"Look sir, droids!" Judge Erick Harper applies his crack forensic skills to this improbably popular series.
Our reviews of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Complete First Season (published May 12th, 2003), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 19th, 2005), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Complete Fifth Season (published December 7th, 2005), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Eighth Season (published November 3rd, 2008), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Eleventh Season (published October 6th, 2011), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The First Season (Blu-ray) (published May 13th, 2009), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Ninth Season (published September 25th, 2009), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Ninth Season (Blu-ray) (published September 21st, 2009), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Seventh Season (published December 19th, 2007), CSI: Grave Danger (Blu-ray) (published February 7th, 2012), and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Twelfth Season (published October 22nd, 2012) are also available.
People lie, but the evidence never does.
Over the past three years, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been a huge success in the Nielsens and in the pop-culture consciousness. It has spawned numerous imitators, not least the direct spinoff CSI: Miami and the forthcoming CSI: New York. The flagship show of the franchise shows no signs of stumbling or running out of steam, as shown by this excellent DVD box set containing the full third season.
Facts of the Case
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: The Complete Third Season takes us once again to the dark underside of Las Vegas, where every neon rainbow leads not to a pot of gold, but to a murder or some other heinous crime. Each episode of CSI is a new mystery (or two or three) with intriguing plot twists and turns. Each is fascinating in its own way, and each is solved the same way, through the careful, scientific efforts of the professionals of the Las Vegas Crime Lab. As interesting as the individual cases are, it's the main characters who make CSI the phenomenon it has become. Each episode packs in quite a bit of character development along with the murder and mayhem, and each character grows and changes with all their traumatic experiences over the course of a season. Accordingly, rather than a list of episodes and plot summaries (which would be either so vague as to be useless or riddled with spoilers), here is a quick thumbnail sketch of each character's major storylines, which may include some spoiler-ish information:
Gil Grissom (William Petersen, Cousins)—Grissom, the enigmatic leader of the Las Vegas Crime Lab, remains something of a paradox. His skills at human observation are a key element of his success in solving crimes, yet he seems strangely blind to the needs and concerns of the co-workers he is supposed to be supervising. His pseudo-Zen style of personnel management causes tensions within the crime lab staff, notably between himself and the next most senior CSI, Catherine Willows. Over the course of the season Grissom finally opens up and makes a human connection with one person; Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke, The O.C.), proprietor of a local S&M club, strikes a chord with Grissom because of her unique perception of human nature. Grissom, a sharp observer of the human element but seemingly limited in his ability to be the human element, allows his single-minded devotion to his work to snuff out this incipient relationship as well. Finally, hanging over Grissom's head throughout the entire third season is a hereditary hearing defect that threatens to end his career and isolate him even further from the world around him.
Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger, Species)—Season Three allowed Helgenberger's character to experience a lot of development in her personal life. Catherine's status as a single mother is expanded here, with a plotline that requires her to save her daughter's life and ties up loose ends with her ex-husband. Catherine's frustration with Grissom is evident in several episodes, but on the other hand they have a strangely complementary relationship much like an old, occasionally bickering married couple. Catherine suffers in a few episodes where her competence as a criminalist comes into question, and she is forced to deal with the consequences of a major blunder. The final episode of the season is full of her background story, including a big The Empire Strikes Back moment.
Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan, Alien Resurrection)—Dourdan was nominated for an Image award for the episode "Random Acts of Violence." In that episode, Warrick returns to his roots as a disadvantaged African-American kid growing up in Las Vegas. When violence touches the life of his mentor—the man who ran the youth center that kept young Warrick out of trouble and set him on the path to where he is today—Warrick reacts emotionally and improperly, jeopardizing his career and the one thing that saved him from a life of crime. It also seems that Warrick will never be completely free from suspicions over his previous gambling habit, a stigma that continues to follow him.
Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox, Memento)—Jorja Fox, in an interview segment in this season set, comments on the dark year this has been for her character. Sara has been betrayed by a close friend, lied to by a cheating boyfriend, and almost blown up in an explosion that decimated the DNA lab. There are several hints over the course of the season that Sara is developing a romantic interest in Grissom, her boss, but it seems likely that she will face disappointment here as well.
Nick Stokes (George Eads)—Of the main characters, Eads's alter ego Nick probably sees the least pronounced character development during Season Three. He undergoes no major personal traumas, and has no soap opera-style emotional baggage to deal with. What becomes clear, underneath his self-effacing Texan Boy Scout exterior, is a sense of frustration with the slow growth in his job responsibilities and opportunities. Of all the CSIs, he works the hardest to impress Grissom and embrace his purely rational, purely scientific approach to evidence; in Nick's eyes, Grissom is frustratingly slow and measured in rewarding his efforts.
Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda)—There are several supporting characters that, after a while, almost take on the importance of main characters. One of these is the Greg Sanders, the geeky-cool master of the DNA lab and whatever other analysis the writers decide to have him do from time to time. Greg comes closer to the crime lab inner circle during Season Three, including making hints he would like to move from the lab to field work. Greg, more than anyone, is quite traumatized when a freak accident in his lab causes a serious explosion, which threatens to replace his footloose and carefree shtick with something much more somber.
(For a complete synopsis of each episode, please consult the link to the official CSI website at CBS Television, or check out TV Tome for even more information.)
