Well, it’s official. At this stage in his career, there is nothing Ted Danson can’t do. Including walk into an aging franchise, crash through its calcified conventions and deliver a whole new sort of genius investigator — one who isn’t tortured or crazy, one who can ask his wary new team about local farmers markets with the same easy confidence that he uses to dress down a subordinate who thinks paperwork is beneath him.
Watching Danson glide through his first two episodes as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’s” D.B. Russell, the new night supervisor brought in to replace Laurence Fishburne’s Dr. Raymond Langston, is like watching Fred Astaire dance — he makes it look not only easy but inevitable. Yes, of course, this is what would happen next, which in this case is not so much a big musical number but one of the many ludicrous plot twists — an octopus on a tram! — or Olympian leaps of logic that remain the hallmark of the show.
Whether he can lift the aging franchise back to its former ratings glory is another question entirely. “CSI” remains “CSI,” the weary queen ant of the forensics procedural; Danson is new blood, but the star of the show remains the investigation narrative.
The disappearance of Fishburne’s Langston, who in last year’s season finale killed the serial murderer he had been hunting for years, is handled with surprising yet characteristic brevity. Russell’s move to the Las Vegas police may be greeted with obligatory suspicion — he’s from the Pacific Northwest, for goodness sake — and Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) realizes that the department is far from off the hook for the events leading up to the Dick and Jane killer’s death.
Within forensics’ very busy universe — bugs, blood, trajectory re-creations, a rogues’ gallery of witnesses — Danson can be but a subtle influence. Still, what executive producers Carol Mendelsohn and Don McGill and their team have done by creating Russell is promising, both for the show and the genre. When, on the phone with his wife, Russell asks his team if Vegas has any farmers markets, the look on Catherine and Nick (George Eads) captures the procedural’s tired married-to-the-job trope and limited ken in a way that borders on self-satire.
Far from the damaged, obsessive and obsessed leads we have come to expect from shows like “CSI” or even “The Mentalist,” Russell is refreshingly normal, with a life and family outside work — traits that don’t prevent him from being very good at what he does.
Then there’s the sheer pleasure of watching an actor at the peak of his craft, which should bring, and keep, at least a few new viewers. The problem, of course, is that “CSI” is not, and never was, a character-driven drama; it’s a police procedural. After conquering such exquisite characters as Arthur Frobisher on “Damages” and George Christopher on “Bored to Death,” Danson is like a master chef who has taken a job in a cafeteria. Something will have to change, and one can only hope that it’s the old menu rather than the new guy in the white hat.