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‘That electric jolt of Vegas’: Behind the scenes of the ‘CSI’ return to town

The first time we saw Catherine Willows examining crime scenes in Las Vegas, Siegfried & Roy were headlining The Mirage. The paint was still drying on the Aladdin. The only pro sports teams in town were minor league baseball’s Stars and the Silver Bandits of the International Basketball League.

There she is, yet again, making an arrest with the downtown skyline in the background in the third-season premiere of “CSI: Vegas” (10 p.m. Sunday on CBS).

What would Marg Helgenberger have said if someone had told her, back in 2000 when she filmed the original “CSI” pilot here, that she’d be portraying Catherine a quarter of a century later?

“You’re out of your (expletive)-ing mind,” the actress says, laughing. “That just seems, like, what an absurdity that something would have this kind of lasting power.”

‘The circus comes to town’

Helgenberger returned to the scene of so very many crimes on Dec. 4, along with 109 other members of the “CSI: Vegas” cast and crew, for a day of filming for Sunday’s premiere.

“I think it makes all the difference. It sort of anchors our show and centers us,” Jason Tracey, the creator of the sequel series, says of the ability to film at least once a season in Las Vegas. “It’s worth the trouble, but it is absolutely an undertaking to come in with our crew and put everybody up and just travel the folks and bring in the equipment. … It’s like the circus comes to town.”

That circus was in full swing that day, resembling a small village atop Circa’s Garage Mahal by 12:30 p.m.

Helgenberger and Paula Newsome, who portrays crime lab boss Maxine Roby, arrived just before 2 p.m. to rehearse and turn themselves over to the hair, makeup and wardrobe departments. Twenty minutes later, someone rang a cowbell to signal the start of filming.

The calls of “quiet on the set” should have been directed toward the DJ at Circa Swim. Thirty feet from the actors, you couldn’t hear a word they were saying thanks to the thumping bass of the music from across the street, played on blast for everyone who needed to cut loose at a pool party in the middle of the afternoon. On a Monday. In December.

A reason to return

“There’s always some kind of music or bass or somebody walking around with too little clothes on,” Newsome says later, laughing about the distractions that come with filming in Las Vegas.

The city, she says, is a major character in the show. “And it’s always nice going there to be reminded of that energy, to be reminded of the bass that’s always playing, to be reminded of the vague smell of cigarette smoke in the distance.”

Filming in Las Vegas, especially downtown where Tracey prefers to shoot, comes with “an enormous amount of distractions,” Helgenberger admits. The booming music was nothing new for her, it just created more work later when she had to “loop” the dialogue to capture her voice in a more hospitable environment.

“The first several seasons, we came two, three, four times a year and stayed two, three, four days. One time we were there two weeks,” she says of the original series. “We had to have security, because the show was so popular and people were so excited to see us, especially those who’d been imbibing.”

Helgenberger left “CSI” in Season 12, with her final episode airing Jan. 25, 2012. She joined the cast of “CSI: Vegas” at the start of its second season, filming scenes in the Fremont Street Experience during the summer of 2022. She was atop the Circa garage then, too, as it stands in for a “Las Vegas Police Department” parking structure. The Circa interiors doubled that season as the Eclipse, the casino whose board Catherine was removed from, which triggered her return to the crime lab.

The actress wasn’t initially sold on reprising her role when William Petersen and Jorja Fox left “CSI: Vegas” after its first season. She needed a reason why Catherine would want to get back in the muck after so many years, and the writers obliged with the storyline of her protege who went missing from the Eclipse.

“This season,” Helgenberger says, “it’s a little different in that I don’t need the money, but there’s something in me that continues to want to do this kind of work despite the grueling hours.”

She’s talking about Catherine, but she could just as easily be talking about herself.

Watching the universe he created

The scene unfolding atop Garage Mahal is part of one of the 56 scripted TV series or specials filmed in the state last year accounting for $8,723,503 in total revenue. That’s according to the Nevada Film Office, which is pushing for an expansion of the state’s film tax credit program to bring more filming here.

Amid all the hurry-up-and-wait, Anthony Zuiker could be seen watching the proceedings.

The graduate of Chaparral High School and UNLV famously created “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” while earning $8 an hour working the graveyard shift as a tram driver at The Mirage. Zuiker would go on to create or co-create its spinoffs, “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: NY” and “CSI: Cyber.”

He’s an executive producer on “CSI: Vegas” and wrote two of last season’s most memorable episodes, the Catherine-centric “Koala” and “The Promise,” which focused on Newsome’s Max and was inspired by the real-life bodies that were turning up as the water levels dropped in Lake Mead.

“To get Las Vegas on camera is always a blessing,” Zuiker says. “It’s not easy to come out here and shoot. It’s expensive just for the crew to come out here. But to commit to that a couple of times a year is cool for us and cool for the audience.”

Zuiker, who arrived in an inaugural season Golden Knights road jersey with his name on the back, returned to the valley last year after purchasing a $6 million home in Henderson. His presence during the shoot was not unlike that of a proud grandfather, having driven over to enjoy the new baby without being burdened by the bulk of the responsibilities that come with raising it.

The trip pays off

By 3:25 p.m., the scene had wrapped and the crew had moved on to others: a car chase, a quick shot at a valet stand and a confrontation in an alley involving actress Ariana Guerra, who portrays Detective Serena Chavez.

Those hours of work on the roof resulted in 94 seconds of screen time, but a trip like this one can’t be measured simply by the content it produces, Zuiker says.

“The unforeseen currency is the morale of the crew that can travel to Las Vegas, stay in a hotel, go downstairs, see a casino, make a sports bet, have a cocktail, have a beautiful meal. For the crew, this is super cool.”

Viewers, though, are the real winners whenever the series comes to Las Vegas, Tracey says.

“We love to get the show started with a bang … to give the audience a taste of what they’ve been hungry for over the hiatus, which is that electric jolt of Vegas that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on X.

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