The crime procedural is a staple of primetime television. There’s at least three different shows focused on criminal investigations for every major broadcast network. As someone who doesn’t regularly watch these shows, much less primetime broadcast TV, I frequently joke that they’re all the same show. One of my best friends works on USA’S BURN NOTICE and I frequently ask him what antics David Caruso is getting into this week.
If I have to explain that joke to you, perhaps it’s better that you don’t have to put up with me on a regular basis.
The chief target of my impotent assassination attempts is the CSI brand, which seemingly has a separate series for every major American city. Until recently, I had never watched an episode and had no intention to start. I was surprised to find that the mainline series takes place in Las Vegas, instead of where I thought it logically took place (NYC). Like the hospital drama genre, the crime procedural held very little appeal to me due to the overexposed, cliché-ridden story conceits that litter this particular corner of the medium.
So color me surprised when, after the massive success of his KILL BILL saga, director Quentin Tarantino signed on to direct the two-part finale to CSI’s fifth season. Then again, at the time I hadn’t known that Tarantino directed an episode of E.R. almost ten years prior. Upon learning that the storyline for the episode involved a detective who is buried alive, I immediately remembered the harrowing live burial scene from KILL BILL VOLUME 2 (2004), and thought “well of course.” Aptly enough, his episodes were titled “GRAVE DANGER: VOLUME 1” and “VOLUME 2” in a further nod to Tarantino’s blood-splattered opus.
I suppose if I had watched the entire season, Tarantino’s episodes would have accomplished their required dramatic weight. Of course, I can’t be expected to care about people I’ve only just met. However, the cast does a good job of endearing themselves quickly. I had always wondered what happened to William Petersen, the dashing star of Michael Mann’sMANHUNTER (1986), and I finally got my answer: he gained some weight and started slumming it in disposable primetime TV series. Years of taking TV movie roles has largely kept him from the big screen, and his leading-man muscles have atrophied. And now he’s the weirdly-goatee’d leader of Las Vegas’ crime scene investigation unit. I found it hard to empathize with his character, and couldn’t stop my (completely unfounded) speculation that he’s probably the type of actor who’s a total dick in real life. Again, that basis has no claim in fact. For some reason or another, I just assume all these crime show stars are bitter about their fading celebrity and compensate by being prima donnas on set. Probably because David Caruso is a prime example of that. Christ, he ruins everything.
George Eades, who plays the unfortunate detective that’s drugged by an unknown assailant and wakes up in a glass coffin underground, gives the best performance by channeling the sheer terror that such a scenario would generate. Personally, I can’t think of anything more horrifying than being buried alive. And a glass coffin, where it can really hit home that you’re surrounded by at least a meter of solid earth on all sides? Fuck that, man.
Because Tarantino is working in a medium where the producer traditionally has creative control over the director, he has to reign in his own personal style so that it meshes with the aesthetic of the overall series. However, you don’t hire someone of Tarantino’s stature and not have him inject his personality into the damn thing. As a result, the look of the episode becomes like a strange hybrid: unimaginative compositions and lighting interspersed with energetic camera movements. Oddly enough for a show set in the desert, the color palette skews towards a cold, bluish cast. Stock helicopter footage of Vegas is peppered throughout to cheaply convey a sense of scale. The crime investigation office is overly designed, with a high-tech feel that, honestly, is far out of reach for most private sector budgets, let alone a public service like law enforcement.
There are a few giveaways that Tarantino was involved with the episode. He sprinkles in various signatures like pop culture references, the casting of the short gravedigger from KILL BILL VOLUME 2 as a cowboy lawyer, a Johnny Cash music track, and a poster for filmmaker friend Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER (2002) on an apartment wall. There’s also a stylized black and white autopsy scene, done from the perspective of the detective who was buried alive. He imagines that he dies from bites sustained by a legion of (terribly-CGI’d) fire ants, and his guts are splayed out for his uncaring parents and supervisors to irreverently dismiss. Most of the coverage is captured from the victim’s POV looking up, which is a regular visual trick that Tarantino employs. I have a feeling interior perspective sequences like this are rare in CSI, so I’m pretty confident in saying this was Tarantino’s handiwork.
In retrospect, it’s fairly easy to see why Tarantino was brought on board to direct these episodes. In my opinion, the producers stunt-casted him as a contrived way to revive interest in their flagging show. Tarantino’s first television directing effort in ten years shows a great degree of competency, but lacks the flair of his feature works. It’s a journeyman effort done by a rock star, treading water with subject matter that he’s already done before (and better). In other words, a well-executed “meh”.
CSI: “GRAVE DANGER: VOLUMES 1 & 2” are currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.
Produced by: Richard J Lewis, Kenneth Fink, Louis Milito
Writer: Naren Shankar, Anthony Zuicker, Carol Mendelsohn
Director of Photography: Michael Slovis
Editor: Alec Smight
Production Designer: Richard Berg
Composer: John Keane