The ‘CSI’ Curtain Call: A Look Back at One of TV’s Biggest Shows

TheWrap explores the cultural phenomenon of the hit forensic procedural ahead of its series finale


“CSI” officially ends its run Sunday night with the two hour TV movie event “CSI: Immortality.”

With it comes the end of a dynasty that has been a staple of broadcast television for 15 years, inspiring three spinoffs, a line of video games, comic books, and countless other products.

The show was an immediate success when it debuted on October 6, 2000. Fans were captivated by the unique blend of police procedural and cutting edge science, not to mention the opening power chords of the show’s theme song, “Who Are You?” by The Who.

“I think part of the reason it did so well so quickly is that we were in a time with that whole [OJ Simpson] trial and we were in a place in the country where no one really trusted anybody,” William Petersen, who played lead CSI Gil Grissom, told TheWrap. “The evidence was the truth and I think people wanted that.”

Of course not everyone was convinced the show would be a hit. “I thought it was going to be a massive flop,” Jorja Fox, who played Sara Sidle, told TheWrap with a laugh. “A show about science and death on a Friday night?”

Yet the show was a ratings juggernaut, quickly landing among the top 10 most watched shows on television in its first season, moving to the top of the list by its second and third. It also had international appeal. According to a study by Eurodata, 84 million viewers tuned into “CSI” around the world in 2007, making it the most watched show on the planet.

“CSI” also offered early roles to actors and actresses who would go onto superstardom, like “Star Trek’s” Zachary Quinto, who appeared as a mechanic in the episode “Anatomy of a Lye.” “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul caught an early break on the show as well, playing a young man who defied his father by practicing Buddhism in “Felonious Monk.”

Future “Avenger” Jeremy Renner played a man who frames his brother for murder in the episode “Alter Boys,” and Dakota Fanning turned in a memorable performance as a traumatized little girl in season one’s “Blood Drops.”

But the impact of the show extended beyond entertainment. Studies have shown that since the show premiered, more people have enrolled in forensic science courses at tech colleges and universities.

“It influenced many kids to go into the field of criminal science,” Marg Helgenberger, who played Catherine Willows, told TheWrap. “They were inspired by the show, which is something I’m proud of.”

And then there is the so-called “CSI” effect, which claims that juries now demand more forensic evidence when deciding a case. Various studies have been conducted on whether or not the the effect actually exists, but members of the cast insist that real law enforcement personnel have noticed a difference.

“Every lawyer and judge I meet tells me there is a ‘CSI’ effect in the courtroom, ” Robert David Hall, who played coroner Dr. Al Robbins, told TheWrap. “Juries demand DNA and they want ‘Who Are You?’ playing in the background.”

Yet despite these profound effects, all good things must come to an end, as original cast members began to depart. Series regular Gary Dourdan, who played Warrick Brown, left the show after season eight. Petersen soon followed, exiting the show in season nine, but staying on as an executive producer.

More recently, Helgenberger and Paul Guilfoyle, who played Det. Jim Brass, departed as well, but both will return for “CSI: Immortality,” along with Petersen. Helgenberger said being back on the set to shoot the finale was just like riding a bike.

“Even though I hadn’t been with the show for three and a half years and Billy Petersen hadn’t since season nine, when we suited up and got on the stages it just felt like a week had past,” she said. “There wasn’t any period of time where we had to reconnect.”

Fans can only hope that comfort with each other will play out on screen as the finale airs, bringing a bittersweet conclusion to what was once TV’s top show.

Nevertheless, we will always have the memories of our favorite bizarre cases, like the poker player who suffered a death by chocolate, or when the show introduced America to what plushies and furries are.

And yet among all the strange causes of death the show featured during its run, one common cause stands out for Hall. “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said ‘blunt force trauma,’ I could buy a small town,” he said.

No doubt the cast and creators will go on to other projects, but they will always have the knowledge that they belonged to something that was truly a worldwide phenomenon.

“CSI: Immortality” airs on CBS Sept. 27 at 9pm/8c.