When CSI vanished from the CBS schedule in 2015, it seemed like a good time to close the door on one of TV’s most remarkable success stories. There went Billy Petersen and Jorja Fox, sailing off into the sunset in the show’s two-hour finale. Six months later the CSI: Cyber spinoff was deleted, and for the first time in a decade and a half the letters C-S-I were MIA on CBS.
But here they are, Petersen, Fox, Wally Langham and Paul Guilfoyle, all lured back to take part in CSI: Vegas, the ten-episode possible backdoor reboot of the crime franchise that ushered in the millennium. So what has brought everyone back, just six years later, besides those TV-sized paychecks? In a word: streaming. The economics of streaming have changed completely since 2015, when just a few million hardcore fans bought into CBS All Access, a clubhouse name that reflected the network’s low ambitions for the service.
But then viewers started pulling the plug on their cable and flocking to streaming channels. CBS and Viacom — amicably separated, like Grissom and Sidle once were — kissed and made up, because they saw the future and it involved a huge catalog of streaming content. CBS All Access was supersized and rebranded Paramount+. With tens of millions of subscribers, Paramount+ didn’t have to be just a warehouse for old CSI episodes (though to be sure, those David Caruso bon mots never get old). It could produce new episodes, with new CSIs, perhaps move the show to Paramount+ (as was done with Evil and SEAL Team) and use the show to build the streaming base. So that’s why CBS is betting that viewers haven’t had their fill of crime scene investigations.
Frankly, I thought it was premature to let CSI die in 2015. Although it’s not the oldest franchise on TV — Star Trek is in its sixth decade, Law & Order its fourth — CSI’s layered storytelling and cinematic visual vocabulary (did anyone do better tracking shots?) dovetailed with the new century and the high-definition TVs and DVRs that viewers were buying. More importantly, the CSI format could be replicated in different settings. Its success with the Miami and New York spinoffs paved the way for the NCIS franchise, the Chicagos and their ilk.
And here is where I remind readers that CBS almost didn’t put CSI on the schedule! In his book Desperate Networks, Bill Carter tells the incredible story of how network chief Les Moonves was ready to pass on the CSI pilot and put a Tony Danza procedural in the Friday-night time slot instead. But he wasn’t 100% sure, so he showed both screeners to Phil Rosenthal, the Everybody Loves Raymond creator, who was writing jokes for Moonves to tell at his presentation to advertisers. Rosenthal said he’d actually watch CSI. The rest is history.
CSI was worth watching then and you know what? It’s worth watching now. The CSI: Vegas pilot pulls you right back in with its familiar video funnel effect, moody sets and stylized killings. The writers take their time re-introducing each of the four regulars from the original CSI. Marg Helgenberger is not part of the revival, but her character gets name-checked in the opening minutes. That’s some good fan service.
Beyond the initial ten-episode arc, no one knows. The future of this franchise depends on whether viewers will embrace CSI: Vegas — not just the show’s shiny, state-of-the-art forensic lab but the new cast members, including Paula Newsome (Barry) as the lab director, Mandeep Dhillon (After Life) as a Level 2 and Matt Lauria (Luke from Friday Night Lights) as a Level 3 CSI. The “A” story certainly doesn’t break new ground, as it concerns a serial killer who disappeared years ago after evading justice. Now he’s back — and he’s stalking the CSIs! Tropey as that sounds, it works here. As one of the newer CSIs puts it, when you win at murder, “you keep playing.” It is, after all, Las Vegas.
CSI: Vegas premieres on CBS Wednesday October 6 at 10:00 PM ET.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.