Kill Bill Petersen

Quentin Tarantino takes the helm at CSI.

Television isn’t normally thought of as a director’s medium. TV shows tend to be identified with either the stars who carry them (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) or with their producers (“a Jerry Bruckheimer production”). It’s not that great directors and TV never mix; Robert Altman got his start working on everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Bonanza, andthe first episode of Columbo in 1971 was directed by a 25-year-old Steven Spielberg. More recently, The L Word has attracted indie directors like Lisa Cholodenko and Alison MacLean, and notorious misogynist Neil LaBute, of all people, is slated to direct an episode. Still, it’s not too often that a currently hot film director takes time out from his currently hot career to direct a currently hot TV show, as happens tonight when Quentin Tarantino helms the two-hour fifth-season finale of CSI.

Watching tonight’s CSI (8-10 PM ET, CBS) is a great way of testing the auteur theory: Does it really make any difference who directs a television show? Won’t the familiarity of the characters and setting, along with the restrictions imposed by the network TV format (commercial breaks, small screen, etc.) make this episode indistinguishable from any other?

The Tarantino difference

Well, after watching a preview tape of tonight’s show, titled “Grave Danger,” I have to concede that Andre Bazin may have been right. Because this show does something no CSI episode has quite done before; to quote Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction, it gets medieval on your ass. From the first frames, the pacing feels different: slower, quieter, and darker than your average slam-bam CSI story arc. After a standard gross-out intro (dog entrails in a parking lot), CSI Nick Stokes (George Eads) winds up—OK, OK, spoiler alert, but this has been published in TV Guide, for God’s sake—buried alive in a Plexiglas coffin (echoing Uma Thurman’s similar plight in Kill Bill, Vol. 2— Tarantino must be a claustrophobe as well as a foot fetishist).

Nick’s kidnapper (John Saxon) wants more than just a million-dollars ransom; he’s a Silence of the Lambs-grade sicko with a penchant for stringing up animals and constructing elaborate psychological tortures. Soon he’s broadcasting live webcam images of the slowly suffocating Nick to the CSI team, while sending cryptic taped messages in the form of 60s pop songs. Though sparsely scripted, the episode is a neat spiral of suspenseful fakeouts and hallucinatory twists, with a big turnaround right in the middle. As an actor, Eads gets to throw out Nick’s usual laconic machismo and regress to a near-fetal state in his Plexiglas womb; unlike most symbolism on TV, the metaphor of pregnancy and birth is just subtle enough to sneak up on you at the end.

In terms of the characters’ level of emotional involvement with the crime, this episode goes from zero to 60 in 60 seconds. CSI is usually a series about work, in which a raised eyebrow or furtive glance is enough to constitute a touchy-feely moment. But place one of the team in peril, and suddenly Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) is staring moist-eyed into space, Warrick (Gary Dourdan) is kicking dust on the evidence out of sheer frustration, and Grissom (William Petersen) is doing what an upset Grissom does best—honing his intelligence into a keen carbon blade to smite his foe.

That’s not to say that “Grave Danger” is a shark-jumping melodrama that betrays the show’s essence by selling out to cheap sentiment. What’s impressive about this episode is how it remains true to the CSI ethic of stoic workaholism, beneath an added layer of emotional richness. Tarantino (who has also directed episodes of Alias and ER in recent years) has nearly two hours to tell his story, and he relishes every minute of it, even including a countdown clock on the coffin-cam Web page to remind the investigators, and the viewers, of Nick’s approaching doom. I haven’t loved Tarantino’s recent films—the sadistic gore of the Kill Bill movies left a bad taste in my mouth—but his mordant sense of humor meshes well with the CSI sensibility, and the guy knows how to construct a suspenseful story.

CSI fans may have noted the relative absence of Gil Grissom (mmmm … Gil Grissom) from many plotlines this season. Petersen, who’s made noise before about leaving the show, makes no secret of his boredom with the grind of producing a weekly series. As he told one interviewer, “I try and stay awake, and for me, that’s fresh at this point.” But the challenge of working with a major director (especially one who’s an avowed Grissom-head) must have galvanized him. “Grave Danger” has a high Grissom-per-scene ratio, and the episode’s best line goes to Petersen. Our final glimpse of the CSI team, staring dazed and exhausted down a dusty road at the end of their ordeal, neatly accomplishes the two goals of a good season finale; it makes us feel we’ve been to hell and back with these characters, and it leaves us counting down the weeks till we can see them again next season.