Friday, May 20, 2005

CSI Season Finale - WOW!

The Thing about Quentin Tarantino is that you either love him or you hate him. If you hate him, nothing he can do will ever be any good, while if you love him, he's brilliant. I may be one of the few people in North America who has no fixed opinion of him, simply because I've never seen any of his movies straight through, and I've only seen a few scenes of Pulp Fiction. The one opinion I have of him, as a result of Thursday's finale of CSI is that the guy is a damned fine TV director.

There's an interesting story about how Tarantino came to direct the episode. He had long been a fan and let various members of the cast who he met at awards shows know it, but it was when an former criminologist named Larry Mitchell who works as a consultant ion the show met him at the food court at the Luxor and invited him out to the set - without knowing who he was - that the seeds for the episode were set. On the set he met Anthony Zuiker and William Petersen, creator and star of the series but both also executive producers, and mentioned that he had an idea for a story, but he'd like to direct it. The deal was done very quickly.

The episode starts innocently enough. Nick Stokes (George Eads) is called to what appears to be a crime scene. A queasy looking uniformed cop is there and it's easy to see what's making him queasy. In the middle of a lonely parking lot is a pile of guts - literally. While the cop goes to toss his cookies (we see him vomiting by his car) Nick follows pieces of evidence set out like bread crumbs, or bait for a trap. When the cop turns back, Nick is gone.

One of humanity's primal fears is being buried alive. In the 19th Century there were actually patents issued for devices that would alert people on the surface that someone had been buried alive. Of course, whether any were actually sold - or more importantly used for their intended purpose - is another question entirely. More recently a handful of real life kidnappers have buried their victims alive as an "incentive" to have the ransom paid, but in truth it has been more often used as a fictional plot device than anything else. Indeed at least one episode of CSI - starring Jolene Blalock in an early acting job - has used it, but no one has managed to make it as chilling as it is used here. Nick is placed in a plexiglass coffin with a gun, a tape recorder, and a bunch of light sticks. He can see the dirt pressing all around him. Worse is to come. Back at headquarters things are going nowhere fast. The evidence collected at the scene tells them little except the size of the truck that Nick was taken in. Then a messenger arrives with a package, apparently picked up outside a random house. It contains a tape and a USB drive. The tape provides a sound track for what comes next because the USB drive provides a hypertext link. There a ransom demand for a million dollars and a button that when clicked illuminates Nick's coffin. What they don't know is that lighting the light reduces the power in the battery that also runs the ventilation system feeding air to the coffin.

The two hour running time for the episode allows the writers to show off aspects that we know about the characters. Grissom's knowledge of insects helps to locate the site where the coffin is located while his ability to read lips provides a touching moment when Nick is recording what he thinks is his last words on the tape recorder. Catherine's relationship with her father as well as her devotion to her CSI family is shown in the scene where she approaches Sam Braun for the million dollars that the kidnapper is demanding and which the city won't pay. Warrick shows his temper, worry and exasperation at the chance that put his closest friend in the coffin instead of him while Greg's quick wits and youthful enthusiasm are seen. Tarantino even accomplishes what I thought was impossible - he made me actually like the character of Hodges, who normally comes across as a smug, brown-nosing ass. In this episode he plays a Dukes of Hazard board game with Greg (a pure Tarantino touch as is Grissom's framed Roy Rogers certificate), roughs up the messenger delivering the envelope with the clue to tape and USB drive (on the grounds that the guy was probably destroying trace evidence) and provides a vital piece of information that helps save Nick. It is however Eads who has the hardest acting job of all. He goes through the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, all mingled with various degrees of terror and a decline into madness as his situation becomes increasingly desperate. It's a tough job and he pulls it off amazingly well.

The Tarantino touches are there as well of course. Besides the bits mentioned above, he uses a comedian (I think it's Bob Goldthwait who previously appeared in a third season episode of the series) as the delivery guy's lawyer. The scene between Sam Braun and Catherine is preceded by a scene with Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin sitting with Braun and his latest bimbo talking about Old Vegas. While some may think that the scene goes on too long (although it does let Gorshin do his Kirk Douglas, Ed Sullivan and Jack Nicholson impressions - a fitting reminder of what a great talent was lost when he died (the episode also included a memorial note at the end which was another nice touch given the short time available to set it up)) it worked to establish just how secret Braun had kept her and just how tough she is. Finally there is the controversial sequence near the end in which Nick hallucinates his own autopsy, as performed by Doc Robbins and his assistant David "Super Dave" Phillips. Reportedly the scene was so gory that it had to be shot in black & white but it works incredibly well because it was shot that way.

In this episode of CSI Tarantino has crafted a brilliant thriller building tension by the minute. His use of John Saxon as the mastermind of the plot is brilliant. He is the villain but we never see his face and he exits the scene - by blowing himself up - without our discovering the motivation behind what he is doing. Layer upon layer has to be peeled away to allow us to know not just why he did what he did but the significance of seemingly insignificant details. Are there faults? Of course. At one point it is crucial for both the audience and Nick to think he's being rescued but there seems to be no clear explanation of why he's hearing what he's hearing when it turns out that the hope is a false one. In another scene, it is difficult to understand why Saxon's character put something onto the prototype coffin he built, something that allows Hodges to discover a trap and alert the people in the field. Still these are minor points in a series that expects us to suspend our belief for far greater plot points every week. It seems a shame that in syndication this episode will be broken into two pieces - it really is a CSI movie event and should be treated as such but the requirements of television mean that it will probably be cut in two. If this episode doesn't earn at least Emmy nominations for Tarantino as director and writers Naran Shankar, Anthony Zuiker and Carole Mendelsohn, and at least consideration for George Eads as Best Supporting Actor, I will truly be shocked.

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