AN ODE TO MARG HELGENBERGER, THE UNSUNG HERO OF ‘CSI’
The Boston Globe
November 24, 2005
By Matthew Gilbert, Globe Staff
Forget about family, friends, and good food. It’s time for us no-life television watchers to give thanks for an actress named Marg Helgenberger. That’s Marg pronounced with a hard ”g,” not a ”j.” Marg is Thursday night’s buried treasure. She is the unsung attraction of ”CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which is the highest-rated show on TV, reaching some 30 million viewers a week. Meanwhile, the ”Desperate Housewives” stars are so sung I’m ready for the earplugs.
Yes, ”CSI” has other, more obvious charms. Its eviscerations are certainly dazzling in a bloodied still-life kind of way, and the science is very cool. Also, the murderous perversions are quite a draw (the people-in-stuffed-animal-suits fetish episode was wild). But Marg is the show’s essential bolt of rock ‘n’ roll. Exuding sex, self-confidence, and experience, she never pales beside the gaudy guts spread before her like rotting fruit at a picnic. She holds her own against even the most savage killers, shooting snide comments at them like a stripper fending off a pushy customer. Indeed, her character, Detective Catherine Willows, was an exotic dancer (and a cokehead) in the years before she took up the fine art of entrails.
As Willows, Marg brings an essential air of cheap glamour to the Las Vegas-set show. She embodies the cool neon of the Strip: a little too much lip gloss, not a lot of smile, bouncy hair as prop, and a hint of Mae West swagger in her voice. She projects an almost drag-queen-like fierceness. Even in a black-crime-lab baseball cap, with an official police vest hanging over her T-shirt and tight jeans, she’s got street strut. She’ll look through you as much as at you.
Generally, the acting in a crime procedural such as ”CSI” is secondary to the twists in the hourlong journey toward the final revelations. The actors on ”Law & Order” became famously expendable once producer Dick Wolf realized that the franchise itself has more drawing power than any of its individual stars. The ”CSI” label dwarfs all of the players, even a marquee name like David Caruso. When Jorja Fox and George Eads threatened to leave ”CSI” in the summer of 2004 while negotiating a raise, the network let them walk, later accepting their apologies and taking them back.
But ”CSI” would certainly be a far lesser thing without Marg. The ratings wouldn’t dip if she left, but the show’s atmosphere would. She’s one of those TV actors who goes mostly unnoticed from week to week, and yet her absence would take away so much of what grounds ”CSI” in the heart of Sin City, beyond all the location shots. Back in the Vietnam drama ”China Beach,” which ran from 1988 to ’91, Marg was more obviously critical to the drama, and she won a supporting Emmy in 1990 in recognition of that. As K.C., she was a cool and calculating madam. In ”CSI,” she has a somewhat more peripheral — but no less important — presence.
Marg also forms one of the best crime-show pairings on TV with William Petersen, who plays the ever-logical Gil Grissom. They don’t always work together on cases, but their periodic interactions bring an interesting polarity to the entire series. He’s morally solid as a rock; she’s a little slippery. He’s almost robotic in his analyses; she’s always grappling for objectivity. She makes him more interesting. In one great episode last season, Willows has a makeout session with a man outside a nightclub right before he becomes a suspect in a CSI murder investigation. Naturally, Grissom hears about the encounter, and we see him lose his cool for a moment, barely restraining his judgment of her. He is like a dad upon learning his daughter is a groupie.
OK, Marg is no Edie Falco. She’s not a bolt of emotional thunder. But she’s an unusual actress on a show that, like ”CSI: NY” and ”CSI: Miami,” could too easily become just another ensemble crime series. She’s a worthy member of the rare group of network TV actors who do quiet battle against TV’s strong generic tendencies.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.