Farewell, William L. Petersen, the dumpy heartthrob of CSI.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Jan. 14 2009 11:37 AM

The Sexiest Man in the Morgue

Farewell, William L. Petersen, the dumpy heartthrob of CSI.

CSI star William L. Petersen's final episodeis scheduled to air Thursday on CBS. Petersen, one of the most popular (and highly paid) actors on TV, has played the part of lead investigator Gil Grissom since 2000. In 2005, Dana Stevens explained why Grissom is such a compelling character, an enigma worth returning to week after week. Her article is reprinted below.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is one of the most watched shows on television. Is it also the most fantasized about? Like a forensic investigation exhuming a body, a simple Web search unearths a seething niche subculture of CSI: "fanfic," the often sexually explicit fiction written by fans that imagines TV characters living their lives in the interstitial moments between shows. Some of the literature spawned by CSI is "slash," or gay-themed, some is straight, but an inordinate amount of it focuses on the off-screen cavortings of Gil Grissom, the lead investigator played by William Petersen. For those of you who haven't watched the show, Gil is hardly the most obvious object of erotic longing; he's a gray-haired, slightly dumpy, middle-aged workaholic who probably smells faintly of formaldehyde, and whose social skills are inversely proportional to his forensic acumen. Whence the mystique? Why are so many people in love with Gil Grissom?

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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Grissom's closest analogue in TV history may be Star Trek's Mr. Spock (who was also a great object of slashfic desire;in fact, it was female Trekkies' fevered imaginings of a homoerotic Kirk/Spock pairing that gave rise to the genre in the late-1960s). Like Spock, Grissom seems only half-human; he has implicit faith in science and a disdain for the imprecision of human emotion. Grissom's character also owes something to the film noir lineage of hardboiled cops who have seen it all. Yet, though he begins each episode with a ghoulish wisecrack over that week's freshly discovered corpse, Grissom is no cynical detective in the Sam Spade mode. He's a much odder bird than that: a science geek with a Ph.D. in entomology (when he finally does take a brief vacation, he spends it racing his pet roaches at an entomological convention) who handles the dead bodies he examines with a strangely solicitous gentleness. In one episode, before washing a body on the autopsy table, he first tests the temperature of the water on his hand. It's clear that Gil prefers the company of the dead to that of the living. He's a materialist in the strict sense; he regards the world as a knowable confluence of physical laws, and dead people make sense to him. Unlike the living, they are incapable of lying.

Gil's brainpower is not limited to the skills that make him so good at his job; he also seems to dispose of an endless stash of esoterica, quoting Proust, Shakespeare, Twain, and Poe at will, casually observing that "raccoons have opposable thumbs," or alluding wearily to his theory that "organized sports are the paradigmatic model of a just society." You'd think that, if you had to work with this guy, you'd apply for a transfer within weeks, but Gil's colleagues regard him with an esteem just short of awe, even as they roll their eyes at his Grissomian excesses. When Gil diagnoses one suspect as "a high-functioning autistic man with superior right-brain abilities," his co-worker Nick (George Eads) retorts affectionately, "Kind of sounds like you."

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