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Review: ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ recap: Grissom and the gang say goodbye

William Petersen and Jorja Fox in "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

William Petersen and Jorja Fox in “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

(Robert Voets / CBS)

In the end, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” died as it lived: fun, flabby, and altogether too invested in the undying love of two deeply sexless characters.

The two-hour finale of the CBS mainstay bent over backward to reunite many fan favorites, most notably original cast members Marg Helgenberger and William Petersen. At heart, “CSI” was always the story of Gil Grissom, as portrayed by Petersen. It just kept going after he left for reasons even it wasn’t always sure of. Sure, there was always plenty of wacky, exploitative murder mysteries to be solved, but once Grissom departed for the wilds of the world, the show lost its center and slowly became just another case-of-the-week procedural.

Though Petersen’s return for the series finale gave the show a badly needed jolt of original “CSI” magic, it also meant that the love story of Gil Grissom and Sara Sidle returned to center stage.

Sidle, played by Jorja Fox, was another of the show’s originating characters. She initially was Grissom’s subordinate but eventually became friend, lover, wife, estranged wife, ex-wife -- in the most uninteresting ways possible. Fox and Petersen always existed within the show’s universe without an ounce of chemistry, so when the series opted to make the two its “one true pairing,” it went all in on the show’s least interesting relationship.

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Sadly, there was plenty of Grissom-and-Sidle relationship drama in the finale, as we quickly learn that the two have divorced and it becomes clear, when Grissom returns to Las Vegas to help investigate a string of suicide bombings, that they are still in love with each other. It’s this misguided commitment to its own worst tendencies that made “Immortality, Parts 1 and 2” such a fitting sendoff for “CSI.”

Though the show finally had the luminous Helgenberger back as Catherine Willows, it trapped her in a one-dimensional storyline that underlined how the series only knew how to view the character through the fact that she was a mother.

Even worse than the investment in Grissom and Sidle is the fact that the show brought back Lady Heather, a popular recurring character, played by Melinda Clarke, who had a deep and complex relationship with Grissom, who, despite having the entire plot seemingly revolve around her, functions only as a red herring, only useful to drive Sidle and Grissom back together.

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And yet, for all the ham-handed story moments -- including Ted Danson toiling in the background of the episode, as though in his own universe, before literally packing his bags and shuffling over to join the cast of “CSI: Cyber” -- the finale still managed to capture some of that stupid fun of the “CSI” glory days.

It included any number of dry Grissom jokes, including him referencing “jumping the shark” while holding bloody, detached shark fins, inferring that a murderer was “forever alone,” as well as murmuring, “who are you” while searching for the killer.

All that great, campy, referential humor is one thing, but even better is the fact that Grissom wears no less than three ridiculous hats -- a camouflage beekeepers hat; a tatty, woven sunhat and a wool fisherman’s cap -- that along with his scruff makes him look like a third-rate Ernest Hemingway cosplayer.

Within this final entry into the canon of original flavor “CSI” there were plenty of missed opportunities. Catherine’s daughter was working her first day as a level one CSI, the perfect opportunity for the show to kill her off in a precise parallel to the new CSI that was killed in the show’s pilot episode.

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Sure, it would have been unthinkably grim to kill off Catherine’s daughter in such a fashion, though not so out of line with what the show originally was. “CSI” at its best was appointment TV that actively changed the cultural landscape it inhabited, but at its worst it was willing to hit the same beats as always -- always pulling its punches.

But perhaps the most egregious misstep the finale makes is in its conclusion when, after finally taking over as CSI director, Sidle leaves the career she’s built to wander around the oceans with Grissom. True love is one thing; it’s two people meeting in the middle and each giving ground so they can find a place where they can each thrive. But that’s not what “CSI” does. It breaks Sara’s back and sends her on her way, and the implication is clear: If her relationship only works by following Grissom to the ends of the Earth, then her true calling is following Grissom to the ends of the Earth.

It’s a weird and contrary message, the opposite of what love is, and, in a way, the perfect summation of a relationship that never really worked. Sidle and Grissom sail off into the sunset, something the show believes is a happy ending but reality makes less clear.

In all, it was a deeply inconsistent, occasionally dull, yet largely entertaining series finale for a show that was just that. The episode was also bloated, much like one might expect from a show that should have ran eight seasons, yet ran for 15. “CSI” left this world a shadow of what it once was, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was once a garish and glorious example (in the best possible way) of what network television could be.

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