Tuesday, July 24, 2012

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation : "Grave Danger"

Season 5, Episodes 24 & 25
Original Airdate: May 19, 2005
Writer: Anthony E. Zuiker, Naren Shankar, Carol Mendelsohn (teleplay), Quentin Tarantino (story)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Executive Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Danny Cannon, Cynthia Chvatal, Ann Donahue, Jonathan Littman, Carol Mendelsohn, William Petersen, Naren Shankar, Anthony E. Zuiker
Cast: William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, George Eads, Jorja Fox

We all have that one recurring nightmare from our childhood that still haunts, even after we age past the point where it should still influence us. Mine was playing alone in a cave, then falling through some loose rocks and being trapped below in a small crevice, unable to escape and doomed to spend the rest of my days there. It’s made me a smidge claustrophobic, even today (I don’t go into caves, no matter how stable they may seem). The idea of being buried alive is used often in film and television, usually to great effect. Think about “The Vanishing” or “Ghost Story” or “Buried” or the sixth season premier of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Vampirism hinges on a person being buried and then reanimated under the ground, seemingly buried “alive” and being born again by escaping their coffin. And yes, there’s the smashing (pun intended) sequence in “Kill Bill Volume 2,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who expanded on the concept to horrifying, harrowing extremes in “Grave Danger.”

It turns out that Tarantino’s detail-oriented, often over-the-top, stylistic direction and storytelling (he didn’t pen the teleplay, but wrote the story for the two-part episode) was a great match for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The story involves CSI Nick Stokes (George Eads) being kidnapped and buried alive by a madman who, at first, seems to be interested in holding him for ransom, but of course it becomes much more complex than that.

The first thing you notice as the episode begins is that the pacing is much slower than usual. When Nick arrives to investigate some intestines lying in a parking lot, the blaring music and quick cutting investigation scenes usually present is gone (there will be some later, however). Instead, the emphasis seems to be more on the tedium involved in this kind of detecting. After Nick is kidnapped, the story flashes back and we get almost a half-hour of straight character-development scenes, obviously unusual for a show that has been criticized for heralding the plot mechanics over its characters. It’s the writers’ way of introducing new viewers who showed up for Tarantino to the cast, sure, but it also subtly shifts the structure away from television and makes it feel more like a feature.

Really bad day at the office.
Anthony E. Zuiker, Naren Shankar and Carol Mendelsohn co-wrote the episode, and came up with some ingenious ways to complicate the seemingly simple idea of having a character stuck underground for two hours of screen time. First they reveal that the webcam feed is linked to a fan in the coffin, so when the CSI’s watch from the lab, Nick doesn’t get the air he needs. Next comes the gun in the coffin. Then the slow cracking of the glass coffin thanks to the gunshot. Then, most horrifyingly, the fire ants that savagely attack Nick. Finally there’s the fact that the coffin is attached to a bomb. Quite a complex MacGuffin, no? Miraculously, the writers pull off making each one of these complications seem natural within the context of the episode.

Meanwhile, above ground, the writers present us with some great character moments that feel like they have been building up for seasons. New viewers would still understand what was happening, but seeing Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) going to her father for help getting the ransom money plays differently for viewers who know about her difficult relationship with him. Then there’s the wonderful beat where Grissom photographs one of the fire ants and, since he is a fanatic when it comes to bugs, cracks the case and figures out Nick’s location. There’s also a beautifully written and acted moment where Nick is in the coffin recording his goodbyes on tape. Grissom watches the feed and, since he can read lips (his mother is deaf), understands Nick’s message for him. We don’t hear or see what it is, making the moment all the more intimate between them.

 If the pace of the episode started slow, by the end the suspense has almost become unbearable. The team finds Nick…but they can’t move him or get to him because of the aforementioned explosives under the coffin. We see Nick seem to literally lose his mind in the coffin and watch his friends desperately try to find a way to help him. It may well be the best sequence the entire franchise has ever produced.

As I stated, Tarantino’s rock-and-roll sensibilities mesh well with the show, with two notable exceptions. There’s a dream sequence where Nick begins to pass in and out of consciousness shot in black-and-white where he dreams he is being autopsied where the humor falls completely flat. It doesn’t fit in the series, but also hurts the tension of the episode because it comes out of nowhere. The second is out-of-left-field cameos from Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin. The pop culture nature of the beat makes it feel like something out of a Tarantino film, but the dialogue given to the actors is shockingly bland and limp, resulting in three wasted minutes and only one good line, from Curtis:
“Me? Dress up in drag? Who do you think you’re talking to, Jack Lemmon?”

If you don’t understand the above reference, I feel very, very sorry for you.

The problems are quibbles because the rest of the episode was so great. “CSI” is widely regarded as shepherding in the procedural show craze that still represents a majority of current television dramas (“The Closer,” “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Body of Proof,” “NCIS” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “CSI: New York,” “The Good Wife,” “Elementary,” “Person of Interest,” * gasp! * “Bones,” “Common Law”…I could keep going). The obvious counterpart is the “Law & Order” franchise, but “CSI” quickly created its own identity, which involved more montages with rock and roll. But though procedurals are often critically overlooked, “CSI” provides viewers with a very high standard that most comparable shows never attain. Think of the wonderful episode “Twoand a Half Deaths,” which sent-up the Hollywood system, or the entire Miniature Killer storyline, which also put one of the CSIs (this time Jorja Fox’s character) in mortal danger. Sexy people investigating sexy murders was never so awesome.

“Grave Danger” is available on the fifth season DVD of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” on Amazon Instant Video and on iTunes.

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