of episodes ago – it's time to raise the ante.

For better or for worse, Gil Grissom is going to be one of the iconic TV characters of the first decade of the century, right up there with President Jed Bartlett and Jack Bauer. What is interesting is that when CSI began as a series few gave it much chance of succeeding. Though I can't find my TV Guide Fall Preview edition (about the only thing I miss about the death of the Canadian edition of TV Guide) from the year that the show debuted, I seem to recall that they thought that the show was "too smart" for the audience and too science oriented. They thought that the big hit for CBS that year would be the remake of The Fugitive which preceded CSI on Friday nights (before Friday night unaccountably became the "death slot" for most networks).

While the series began with an ensemble cast, something that has largely been retained, there was a clear leader of the group in the form of William Petersen as Gil Grissom. Petersen, who was probably best known at the time for his work in movies including Manhunter in which he played a forensic scientist, had a "pay or play" contract with CBS but wasn't able to find a project that he wanted to do. He feared being locked into a role that he would find boring. When the role of Grissom was offered to him he found what he wanted, a character where he – as an actor – would learn a lot and wouldn't get bored. It seems to have worked; in an industry where shows rarely go beyond seven seasons because actors become bored with the roles and drive costs up with salary demands, CSI has endured for nine seasons with Petersen being at least present in all but five episodes. Of those five episodes, one was built around the character of Jim Brass with only three other characters from the show appearing (Warwick, Nick, and Doc Robbins), one when Petersen had to deal with a death in his family and was unavailable, and three when he was appearing in the play Dublin Carole.

Over the years the character of Grissom has developed and changed. This tends to happen with many characters on TV shows of course but in the case of Grissom, and most of the characters in the original CSI for that matter, the development and changes have seemed organic and a logical outgrowth of previous events. In the first season Grissom seems far more outgoing, to the point of occasionally flirting with female characters, but as time went by he has become increasingly reserved; close to his friends and colleagues (who generally seem to be one and the same) but less open to outsiders. This change seems to coincide with the onset of his hearing loss; although he recovered his hearing he seemed to become more reserved. His relationship with Sara went unrevealed, if palpable, until it was finally revealed, first to viewers and only later to the characters on the show.

Grissom has a reputation as a polymath, someone with knowledge on a lot of subjects or perhaps more accurately an curiosity in learning about a lot of subjects. This has shown up in a number of episodes of the show. One of my favourites is when he has to deal with a murder at a convention of "little people;" we learn that he subscribes to the organization's newsletter. His understanding of deaf culture is more profound – his mother is deaf and he learned to sign at an early age. When he was younger he attended boxing matches to learn about bruise patterns and blood spatter, and became something of an expert on the science of boxing. Other interests are more personal. He loves roller coasters, to the point of setting up trips to work related conventions to be able to ride. He used to play poker and played well, to the point where he was able to earn enough money to finance his first body farm with his winnings, but in time lost interest in the game or maybe just in dealing with people. This is mentioned in the third season episode "Revenge Is Best Served Cold" and seems to have been forgotten only to be mentioned in the episode "Young Man With A Horn" earlier this season.

Grissom served as a significant influence to the younger investigators under his leadership. His relationship with Warwick Brown was at time adversarial, but still extremely closes. After his death Grissom and Catherine discover a DVD in which Warwick describes Grissom as being close to a father figure for him. Warwick was always worried about disappointing Grissom even in those situations where they disagreed. His relationship with Nick Stokes has similar qualities, although Nick's father is still alive. This relationship reveals itself in the episode "Grave Danger" (directed by Quentin Tarantino) where Grissom takes on the paternal role, referring to Nick by his childhood nickname of Pancho. More than that though, with the exception of Greg, Nick is the youngest of the CSIs and the one who has been taught the most by Grissom if only because he didn't have the same extensive science background that Grissom had. As far as Greg goes, Grissom is at once a mentor and a model. After all both have widely divergent interests, and both were scientists first before becoming field investigators. Grissom's has close friendships with both Doctor Robbins and Captain Jim Brass, although it's unclear how close either of these relationships is. Brass considers Grissom a close enough friend to give power of attorney to, and yet Grissom doesn't even know whether or not Brass owns a boat and they've never seemed to get together socially outside of work. His relationship with Robbins also seems to be primarily work related insofar as Robbins is always revealing new facts about himself to Grissom.

It is his relationships with women that are the most interesting. We don't know much about how he is dealing with the newest CSI of the bunch Ronnie Lake, but his relationship with Sophia Curtiss, who was briefly a CSI before transferring to the regular police department was quite cordial. His two big relationships though are with Sara Sidle, who was initially his protégé but in time became his lover. Petersen has stated that Sara "completes" Grissom. For Grissom the intimacy that they hove goes back much further than when they began their physical relationship. It is perhaps one of the reasons why he specifically chose her to come to Las Vegas after Holly Gribbs was killed in the pilot episode of the series. The hints about the relationship run through many episodes of the series, going back to the third or fourth season, and when the fact that they were together as a couple was revealed to viewers it didn't come as a surprise, simply as a confirmation of what we all knew for a long time (not that this made it any more palatable for some fans). The revelation moreover was done in such a way that it seemed natural. They didn't suddenly come together but rather it was as though we as viewers were being admitted into this aspect of Grissom's life.

I have to say right here that I am one of those people who doesn't totally like the Grissom-Sara relationship. In my case this has a lot to do with my preference for a Grissom-Catherine relationship. They seem to fit together much more readily. In fact there is a point where Grissom refers to Catherine as being like a wife. While the producers of the show prefer to describe the Grissom-Catherine relationship as being like brother and sister, I think there is more than a bit of truth in Grissom's description of it. I prefer to think of it as an almost platonic marriage, in which they share just about everything except sex. They complement each other; he's more driven by the data than she is while she's more willing to go with instinct, her real world experience has been more worldly than his while his academic knowledge is greater both in terms of degrees and variety of interests. Certainly he seems to have a deeper friendship with Catherine than any of his male colleagues – he's had her over to his apartment for dinner at least once that we know of – and the depth of their relationship has been explored a lot recently. She knows that she can talk to him about just about anything, apparently including her frustrations with her sex life, and she is perceptive enough to pick up on the messages he's sending even when he doesn't know he's sending them. She says that she knew that he was leaving, probably before he knew it himself. That remark in itself is telling, not unlike a woman who realizes that her long marriage is coming to an end, not because of the fault of either party but simply because the time for it to end has arrived. There are no recriminations or anger, simply a wistful sense of sadness and loss. I think that it is this aspect of the show that is most likely to be lost when Grissom leaves.

I have no doubt that CSI will be able to survive the departure of William Petersen from the show. The show has a strong ensemble cast and the addition of Laurence Fishburne as a permanent fixture on the series is a definite plus, while Marge Helgenberger, and her character of Catherine Willows, are both strong enough to become primary characters. What I do fear is that the departure of Petersen will significantly alter the personal dynamics of the characters in the series. The crimes will still be as intriguing – the writers will see to that – but the focal point of the relationships for nine years is being removed and it won't be possible to realign those relationships right away. In an odd way, that might be an advantage for the series if the writers are willing to spend the time showing those relationships changing. It may set the show apart from a series like Law & Order where characters are removed and replaced like cogs in a machine with only slight disruption in the day to day operation. I'm looking forward to seeing how the writers handle Grissom's departure and how long it take to deal with its repercussions.

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