Talking Movies

June 22, 2011

The Morpheus Solution

I’d been waiting to see the resolution of the cliff-hanger of season 10 of CSI: LV before finishing this piece; only for Deadline.com to announce, on the very day that the first episode of season 11 aired on RTE, that Laurence Fishburne would not be returning for season 12…

This is a pity, because the writers did a creditable job of solving the Morpheus Problem. To recap, CBS undertook research to see why fans weren’t reacting well to Laurence Fishburne replacing William Petersen. The response, “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”, was code for “We’d like to see Morpheus being Morpheus…” Grissom had passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited him to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy. Catherine Willows became the new supervisor of the night shift while Fishburne waltzed into first billing, but as the new rookie. Ray’s medical background allowed him attend autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins as Grissom did, before the writers outrageously jump-started a new dynamic by having Ray and Doc Robbins go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to their beloved blues records. Some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray’s knowledge of ancient Greek history and philosophy. But the real problem was that Fishburne was too big a screen presence to play the lowest ranked person. I asked if Ray could really take on a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 seasons of CSI?

The first episode of season 10 saw the writers use some neat tricks and some wilful blindness to solve this conundrum. A nice gag saw Morpheus Ray kung-fu kicking a man thru a glass window in a bullet-time pan around the entire lab as it was raided by Russian mobsters stealing a corpse from the morgue in the cold open. The episode then played out the events leading up to this daring raid and we learnt in conversation with Ecklie that Ray had taken many classes, “You’ve had quite the busy summer … You’re already two courses over your training allotment for the year”, “I know, and that is why I paid for them, and took my vacation to do them”, and so is promoted to Level 2 CSI in record time. Indeed we actually see Ray at this start of this dialogue training himself to recognise knife-wounds in a remarkably Zen manner, before later selflessly volunteering for a boring assignment when Greg whines about being pulled off a celebrity car-crash.

That incident where Greg pulls rank on Ray on being reassigned before Nick restores order is pivotal. Lauren Lee Smith’s Riley has quit, and Ecklie upbraids Catherine for Greg’s insubordination, “This is a discipline problem. I’m beginning to think that Riley was right about you”, “What is that supposed to mean?”, “You didn’t read her exit interview? I put it on your desk! Just read it!” Riley had scathingly questioned Catherine’s ability to lead, but the returned Sara Sidle suggests that all Catherine lacks is a No 2 as good for her as she was for Grissom, and so Nick is promoted to assistant supervisor. The re-introduction of Sara restores one of the missing trinity that the show had lost in quick succession (Sara/Warrick/Grissom) and her intervention encourages Catherine to let her subordinates have the freedom to improvise, and Ray immediately does just that, cryptically promising his superior, “I’ll tell you if I can prove it”, as he searches for the subcutaneous bruising that proves the celebrity car-crash was a staged murder; by the ever wonderful Garrett Dillahunt’s shady private security operative Tom O’Neill. Ray’s determination solves this case, suggesting that this mental re-shuffle of their characters by the writers has had its desired effect.

The introduction of Dr Jekyll at the end of this episode was a bold move, echoing as it did the only previous season-arc villain (The Miniature Killer in season 7) by giving Langston a villain who was his own particular nemesis. Just as season 7 had seen an increasingly obsessed Grissom build a miniature model of his own office before taking a teaching sabbatical as the case got to him, season 10’s arc storyline became the increasingly obsessive struggle between Dr Langston, the hospital administrator who’d been conned by an Angel of Death surgeon back East, and a demented surgeon given to performing grotesque farces of lethal unnecessary operations, like tying a victim’s organs up in a bow, or giving someone a second appendix. Dr Jekyll is as about as disturbing a killer as you can get on network TV. Actually given that Showtime’s loveably twisted Dexter ran screaming from using the villain Dr Denko from Jeff Lindsay’s second novel Dearly Devoted Dexter for their second season he’s probably about as disturbing a killer as you can get on TV period.

The writers also cleverly introduced another Grissom parallel. Nick tries to talk Langston through guilt about the shoot-out at the end of season 9, “It was killed or be killed Ray, it’s a terrible situation to be in, you can’t let it bother you”, “It hasn’t been bothering me, and that’s what’s been bothering me”. Langston became increasingly haunted by the thought that he shares his father’s genetic predisposition to violence. This fleshing out of his character brought him twice into conflict with unsuspecting and uncomprehending DNA expert Wendy, and paid off wonderfully twice; when it led to a flashpoint with a surgeon in a hospital whose face Ray slammed into a wall after one taunt too many about the superiority of surgeons to administrators, and when it pointed a huge finger of suspicion at Ray in the penultimate episode of the season as possibly having murdered a journalist investigating Dr Jekyll, or even actually being Dr Jekyll himself unawares. All this beautifully invited comparison with Grissom, who was also in denial of his own genetic predisposition – to deafness.

