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The Leading Man Swap-Out…

I live in the same house as my gran (I reckon I’m young enough that it’s still cute rather than creepy), and last week a new boxset of her pet obsession – CSI – arrived in the door. Since she’s in bed shortly after I get home from work, the two of us have been watching episodes of the ninth season of the seminal forensic “drama” (it’s more science-fiction or fantasy, but let’s not quibble). It’s the season that sees former hot young actor of the eighties, William Peterson, replaced by former hot young actor of the nineties, Laurence Fishburne. I’ll admit I haven’t yet watched every episode, but it’s surprising how much I’m not missing the lead who coaxed the show through nearly a decade of airtime. Has CSI seemingly acheived the impossible? Has it successfully swapped out an established leading man?

A Fish(burne) out of water?

A Fish(burne) out of water?

CSI isn’t a brilliant show – it isn’t an epic show. It’s a well-executed procedural with a grim and almost macabre sense of humour which separates it from the Law & Order franchise. It’s diverting. It tells a wonderfully different story each week and it isn’t as rigidly tied to logic (or reality) as most of the procedurals out there, but it doesn’t completely leave the ground like some of the zanier shows. It’s a stead reliable diet of pulp and noir – the pulp and noir that actually existed before Tarantino and Hollywood retrospectivism made them hip. Those aren’t words used to denote quality but mood, and – though the quality may falter – the mood is generally consistent.

The parent show is inarguably the best. It doesn’t feature the love of illogical craziness and the bizarre antics and contrivances and coincidences that define CSI: New York (though it is crazy and bizarre and contrived in its own way) and it lacks the terrible acting and the false sensationalism that make up most of CSI: Miami (though it won’t win any awards and it has been known to sensationalise things), instead managing to find a healthy balance and execute most of its strange plots with no more than a slightly wry grin.

Gil Grissom, as embodied by veteran actor William Peterson, was the perfect leading man for the show. Quirky and aloof, but equally stoic and professional, he had an earnestness which seemed to compel the viewer to trust him – even amid all the irrational plot twists and inconsistent motivations. He anchored the show for nine years, bringing it some early star power (he had been a leading man back in the day) and becoming widely recognised by anyone who casually flicks through the huge amount of digital channels. David Caruso may have perfected… thedramaticlinereading, but Peterson managed to deliver his unique observations on the weird and exotic crime scenes in a manner which seemed less forced. Give some of those lines, it’s no small accomplishment.

So, when Peterson went, there was cause for worry. I’ll concede that – even though I hold no real attachment to the show – I even found myself thinking about it. This wasn’t like ER. The precedent of a revolving-door cast had not been set early enough to make his departure seem natural. Sure, supporting characters had met their makers or quit, but he was the lead – the guy holding this merry bunch of men together. He was the face that appeared on magazines and the one guy who got to say something smart before the credits rolled.

It seemed more like what happened to The X-Files after David Duchovny departed (for the first time). It didn’t matter that there was a well-established actor to replace him (Robert Patrick is deservedly a geek icon), the show lost one of its hearts. Gillian Anderson managed to keep the flame burning, but Mulder’s departure pretty much signalled the end of the show (there is a lot of discussion about the decline of the show, with debate over when and if the writing failed before Mulder left – I think his final season was weak, but some would go so far as to say his final three seasons were weak).

I do hope that Marg Helgenberger won’t take offense at me observing that’s her character wasn’t Scully to Grissom’s Mulder. I am quite fond of her acting on the show, but she isn’t that big of a lynchpin – she is also part of a larger ensemble. So, from my point of view there was even less reason to believe that the flame could keep burning without William Peterson as a lead.

The X-Files may be the most promenent example, but it is by no means the only one. For example, Stargate SG-1 finished up two years after the departure of Richard Dean Anderson as the show’s charismatic lead, even though the show had lost cast members before (well, a cast member, and he did come back).  Richard Dean Anderson was promptly drafted back in for the inevitable post-series movies.

So, that’s a lot of pressure on Laurence Fishburne. And – let’s be honest – a lot of pressure on the writers of the show. They have to replace a beloved character with a newbie, but can’t be seen to usurp the dearly-departed lead. Here Fishburne’s character was cleverly intigrated not as Grissom’s replacement, but as a rookie. It’s odd to see Fishburne listed as a lead actor, only to find out he isn’t playing the team lead, but it means it doesn’t seem like the writers are trying to force him into the mould of an existing character.

It also takes a lot of restraint not to shove the lead character down our throats. It’s a tempting move for the writers to give us lots of unnecessary info on the new guy: he’s surrounded by an already-established ensemble, you don’t want him to seem two-dimensional. We get a bit of this with Ray’s “I’m genetically pre-disposed to serial killing” schtick, but it isn’t rammed down our throats in quite the same way as Doggett’s “I lost my child and rationalised away the belief in the supernatural over it” vibe that formed a really condensed character arc on The X-Files. Here the additional lead doesn’t squeeze out any of the other actors or performers – in fact we got a nice Nick-centric episoder with Turn, Turn, Turn.

And all of this ignores the fact that Fishburne himself is a tremendous talent. He’s curiously underplaying the role at the moment, and he hasn’t quite got the one-liners down – Paul Guilfoyle seems to quite enjoy being the king of verbal barbs now that Grissom is gone (he makes crap like “Guess you got a knack for making dead people happy” seem like gold). Still, Fishburne is a gold star actor who is always worth attention. I’ll have to see more of his work to determine if he is as zoned-out as he seems to be, but even if he isn’t 110% in the zone he’s a formidible talent.

So, I may be sold. I’m not too sure. Best watch a few more episodes to help me decide.

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