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Fifth Street

September 30, 2021

A rebooted CSI: Vegas returns to its forensic crime-drama formula — with a few twists | Dave Hickey’s beautiful ideas about beauty | These docs are rockin’ for a good cause

WHEN ANTHONY ZUIKER created CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2000, he surely had no idea that he was launching one of entertainment’s most indelible portrayals of Las Vegas. He was just a struggling screenwriter who decided to set his spec script about criminal forensics investigators in his hometown. More than 20 years after the premiere of CSI, Zuiker’s creation stands as one of the most successful and influential cop dramas of all time, lasting 15 seasons in its initial run. As much as the filmmakers behind The Hangover or Ocean’s Eleven, Zuiker and the CSI creative team are directly responsible for the modern pop-culture image of Vegas.

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Now six years after its series finale, CSI is back, retitled CSI: Vegas and led by returning stars William Petersen and Jorja Fox. The new subtitle reflects the importance of the Vegas setting, and also serves to differentiate the show from the various spin-offs that the original series spawned, set in Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C. Zuiker returns as executive producer, although the showrunner is TV crime drama veteran Jason Tracey (Burn Notice, Elementary). The cast is a mix of familiar faces and new additions, but the overwhelming impression is that this is business as usual, another comfort-food crime procedural on CBS.

The first episode opens with some refreshed Las Vegas stock footage, set to the strains of Frank Sinatra singing “Something’s Gotta Give,” but as before, the production is based in California, not in Vegas. CSI’s conception of Vegas has always been a mix of superficial and sensitive, setting plenty of murder cases in hotel-casinos and underground nightclubs and sex dungeons, but also attempting to treat the people involved with a modicum of dignity. And the cases just as often take place in a generic Southwestern suburbia that could be anywhere from California to New Mexico.

The result is a portrait of a city where gambling addicts, prostitutes and Elvis impersonators could be anyone’s next door neighbor, and usually are. By moving freely back and forth between the glitzy and the mundane, CSI captures a wider range of Vegas life than most movies or shows about the city (albeit with a lot more murder). The characters may mispronounce “Nevada” half the time, but Zuiker’s hometown pride still shines through.

That’s also true for the new series, which brings veteran forensic investigators Gil Grissom (Petersen) and Sara Sidle (Fox) back to town when their former colleague Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) is attacked in his home. The attack on Brass is the first salvo in what appears to be a war on the old Vegas CSI team, complete with a set-up that could potentially invalidate thousands of cases that were closed based on evidence they collected. Grissom and Sidle focus on clearing the name of fellow CSI veteran David Hodges (Wallace Langham), while the new characters work on unrelated episodic cases.

The structure can make CSI: Vegas feel like two separate shows, as the young investigators played by Matt Lauria and Mandeep Dhillon tie up their cases at the end of each episode, while Grissom and Sidle make incremental progress on the season-long mystery, occasionally popping in to offer pointers to their successors. Paula Newsome ties the two sides of the plot together as Maxine Roby, the current head of the Vegas crime lab, projecting the kind of sturdy competence that Petersen (and later Laurence Fishburne and Ted Danson) brought to the original series.

There’s some new ridiculously advanced technology to aid the characters in analyzing evidence, but for the most part CSI: Vegas is resolutely old-fashioned. There are no references to the pandemic or to police reform, even as other network-TV cop shows, including fellow CBS procedural S.W.A.T., have at least attempted to address issues of police brutality and racial injustice.

There are, however, plenty of references to past CSI continuity, including multiple mentions of Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows, who owns fictional hotel-casino the Eclipse, where Grissom, Sidle and Brass all get to stay for free. The new characters gossip about Grissom and Sidle’s romantic relationship and refer to Brass as a “legend.” The alleged framing of Hodges involves evidence from a greatest-hits lineup of cases from the original series. Grissom shows up in a dramatic reveal in the final shot of the first episode, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

It’s hard to blame the producers for pandering to fans of one of the most popular and longest-running shows in TV history, and it’s unlikely that there would be much of an audience for a radical reinvention of CSI, if that were even possible. The show’s version of Vegas is just as unchanged, although at least the first three episodes feature some location shooting around Fremont Street and Downtown, and a cameo from George Knapp as a news anchor (carrying on the tradition started by Paula Francis in the original series).

There’s a murder case tied to an upscale swingers’ club, some questionable takes on local geography, and someone saying “Nev-ahh-da.” It’s the same old CSI, in the same old Vegas.

