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TV’s ‘CSI’ has new star but not new setting

Everything old is new again. At least when it comes to "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

The flagship of a three-series franchise that reigns as the world’s most-watched TV show, the CBS crime drama begins its 12th season this week, on a new night (Wednesdays), at a new time (10 p.m.), with a new star: Ted Danson as graveyard-shift CSI supervisor D.B. Russell, newly arrived from Seattle’s crime lab.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: the show’s Las Vegas setting.

Although most of the series is shot at Southern California’s Universal Studios, occasional location forays keep the Vegas in "CSI."

At least in Wednesday’s season opener.

Titled "73 Seconds," the episode focuses on a shooting on a tram between two fictional casinos, notes Don McGill , one of the show’s executive producers.

Writer Gavin Harris "rode on one of the real trams to see how many seconds" elapsed between stops — and "what kind of mayhem" could ensue, McGill notes.

"CSI" cast and crew members visited Las Vegas in July to shoot at locations ranging from downtown’s Golden Nugget and Fremont Street Experience to Strip-adjacent sites on Tropicana and Hacienda avenues.

Carrot Top even contributed an onboard "Welcome to the Las Vegas" video for the "CSI" tram ride. ("Fortunately for us, he didn’t stay on script," McGill jokes.)

But "CSI" creator (and Chaparral High School graduate) Anthony Zuiker — who worked as a Mirage tram driver before his big Hollywood break — couldn’t make the location trek. He’s currently developing shows for ABC, leaving "CSI" in the hands of co-creator Carol Mendelsohn and her executive producer colleagues, including McGill.

"We always love to come to Vegas," he says. But even when the show can’t come to Vegas (which is most of the time) Vegas comes to them.

One prime-time example: ex-mayor Oscar Goodman. In an upcoming October episode, Las Vegas’ first gent takes a bullet at downtown’s mob museum — which "CSI" re-created on its own soundstage, because the real one won’t be open until next Valentine’s Day. (Goodman served as technical adviser for the set construction, McGill notes.)

Overall, "CSI’s" Las Vegas setting remains a key to the show’s ongoing appeal, he maintains.

"I don’t have to tell you: Vegas is an international city," McGill says, "and all around the world, people look to Vegas as a tourist destination that offers excitement and glamour."

As a result, having the show "centered on an exciting, glamorous destination spot" such as Las Vegas "only adds to the allure."

The Southern Nevada setting also means "CSI" officials have to "constantly update our library of aerial shots of Vegas," because of all the shifts in the city’s skyline in the years since its 2000 debut.

Danson’s arrival as the "CSI" team’s new leader isn’t the season’s only contemplated cast change, however. Sometime this season, one of the show’s original regulars — Marg Helgenberger, who plays investigator (and ex-supervisor) Catherine Willows — is expected to depart.

Helgenberger "is definitely with us through January," according to McGill. Unless the current whispering campaign by "CSI" colleagues convinces her to change her mind, that is.

As Mendelsohn "always says, this is a big family and we hope people never leave," notes McGill, who joined the "CSI" family last season after stints on "JAG," "NCIS" (which he co-created) and "Numbers."

To that end, "people have been whispering in her ear" to stay, he says, "and nobody whispers more than Ted Danson."

If "CSI’s" a family, the new "head of household" sets the show’s tone, McGill suggests — and this season’s tone undergoes a definite shift with Danson replacing Laurence Fishburne’s stern Dr. Raymond Langston (who replaced original star William Petersen’s Gil Grissom).

Danson’s Russell "comes in after the tumult of last season — and comes in to right the ship," according to McGill.

The new chief "comes in with his own quirky ways," he continues.

Those quirks stem, in part, from the character’s counterculture background; Russell "grew up riding with his hippie parents in a van," McGill says, and as a result brings a "Left Coast Sherlock Holmes vibe" to his work.

All of which means "Ted and his character have brought new spirit and energy" to the show, according to McGill.

"With Ted, we’re going back to classic ‘CSI,’ " he contends, "a balance of light and dark," plus "a balance of procedure and characters."

Speaking of balance, Danson’s character also "is different for us" because "he’s a family man," McGill explains. "He really has balance in his life — and that balance becomes thematic," shifting from first-episode conflict to greater cordiality "when the team starts to understand him."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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