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‘The CSI Effect’ and other TV stories of our time

This much we all know for sure about the increasingly bizarre Patrick Kane mess: DNA matters – where it was, where it wasn’t, whom it came from, how it was collected and who had custody of it every step of the way.

It was, in one sense, Barry Scheck at the O.J. Simpson trial who first affected the way the American majority would be taught to think about it all. But it was a prime-time TV show that completely transformed the way we think about crime and law and investigation in America.

Law and order people call it “The CSI Effect.” We in the home audience have been so inundated with the micro-details of forensics since “CSI” changed the nature of crime stories in prime time that juries now expect a massive amount of punctiliously collected forensic evidence to prove guilt. If they don’t get it, they’re eager to acquit.

When “CSI” premiered in October 2000 (to unexpectedly huge Friday night ratings), it was that rare TV show that changed things radically in The Real World.

It also changed the face of prime-time TV. It isn’t just that forensic examinations have been virtually wall-to-wall on TV crime shows since; it’s that television itself, subsequently, redefined what was expected from those it defined as “ordinary.”

A year after “CSI” went on the air, I wrote this about network prime time: “In the pre-cable era, what scored big – really big – were ordinary people acting extremely stupid.” Think of Chester A. Riley on “The Life of Riley,” and Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on “The Honeymooners” and Lucy Ricardo on “I Love Lucy.”

What the new millennial drama of “CSI” did, on the other hand, was to turn what the late 20th century wanted upside down. What I wrote in that column was “mediocrity just isn’t as popular as it used to be. One of the things America loves in inspiring numbers at the moment is someone ordinary in the act of being extraordinary.”

Extraordinary people acting ordinary have been commonplace on TV ever since “CSI” made them kosher. “Genius” has become a fantasy commonplace on the tube, whether we’re talking about “Scorpion” or “The Big Bang Theory” or “House” or “Masters of Sex.”

That, too, is television’s version of “The CSI Effect.”

What is happening, then, this Sunday is nothing less than a major moment in TV history. The two-hour finale of “CSI” will bring a formal close to a TV show that was one of the most influential in TV history.

And to think, when it originally went on the air, one of its original backers – Disney honcho Michael Eisner – was doing everything he could to make sure it never saw light of day.

William Petersen was a new kind of TV hero in prime time on “CSI” – a 24-carat dweeb, distinguished by an extraordinary devotion to scientific evidence. The show glammed him up as much as it could by giving him Marg Helgenberger as a partner whose character – absurdly – was supposed to be a former Vegas stripper.

But Petersen as Gil Grissom was TV’s first bona fide mega-nerd hero in a crime drama. He wasn’t a sitcom creature like primal TV nerd Wally Cox long ago in “Mr. Peepers.” He was the head of a bunch of people in that most macho of professions, law and order investigation.

He was the opposite of Columbo, who was the regular guy in the rumpled, filthy trench coat who could always be counted on to say “just one more thing” and then ask the question that strung up some snobbish elitist by his short hairs.

Petersen was just a supremely competent and unremarkable professional whose personality was mostly MIA and whose faith in procedure and laboratory analysis was all. If there were just “one more thing,” his bunch would find it in the lab.

Petersen is back in the finale of “CSI,” as is Helgenberger and just about everyone else for one last hurrah. If ever a show deserved to go out in style, it’s “CSI.”

Among other remarkable things about the show – not its offspring, but the original – is that its replacement for Petersen, when he decided to depart, was one of the canniest in TV history. Ted Danson was so venerable and so good playing the white-haired replacement for mega-dweeb Grissom that the show’s demise won’t even end his role in the franchise.

He’s simply moving over to “CSI: Cyber” to humanize a show which has been far too pleased some weeks with all of its cybernetic razzle dazzle. A wee bit more connection to recognizable humanity might yet be experienced with enormous relief by us couch potatoes at home munching on popcorn, pretzels and Doritos.

“CSI: Cyber” needs Ted Danson a lot more than he needs “CSI: Cyber.”

What TV viewers on Sunday need, on the other hand, is as many functioning DVRs in the house as possible. On the same night with “CSI” saying “farewell,” Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” and “Masters of Sex” have their season finales, and ABC’s “Blood and Oil” and much-ballyhooed “Quantico” have their debuts.

A few more notes from this Fall’s TV season, thus far:

“Scandal”: It has hit the fan. The Prez (Tony Goldwyn) asked his first lady “Melly” for a divorce and his affair with Olivia has gone public, courtesy of the delightful TV witchery of Richard Burton’s daughter (Kate). The episode was fast, wild and written with uncommon verve by Shonda Rhimes, the Queen of ABC Thursday Nights.

“How To Get Away With Murder”: No sooner did Viola Davis make history by being the first black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series than her character ended up at the end of first episode shot in the chest and gurgling pathetically in a ceiling shot. Talk about cliffhangers.

Earlier, she’d had an abortive love scene with a new lawyer on the show played by Famke Janssen. A new century indeed.

“Empire”: The nuttiest opening minutes of the TV season, by far. It then turned into one of TV’s rawest political statements. We saw someone pounding their chest in a gorilla suit as they were lowered from a crane inside a cage. When the gorilla’s head came off, we saw that it was “Cookie” (Taraji P. Henson), everyone’s favorite Queen of Camp Outrage who then screamed “How much longer are they going to treat us like animals?” She then inveighed against the large black populations in American prisons and insisted “the system” be destroyed “piece by piece.” Not exactly an everyday moment on prime time.

As the episode ended, guest star Chris Rock – playing a newly arrived drug kingpin in the same prison as Luscious (Terence Howard) – had a scene with Luscious who is also, these days, all decked out in orange. They discuss their current major disagreement. “Kill him” says Chris to his new prison henchmen. He expects Luscious to be a goner quickly. Whereupon Luscious compliments him on the splendor of his teen daughter’s rap abilities and tells the surrounding thugs “Kill HIM!” Which they do.

I can’t wait to hear what Chris Rock makes of his “Empire” experience in a future comedy routine.

“Limitless”: The original movie starring Bradley Cooper was a fast, clever, wickedly entertaining B-fantasy about a guy taking a drug called NZT which allows people to access 100 percent of their brain cells for brief periods rather than the mere pittance we all usually use.

The TV version had a quietly stunning cast (Cooper in a recurring role, Blair Brown, Hill Harper, Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio) and gives us an NZT-taker named Brian who will be taking it now for the FBI. His handler will be played by Jennifer Carpenter, formerly the gloriously foulmouthed sister of TV’s “Dexter.” It’s from the kitchens of Kurtzman and Orci who also give us “Hawaii Five-O.”

It’s good fun in TV’s old prime time style – a little ridiculous but headlong and brazen and almost daring you not to watch.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com