In addition Nick and Ray formed a partnership that effectively resuscitated the old Nick/Warrick dynamic, while also cleverly guaranteeing Ray an ‘in’ to the most interesting cases. The penultimate episode replicated Grissom’s suspension from a high-profile case in the season 1 finale, and then saw Nick break that to run the investigation from Ray’s house, just as Catherine had done with Grissom way back when. Fishburne wasn’t stepping into Gary Dourdan’s shoes though but using his own persona. An early episode in season 10 involving a possible racist white cop killing a black cop saw Ray walk into the CSI lab’s rest-room during a heated discussion. Ray was the only black person in the room but he unexpectedly eased a scene suddenly fraught with racial tension by saying racism didn’t come into play in split-second shootings. He then tried to stop the suicidal white cop killing himself at the end of the episode. It this all-encompassing compassion that more than anything else links Ray to Grissom, so that serial killer Nate Haskell in the finale asked Ray what happened to Grissom, and was convincing when he sagely muttered “You’ve replaced him…”

Fishburne like Petersen is now the quiet heart of the crime-lab, quietly comforting all who need counsel.

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March 22, 2010

The Morpheus Problem

Laurence Fishburne will shortly return to our television screens to continue causing all manner of structural problems for CSI: LV. The Morpheus Problem has become so obvious and acute that CBS and CSI producers actually conducted research during the summer break to see just what problem audiences had with Fishburne’s starring role in CSI as Dr Ray Langston and, more to the point, what they could do to fix the snag. The fix was simple and damn near unanimous – “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”. It was nearly unanimous because what they really meant was – “We’d like to see Morpheus in more of a leadership role, cos, like, he’s Morpheus…”

How did we get here? William Petersen after 8 ½ seasons of playing Dr Gil Grissom, supervisor of the Night Shift in the Las Vegas Crime Lab, could no longer resist the urge to get back to treading the boards of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Petersen also produces CSI: LV so this meant finding a suitable replacement before leaving the cast of the TV uber-franchise of the decade. Fellow Steppenwolf alumni Gary Sinise had already been tapped to headline CSI:NY and there were no obvious fallen stars like NYPD Blue’s David Caruso, who had been resurrected with the absurd role of Lt. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami, so they got ambitious and drafted in Laurence Fishburne. A worthy replacement in star-power for Grissom’s role, except that crippling stupidity then struck the writers’ room…

A two-part episode saw Grissom retire from CSI to join lost true love Sara Sidle doing scientific research in the rainforest. He passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited Ray to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy, not to replace him as supervisor. Catherine Willows therefore became the new supervisor of the night shift and Ray joined the team at the bottom of the food chain as the new rookie Level 1 CSI. Fishburne of course waltzed into first billing above Marg Helgenberger who it appears will be eternally second-billed as Catherine Willows. But first billed was then depicted making an ass of himself as Rookie Ray who spent his first crime scene investigation involved in a life and death struggle with his latex gloves that just did not want to be put on… This is not a good move, especially as the writers had already given Ray two careers. He was a medical doctor who failed to notice a serial killer at work in his hospital, and his book about how he had failed to piece together the clues that came across his administrative desk somehow secured him a professorship of criminology at Western Las Vegas University, which he then quit for CSI – after failing to notice a serial killer at work in his class… This back-story couldn’t have been designed to create a bigger Morpheus problem. But the writers did quickly drop the rookie shtick and try to fix their blunder

Ray’s medical background allowed them belatedly have him literally fill Grissom’s shoes by attending autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins, before outrageously jump-starting a Grissom/Robbins dynamic by having Ray and Robbins turn out to both be blues fans, who then go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to the blues. So far so Grissom but then some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray lecturing the other CSIs on ancient Greek history and philosophy and then using his reading of Aeschylus to solve the ‘murder’ of a self-proclaimed monk. But these attempted fixes all miss the real problem.

Fishburne is too big a screen presence to be the lowest ranked person on the team, beneath even Lauren Lee Smith. It’s not that Smith hasn’t redeemed herself for Mutant X with fine turns in The L Word and The Dead Zone it’s just that she can’t dominate a scene with Fishburne, few can. Is the Morpheus problem soluble? Can Ray really take over a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 years of CSI, or can the writers belatedly contrive as clever an implausible jumping of the ranks as Commissioner’s Gordon’s ascension in just two Nolan Bat-films? And how did this problem arise in the first place, did the writers not realise that sometimes one role really can haunt an actor? That, despite a long and varied career from a thug in Death Wish 2 and the youngest member of the crew in Apocalypse Now, thru the abusive Ike Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? and the noble Shakespearean tragic hero in Othello, to the untrustworthy spy-master in M:I-3, Fishburne’s kung-fu knowing mentor in The Matrix has seared itself indelibly into the popular imagination.

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