Despite all the fancy direction, editing, and special effects, the real strength of CSI continues to be the strong writing. The writing staff manages to find ways to keep crime fresh, interesting, and unexpected, while always maintaining a strong focus on the characters and the human element. Their usual story structure, featuring a main or "A" story, a "B" story, and sometimes a more lighthearted "C" story, perhaps feels a bit too familiar after a while; this story structure has been a TV standard for over twenty years. There are some recurrent storytelling devices, such as two seemingly unrelated cases that converge and become one, that seem to stretch suspension of disbelief a little too far. Apart from these occasional objections, however, the mysteries that unfold each Thursday night are usually entertaining and engrossing. It is something of a testament to the great writing on CSI that I could watch an entire season over the course of a couple of days and never feel that the stories or ideas were getting old or formulaic. That could be a real danger on such a technically oriented show, but the constant focus on interesting, well-developed characters saves CSI from becoming just another Court TV docu-drama clone.
In addition to the writing, the success of CSI largely relies on the wonderful work of the entire cast. Petersen and Helgenberger stand out, as they are generally given the best stories and the most screen time, but they are remarkable for their willingness to take their characters in directions that might not always endear them to the audience. Grissom occasionally comes across as too quirky and too absorbed in his own little scientific world to be a completely sympathetic character. Catherine, by contrast, sometimes comes off as too emotional and maybe just a little strident. Far from being flaws, these touches of reality are strengths that help make the characters seem so compelling.
This is not to slight the rest of the cast, who all do outstanding work with their characters. The acting on CSI is so uniformly great that time and space would fail me if I were to try to give everyone the mention they so richly deserve.
This DVD collection presents all twenty-three episodes of CSI's third season, spread across six discs. CSI in recent seasons has gone widescreen, and the episodes on these discs are presented in that format with anamorphic enhancement. The results are spectacular; this is one of the best TV-to-DVD transfer jobs I have seen. Colors are rich and vibrant, indoor and outdoor scenes look uniformly great, and the various carefully designed looks and cinematography, so important to the series, are reproduced faithfully. There are some scattered problems, such as some major edge enhancement from time to time.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix on these discs brings a whole new dimension to viewing CSI. Sound design has always played an important role in the show, as demonstrated by the Emmy earned by Season Three's "Fight Night." This is one of the most immersive aural environments ever captured by a TV show on DVD, and in fact rivals or surpasses all but the most spectacular feature films. If there is a drawback to the audio, it might occur in the autopsy scenes, or other indoor scenes where voices are supposed to echo slightly; the reverb effect seems just a bit overdone.
When I reviewed the initial season of CSI, I complained that the special features were fairly sparse. That is not the case for Season Three. CBS and Paramount have included a goodly selection of extras for this box set. To kick off the festivities, six episodes—over one fourth of the season—include commentary tracks. These vary widely in quality. After listening to the first one, for the episode "Revenge is Best Served Cold," I was seriously concerned. That track, featuring Danny Cannon and Anthony Zuiker, is easily the worst of the collection, and one of the worst I've ever heard. Listening to the track, it becomes abundantly clear that neither man had bothered to prepare at all before stepping into the recording studio; they apparently hadn't even bothered to watch the episode since it originally aired. They make such insightful comments as "It's funny, when you're doing this, you end up just watching the episode" and "whoa."
CSI fans should not despair, however, as the commentaries improve substantially. A varied cast of writers, producers, directors, and other behind-the-scenes personnel give a lot of good information about the series, including some valuable insights into the psyches of the all-important characters. In particular, I'm fond of the second commentary, for the episode "The Accused is Entitled." This one is particularly interesting, as it features Elizabeth Devine, a writer/technical advisor/producer on the series, who actually worked as a CSI in Los Angeles. Probably the most endearing commentator is director Ken Fink, who seems to be too modest to accept any compliments on his impressive direction; tending to steer the conversation towards technical, nuts-and-bolts filmmaking details whenever anyone tries to compliment him.
There are four featurettes included with this collection. One is a guided tour of the police precinct sets, which actually form a continuous complex that could very well function as a real police station. The next is a description of how the effects wizards create the now famous "CSI Shots," traveling through bodies with projectiles or tracking through such strange settings as a jet engine. The second-unit crews that create these shots go to great pains to make sure that what we see is anatomically correct, using motion-control cameras, oversized models, and surprisingly (I should say refreshingly) little CGI. Another featurette takes us inside the CSI writers' room, where we learn about how the script for each episode becomes a truly collaborative, meticulously researched work. The final featurette is entitled "CSI Moves into Season 3," and features some nice on-camera interviews with the cast and creative personnel.
The final piece of extra content features Rich Catalani, a technical advisor on the show and a former CSI himself. In nine segments of 30-45 seconds apiece, he explains some of the common equipment that a real-life criminalist would find in his or her field kit. This is interesting information, but there isn't much time to give any detailed information or go into much depth.
This is an excellent set. CSI fans should not hesitate to pick this one up. For non-fans, it could make a great introduction to one of the hottest shows on TV today.
Also, make sure you take the time to visit the official CBS CSI: Crime Scene Investigation website. It is a fully interactive site that provides an interactive tour of the crime lab, a CSI handbook explaining major terms and technology, and personnel profiles on all the major characters. Best of all, it allows access to "case files" with episode summaries the chance to view all sorts of archived evidence for each case.
Not guilty! Great show, great DVDs, acquittals all around!
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "The CSI Tour: Police Station" Featurette
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