SPOILER ALERT: This story includes details about Sunday’s two-hour series finale of CSI.
Tonight CBS bid farewell to its most important drama series of the past two decades. How CSI came to be has become part of
network lore — Anthony Zuiker going from a Las Vegas tram driver to creator of the biggest show in the world, CBS’ Nina Tassler getting a pleading last-minute call from then ABC Studios-based Jerry Bruckheimer TV to hear the pitch after ABC (and others) had passed, CBS debating between CSI and a Tony Danza pilot when Everybody Loves Raymond’s Phil Rosenthal gives a vote to the forensic drama, and ABC Studios pulling out of what would become a $1 billion franchise. CSI was the last big network hit to start on Friday before it helped CBS become the first network to challenge NBC’s then-impenetrable Thursday lineup in a big way. CSI went to become the most watched series in the US and around the world, lasting 15 seasons and spawning three spinoffs while going through three leading men and two leading ladies.
Tonight, original stars William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger returned for the finale, which saw the old gang get back together for one last case involving a Vegas casino blast and popular recurring character Lady Heather (Melinda Clarke). In the end, Ted Danson’s DB Russell took off for Quantico to join CSI: Cyber and fan-favorite couple Gill Grissom (Petersen) and Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) set sail together. In an interview with Deadline, CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, who wrote the two-hour closer, talks about the finale’s love triangle story, which he initially rejected, and a cut scene that would confirm Catherine’s (Helgenberger) new job, reveals where all main characters would be in 10 years and shares his own plans for the near future that may surprise you (They do not involve television).
DEADLINE: Let’s start with the final scene of Gil and Sara sailing off into the sunset. How did that ending come about?
ZUIKER: Sixteen years ago, William Petersen, (executive producers) Cindy Chvatal and Jonathan Littman and myself sat down at the Beverly Wilshire, that was the first time we got together. We actually met there 16 years later, same table, same party of four. And William Peterson pulled out this research folder that dealt with sea shepherd. This is a gentleman that goes along the ocean and does things in terms of keeping the ocean safe. That was the beginning of me thinking of the Gil Grissom’s character being a CSI at sea. We knew we wanted to start with him on a boat. Then we started to think about ending with him on the boat. And it just organically happened. Once he’d gotten in touch with his heart and when he really understood that Sara was the only person for him, it was only fitting as a closure for the series that Gil Grissom and Sara Sidle would drive off into the sunset.
DEADLINE: Was there any alternative ending you’d considered?
ZUIKER: No, there wasn’t. We knew right away that if we were going to grab (Gil) on a boat to start his arc it only was fitting to end there. The one thing that wasn’t planned, it hit me during the running, was them actually driving off into the sunset, only this time it was on water. The metaphor of them driving off into the sunset happened in the moment.
DEADLINE: The Gil-Sara romance has been a very popular storyline for many seasons but also divided some fans. Why did you make it the centerpiece of the finale? Did you always know that the two of them would end up together or you did it for the fans?
ZUIKER: This one really was for the fans. I’d put some feelers out early on Twitter about what were some things the hardcore Twitttersphere wanted to accomplish. And overwhelmingly it really was a sufficient closure between Grissom and Sara. We knew that we would be going that route. We had to complicate that fantasy, and that was the reason to put Lady Heather in the middle because she suddenly became this other option that Grissom had been wrangling with over the course of many seasons, much to the point where a lot of the audience was convinced, and maybe even Grissom himself, that Lady Heather is the one that actually has his heart. As it turns out, Grissom has to make a choice by the end of the show, and I think the audience would be happy he chooses Sara and we finally put them together.
DEADLINE: If I’m not mistaken, the most recent episode of CSI you wrote before the finale was a 2011 one featuring Lady Heather. Why was she picked for such a key part in the movie, turning it into a love triangle story?
ZUIKER: I had the early idea to put a detonations up and blow up a casino, I thought that was something different. I believe the Bruckheimer camp had the idea about Lady Heather. At first my response was I rejected that idea. Then I began to think about it — she was in six or seven episodes, and she was so instrumental in Grissom’s life. And once it became clear to me that she was the obstacle to prevent Grissom and Sara from being together and that, because of her background and intelligence level, she had the ability to be the primary suspect in the investigation and also be the primary obstacle in Grissom’s love, that just felt right as a story that can carry over the course of 2 hours.
DEADLINE: What happens to Catherine? Does she get the Lab Director job with Sara gone?
ZUIKER: We had a scene that we cut for time where Catherine was walking with her daughter Lindsey down the hallway at the end of the shift and the sheriff runs up and says, ‘Sara wanted you to have this’ and hands Sara’s badge to Catherine, which would let everybody know that she gave the job up so Catherine could run the lab. We had that scene and we cut it. We felt like, once Catherine told DB Russell that she was thinking about putting her hat in the ring and once we saw Sara actually commit to be with Grissom on the boat and drive off, audience would put two and two together that Catherine would be the one to run the lab happily ever after.
DEADLINE: Was there any CSI actor you wanted for the finale and couldn’t get?
DEADLINE: If there is a CSI: 10 Years Later special a decade from now, where will we see the main characters? Will Gil and Sara still be roaming the seas?
ZUIKER: I believe so. I believe in my heart 10 years from now that Grissom and Sara not only are conquering the seas and sailing the oceans but they are also probably saving the environment on land and sea. They would probably have children and they would dedicate their lives to the betterment of humanity. In terms of the other characters, probably Catherine would still be running the crime lab, Bass probably would retire, living somewhere in Hawaii, and DB probably is working in the private sector in Washington DC. And I think that all these characters would still have their toe in the crime water.
DEADLINE: Will we see anyone from the CSI Vegas team stop by CSI Cyber to say hi to DB and Avery?
ZUIKER: Not for the foreseeable future. The one person obviously going to CSI Cyber is Ted Danson’s character DB Russell. I’m personally extremely happy about that transition, I believe that the loyal viewers of Las Vegas would want to sample CSI Cyber because of his transfer. And I think that the CSI family is a family, so if there is ever an opportunity on Cyber for any actor who is still living on the show to stop by, that might be a nice treat.
DEADLINE: How was writing the finale similar and different from writing the pilot 15 years ago?
ZUIKER: When I was writing the pilot, I wasn’t really aware of the success of the show; the mandate was to break every rule in television, write something visceral and have a new take on crime drama. And of course put in the forensic science that people didn’t know about in 2000. In 2015, we did the opposite – there was far more character, we went to some old-school, regular science, and it was much easier in my opinion than the pilot because, although I wrote the pilot in 3 days and wrote the two-hour (finale) in 7 days, the characters were well established, the voices were clear, the actors were back, so I felt like I was a typist.
DEADLINE: What is next for you?
ZUIKER: For me, what excites me about the business is telling stories. CSI was fortunate enough to tell global stories for procedurals and scripted programming. So the next venture for me is taking on a childhood fantasy of mine, which is to write a musical for Broadway. (Zuiker later revealed that will be Soul Train The Musical). As an only child living in Las Vegas I used to play records, act out roles in my living room with a wooden spoon and pretend I was all the characters. Nothing in my opinion is greater than live theater, and I love nothing more than music, so I look forward to trying to bring a new level of storytelling to the world in terms of the venue of Broadway.