The Sexiest Man in the Morgue

Farewell, William L. Petersen, the dumpy heartthrob of CSI.

CSI star William L. Petersen’s final episodeis scheduled to air Thursday on CBS. Petersen, one of the most popular (and highly paid) actors on TV, has played the part of lead investigator Gil Grissom since 2000. In 2005, Dana Stevens explained why Grissom is such a compelling character, an enigma worth returning to week after week. Her article is reprinted below.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is one of the most watched shows on television. Is it also the most fantasized about? Like a forensic investigation exhuming a body, a simple Web search unearths a seething niche subculture of CSI: “fanfic,” the often sexually explicit fiction written by fans that imagines TV characters living their lives in the interstitial moments between shows. Some of the literature spawned by CSI is “slash,” or gay-themed, some is straight, but an inordinate amount of it focuses on the off-screen cavortings of Gil Grissom, the lead investigator played by William Petersen. For those of you who haven’t watched the show, Gil is hardly the most obvious object of erotic longing; he’s a gray-haired, slightly dumpy, middle-aged workaholic who probably smells faintly of formaldehyde, and whose social skills are inversely proportional to his forensic acumen. Whence the mystique? Why are so many people in love with Gil Grissom?

Grissom’s closest analogue in TV history may be Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (who was also a great object of slashfic desire;in fact, it was female Trekkies’ fevered imaginings of a homoerotic Kirk/Spock pairing that gave rise to the genre in the late-1960s). Like Spock, Grissom seems only half-human; he has implicit faith in science and a disdain for the imprecision of human emotion. Grissom’s character also owes something to the film noir lineage of hardboiled cops who have seen it all. Yet, though he begins each episode with a ghoulish wisecrack over that week’s freshly discovered corpse, Grissom is no cynical detective in the Sam Spade mode. He’s a much odder bird than that: a science geek with a Ph.D. in entomology (when he finally does take a brief vacation, he spends it racing his pet roaches at an entomological convention) who handles the dead bodies he examines with a strangely solicitous gentleness. In one episode, before washing a body on the autopsy table, he first tests the temperature of the water on his hand. It’s clear that Gil prefers the company of the dead to that of the living. He’s a materialist in the strict sense; he regards the world as a knowable confluence of physical laws, and dead people make sense to him. Unlike the living, they are incapable of lying.

Gil’s brainpower is not limited to the skills that make him so good at his job; he also seems to dispose of an endless stash of esoterica, quoting Proust, Shakespeare, Twain, and Poe at will, casually observing that “raccoons have opposable thumbs,” or alluding wearily to his theory that “organized sports are the paradigmatic model of a just society.” You’d think that, if you had to work with this guy, you’d apply for a transfer within weeks, but Gil’s colleagues regard him with an esteem just short of awe, even as they roll their eyes at his Grissomian excesses. When Gil diagnoses one suspect as “a high-functioning autistic man with superior right-brain abilities,” his co-worker Nick (George Eads) retorts affectionately, “Kind of sounds like you.”

All this goes some way toward explaining why Grissom is such a compelling TV character, an enigma worth returning to week after week. But how does that make him sexy? To fully understand the richness and complexity of Grissom, let’s return to the Mr. Spock model for a second. I interviewed a hardcore CSI fan and fanfic writer, who prefers to remain anonymous (her stories are not among those linked to in this piece). “Grissom is way sexier than Mr. Spock,” she declared peremptorily. Pressed to explain why, she hemmed and hawed with the usual lover’s tautologies (“I can’t explain, he just is”) before arriving at the following formulation: Where Spock’s sexuality was simply repressed (his Vulcan half acting as superego on his all-too-human id), Gil’s (implied) erotic life, on the contrary, is so radical as to extend to all life forms, from maggots all the way up to supermodels.

My interviewee (let’s call her Lori) cited several episodes in which we witness Gil’s remarkable tolerance, even fascination, for alternate lifestyles (and when you’re investigating crimes of passion in Las Vegas, things can get pretty alternative). Bondage and domination is all in a day’s work for Gil; investigating the props at a local dominatrix house, he tells the formidable madam, Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke), “I find all deviant behavior fascinating, in that to understand human nature we have to understand our aberrations.” (When Lady Heather asks about his own “outlets,” he cites books, bugs, and roller coasters.) In one unforgettable episode last season, the CSI gang investigated the Las Vegas “furry” scene, with adults in plush animal suits engaging in mass orgies at PAFCon, the “Plushies and Furries Convention.” As the other CSIs (who include a jaded ex-stripper) recoiled from this new-to-them perversion, Gil observed placidly that “the only unnatural sexual behavior is none at all.” Grissom seeks out, indeed craves, the marginal, despised, or ridiculed elements in society: Nothing human is alien to him. The qualities that make Gil a great forensic investigator—patience, attention to detail, the refusal to make moral judgments about physical facts—can be naturally extrapolated into the qualities of a great lover. (I sort of came up with this theory on my own, but Lori ratified it immediately.)

William Petersen has made a career out of playing characters with a Grissom-like attunement to the dark side of human nature. In Michael Mann’s Manhunter, he played a profiler of serial killers who enters so deeply into the brain of Hannibal Lecter that he’s briefly interned in a mental asylum. Petersen’s black-humor off-set—in an interview with Playboy, he cited CBS chairman Les Moonves and CSI producer Jerry Bruckheimer as two of the people he’d most like to see on the show’s autopsy slab—only adds to the bad-boy charm. But much as I love Petersen’s work in Manhunter or the underrated cop drama To Live and Die in L.A., the quietly perverse Gil Grissom may be the role of his career.

Television is probably the entertainment medium most suited to erotic daydreaming—after all, unlike the characters in movies, the regulars on TV series visit us in our homes, often our beds, one night each week, leaving us with just enough information to embroider an imaginary life for them during the week we spend apart. Gil Grissom’s appeal as a source for viewer fantasy is that he manages to give the impression that, in between episodes, he could be up for pretty much anything.