CSI: Vegas airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS starting Oct. 6, and streams concurrently on Paramount+.

 

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DANIEL OPPENHEIMER'S Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art is a Texas mongrel. It’s a book born out of the love of one man from Austin writing about another man from Austin via anecdote, confessional memoir, critical assessment, and scholarly exegesis. It’s a mongrel with teeth. A few pages in and it’s clear that Oppenheimer isn’t just writing about Hickey. He’s also, in his own way, writing like Hickey … which means big ideas sidle right past if you’re not paying attention.

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Northwest of Austin, in our neon homeland of Las Vegas, the art-and-culture crowd remembers Hickey’s irascible tenure at UNLV (1992-2010) and his $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship (2001). They remember how he held court in the velvety womb of The Peppermill lounge and curated the legendary exhibition, Las Vegas Diaspora (2007), which launched the careers of Tim Bavington, Sush Machida, and David Ryan, among others. Las Vegas is prime Hickey territory, Oppenheimer knows, but he’s more interested in these questions: Are Hickey’s award-winning books Air Guitar (1997) and The Invisible Dragon (1993) still relevant? And are they beautiful?

To find answers, Oppenheimer puts Hickey’s position on art and democracy in his sights. A quick version of Hickey’s argument goes like this: When we connect with works of art — visual, musical, literary, architectural — we’re so thrilled or touched or abashed or bored by the aesthetics that we communicate our findings to others. These exchanges about the cultural objects we love or hate allow us to participate in, and construct, democracy from the ground up. Born of democracy, art influences democracy. The problem is that, as fellow reviewer Travis Diehl notes, Hickey largely omits the question of access. If not everyone gets a whack, then art’s role in democracy is handicapped.

A more promising path from art to democracy is via Hickey’s promotion of beauty — the foundation upon which he erected his genius in the 1990s. Oppenheimer neatly dissects Hickey’s argument that defending provocative art against censorship by shouting “free speech” misses the point: It’s the power of the artwork, or its “beauty,” that should be defended because that’s what got the censors so riled up in the first place. Explaining how and why Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs are as beautiful as a Michelangelo fresco is more compelling than defaulting to the First Amendment … which is exactly what happened when Mapplethorpe’s titillating exhibition was censored during the opening volley of the ’90s culture wars. For Hickey, it was a missed opportunity. Explaining how and why that opportunity was lost occasioned not only some of the best of Hickey’s writing, but also some of the best art writing of the 20th century — writing better than the art it describes.­­

Since Hickey made his reputation defending beauty, Oppenheimer brings in another writer — the philosopher Alexander Nehamas — to get at what Hickey meant. For Nehamas, beauty invites us to keep coming back for more. A person you’re attracted to — or whom you find beautiful — makes you want to know more about that person. The same for books, art, music, and so on. You play “Billie Jean” again because it’s not exhausted: It’s still enticing you. Per Oppenheimer, while Hickey argued that our reactions to beauty prompt us to share our views (Hey! Have you seen the latest Barrick exhibition?), he missed the next step. Hickey explained how beauty is social, but omitted the come-hither quality in which beauty pulls us back, and deeper, again and again. The pull of what we personally find beautiful — the frayed edge of a cloud, the retro design of a video game — is open to all.

Well before the last chapter of Far from Respectable, it’s clear that Oppenheimer finds Hickey himself beautiful. The Texan who led a messy, break-the-mold life marked by drug addiction and kamikaze surfer moves, who personified boomer bohemia and survived to tell the tale, who never left his Austin roots behind although he climbed to the pinnacle of the ivory tower, is beautiful. And Hickey’s writing is beautiful because it keeps leading the reader deeper with its nimble allusions and astute connections. To write this review, I had to go from Oppenheimer’s Far from Respectable back to Hickey’s Air Guitar, and from there to Flaubert’s celebrated short story “A Simple Heart,” and from there to the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Instead of writing about Hickey’s notions of beauty, I found myself, with an assist from Nehamas, performing them and, as Hickey predicted, sharing them.

One among many takeaways from Oppenheimer is that Hickey’s ideas — which could explain the aesthetic rapture of a lowrider El Camino as easily as a Cezanne landscape — provide tools that we need in order to protect art from forces that would seek to oppress our encounter with beauty. Those forces, Oppenheimer observes, can come from those who call “on art to defend supposedly traditional values” or those who enforce “an ever-narrower visions of ‘woke’ culture.” Democracy lies in the middle, where Hickey locates art as the shifting ground from which we experience beauty and share the news. In encouraging us to defend our loves — and by doing it himself  — Hickey, along with Oppenheimer, defend our fragile, and increasingly illiberal, democracy. Hickey couldn’t be more relevant than that.  

Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art
by Daniel Oppenheimer
152 pages, $24.95
University of Texas Press

 

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DR. EDWIN KINGSLEY is a widely respected medical oncologist, a noted cancer researcher, a professor, a philanthropist, an active member of his LDS congregation — a regular pillar of the community. This particular fun fact isn’t on his long resumé of accomplishments, but it should be: He also totally shreds the keyboard parts on the Styx classic, “Fooling Yourself” — you know, the iconic track from 1977’s The Grand Illusion that ripples with synthesizer sunbeams and radiates pure optimism. That’s his jam.

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“I enjoy the challenge of that song,” Kingsley says. “It’s got a really prominent keyboard part — the Styx keyboardist sounds like he’s got classical training, he’s tremendously talented. Learning the music is challenging, performing it is challenging, and we like to rise to the challenge.”

In addition to his countless other roles and commitments, Dr. Kingsley is the keyboardist for Alter’d Ego, a rock band of doctors, lawyers, and other high-powered professionals. Lest you think Alter’d Ego is merely an excuse to unbutton some white collars and rock out, think again. Even Kingsley’s lifelong love of music has a higher purpose: For more than 25 years, Alter’d Ego has been a fixture at the annual Serenades of Life — Doctors in Concert performance that benefits Nathan Adelson Hospice. In fact, Kingsley is the founder and longtime organizer of the concert that since 1995 has raised more than a half a million dollars for the nonprofit devoted to providing dignified, compassionate end-of-life care.

“When we were playing initially way back in the early ’90s, it occurred to me that, heck, you know, there’s got to be other doctors who are musically inclined. Wouldn’t it be fun to get together and play at a fundraising event for a good charity?” he says. “That’s the concept I came up with. Over the years, there’s probably been a couple of dozen doctors in our community who’ve been willing to share their amazing musical talents. And for me, it was natural to pick Nathan Adelson Hospice, which continues to be a tremendous blessing for my patients and for the community.”

Along with Kingsley, the band also features David Miller, M.D., and June Sigman, M.D., as well as Ken Woloson, Esq., Phronsie Markin, Ira Spector, Larry Tindall, and Brad Torchin.

The concert may be an annual affair, but music is a constant in the everyday lives of Alter’d Ego members. For some, it’s stress relief; for others, it’s another channel for pursuing precision and excellence. For his part, Kingsley converted his casita into a music studio/rehearsal room that serves as his escape. “I bought a second grand piano that I keep out there,” he says, “so I can go out day or night and just play anytime I'm stressed, or anxious, or feeling depressed.”

But it’s not always an escape. He’s also found that music can be a powerful tool for connecting with cancer patients. “Even patients who are not particularly musically inclined find it fascinating that their doctor is a rock ’n’ roller,” Kingsley says with a laugh. “And it just opens up avenues that we can explore and talk about, so it allows me to connect with patients that way. Maybe it softens the edge of technology and analytics in my approach to patients. One of my philosophies as a doctor is to treat the patient and not the disease, and that means I have to take all aspects of the patient’s life, family, and friends into account. I really delve into not just what brought them into the office that particular day, but their social history — where were they born? Where did they grow up? What are their hobbies? So, I always spend a lot of time asking patients about that part of their life. I suppose that may be somewhat reflected in that part of me that’s musically oriented.”

Some of those patients become fans. Back in the day, when Alter’d Ego was a familiar name on the marquee at The Railhead inside Boulder Station, it wasn’t uncommon for Kingsley to see familiar faces in the audience.

“We played there for years and years, and it was just so much fun,” he recalls. “It was always cool for patients to see their doctor up there, rocking and rolling. Just to provide some entertainment to these patients who were often going through some difficult treatments was very fulfilling.”

Serenades of Life - Doctors in Concert, emceed by comedian Brad Garrett and headlined by America’s Got Talent finalist Daniel Emmet, is 6:45p Oct. 2 at Reynolds Hall in The Smith Center. Tickets $50-$115, thesmithcenter.com

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Photos and art: CSI courtesy; Alter'd Ego courtesy Alter'd Ego; Hickey images courtesy University of Texas Press;

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