TV SPOTLIGHT: CSI
by Alison Cunningham
October 17, 2006
“Ischemic stroke,” “neurofibrillary tangles” and “hypertrichosis” are all real medical conditions. And they’re tough to pronounce, too.
When diseases with names like these drive storylines on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, they really challenge the actors trying to memorize their dialogue.
They’ve been delivering lines like that for years — and doing it well. Now in its seventh season, the CSI that started it all has been primetime television’s dominant crime drama since its debut. Not even its spinoff cousins — CSI: Miami and CSI: NY — enjoy the same level of popularity with TV viewers.
But when ABC announced that Grey’s Anatomy was moving to Thursday night, some analysts suggested CSI‘s decline was imminent. That did not surprise or discourage its cast and creative team.
“CSI has always been underestimated from Day 1 by everyone but the fans,” says co-star Marg Helgenberger. “Our network has underestimated us. The critics have underestimated us. But the fans have not.”
A TV veteran, Helgenberger plays scientist and former showgirl Catherine Willows. Strong and outspoken, Helgenberger is a natural leader among the cast. She declared publicly in 2002, when CSI: Miami first appeared: “In my opinion, there’s only one CSI.”
The CSI core has pretty well been in place since the first season. The ensemble includes boss Gil Grissom (William Petersen), Capt. Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle), Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), Nick Stokes (George Eads), Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda) and Dr. Al Robbins (Robert David Hall).
Helgenberger — a vivacious earth-mother type with bright red hair, prominent cheekbones and a wide smile — is sexy and smart. Words like “epithelial contamination” simply roll off her tongue.
Willows isn’t one-dimensional, either. But then that’s true of all CSI‘s central characters — a huge reason for the show’s enduring popularity.
“There are still some episodes that get to me,” Helgenberger says. “The ones based on real cases get to me the most. I can’t help but ask, ‘How do people do this to each other?’ “
Helgenberger is a riveting mix of powerful traits. She’s forthright enough that she could be called brash, but her words are generous and protective of her TV “family.”
She’s peaches-and-cream wholesome, too. But she believably plays Willows, a woman who knows her way around nightclubs — and the men who populate them. A native of Nebraska, Helgenberger can play a homespun character, as she did in Erin Brockovich, where she broke hearts as a dying housewife who bonded with Julia Roberts’s title character.
But Helgenberger can also play like a virtuoso a character with contradictory traits. She won an Emmy for her role on China Beach, a 1988-’91 drama about women who served in Vietnam. As K.C., a heroin-addicted prostitute who ran a hair salon as a sideline on the military base, Helgenberger was tough as nails but enormously sympathetic.
“She was a badass,” the actress says of her character. “That was a fun part. I miss that part. There’ll never be another character like that on TV — prostitute, smoker, doing drugs.”
Helgenberger’s offscreen life is much simpler. She and actor Alan Rosenberg, who will reprise a guest spot as shady Adam Novak on CSI this season, have been married since 1989. They have a 15-year-old son who, according to his mother, hasn’t shown much interest in acting.
Another milestone in her career was playing Patsy Ramsey in a 2000 miniseries called Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenet and the City of Boulder. She was almost unrecognizable playing the woman once dubbed a suspect in her daughter’s still-unsolved murder. Ramsey died of cancer in late June.
“I ended up becoming her champion — well, their champion — because they were such a team, John and Patsy Ramsey,” Helgenberger says. “They never faltered on what their story was and I also knew that there was outstanding evidence, like unidentified DNA.
“I was sad when she died, because I knew that she had a really hard life. She had ovarian cancer prior to JonBenet’s death. She suffered emotionally and psychologically more than any one person should have to bear in any one lifetime. It’s incredibly tragic.”
Similar storylines are de rigueur on CSI. Such episodes, even those that revolve around grisly murders, feature science tempered by humanity. And CSI is still a leader when it comes to telling the story via computer-generated imagery.
It all keeps viewers tuning in week after week. “There are no divas on this set,” Dourdan says. “Marg and I went on the Miami show for a minute, and it wasn’t that way. And I’m not going to say anything bad about Miami now, but when we went there, they didn’t have that vibration that we have.”
“We’re addicted to each other,” Helgenberger jokes.
As Grissom might say, the evidence doesn’t lie.
*Special thanks to Ralph for sharing this article with us.