Professional Lives

Curator's Note


Middle-class adulthood is the central procedure represented in procedural drama. TV cops, lawyers, and doctors aren't only shown doing their jobs; they're shown dealing with them as well. On these series, being a successful "professional" is as much about status (particularly amongst peers) as it is about competently performing tasks. In procedural drama, this personal status is often explored by how well-adjusted the professional's life is, i.e., by how "balanced" he or she is, and by how that balance is perceived by others.

While serial procedural narratives (e.g, Grey's Anatomy) typically focus most of their energies on this issue, more episodic-driven series have to squeeze it in, allowing only brief peeks into characters' after-hours, out-of-uniform lives. One of the most striking features about CSI is how it conveys its protagonists' changing lives within a predominantly episodic format. While episodes meticulously focus on the details of their work, we learn how these Las Vegas criminalists "balance" their lives not so much outside of work, but at the boundary of work and non-work: coming on or going off shift, wilting in exhaustion in the lab or field, or cracking under the emotional pressure of keeping cool in the face of human horror and cruelty.

The fifth season episode "Weeping Willows" (originally broadcast May 5, 2005) focuses on Catherine Willows at such a moment. The episode opens with a weary Catherine dropping into a bar after her shift and contemplating a one-night stand with a stranger. The man (Adam Novak, played by actor Marg Helgenberger's then-husband Alan Rosenberg) turns abusive when Catherine rejects his advances, and she flees. Later that night, however, she is called back to the bar, which is now a crime scene, following the discovery of a woman's body in the parking lot. Novak is a prime suspect, but Catherine hides their encounter from police and colleagues, fearing exposure of her private life. Ultimately, Catherine's investigation reveals another man to be the killer (who had framed Novak), but her hiding of her potential involvement with a suspect upsets her colleague and supervisor Gil Grissom, even after she has come clean. 

In this scene, which closes the episode, Catherine attempts to apologize to Grissom, who, representing the ostensible ideals of her legal role (as crime scene investigator), refuses to forgive her. Catherine asks if "want a little human contact" is "a crime." Grissom's response--"I guess that's why I don't go out."--indicates the separation between the otherwise close friends, and how they each fail to find balance. Catherine's "crime" seen here and elsewhere in the series, is that she can't get the balance right; Grissom's is that he denies the need for balance altogether, and chooses not to venture "out" of his professional role. While the series argues that neither of these positions is ideal, it also never resolves the question of professional balance. Since CSIs on the series either burn out or die, such balance may be unreachable.




Great piece, Derek. I like the attention to the professional sans personal life on these series (I feel like that divide reaches its apex on Law & Order). You're right -- on CSI Catherine's personal life is the one we get repeated glimpses into (her problematic ex, her daughter and mother, her occasional dates); the fact that her character experiences the most blurriness (relatively speaking) seems to me traceable to her back-story as a stripper, in which the professional seems personal purely because the body is so exposed.

Once Grissom and Sara's relationship is exposed, too, it seems only a matter of time, in your words, that one or both will either burn out or die. The personal life, after all, is a dangerous space, and when it intrudes on the professional, as in the case of miniatures episodes, it is even scarier.


I agree with Amelie that your post brings some much needed attention to the personal/professional divide in these shows. I think about Columbo's constant invocation of "Mrs. Columbo" who is only heard from and never seen ... if I'm remembering correctly. Series like Cheers--Norm & Vera--and Fraiser--Niles & Maris (and I'm sure a host more but these are just what leap to mind) -- certainly capitalize upon the comedic possibilities of a personal life that animates a character but which remains a life that viewers are left to imagine.

The personal lives of detectives are often sprinkled out across episodes like clues to a whole other set of mysteries. Some characters, like Warrick with his gambling addiction, have a past that keeps encroaching on the present from the very beginning. Some characters reveal personal details accidentally in the course of investigation, like Grissom's use of American Sign Language in the episode "Sounds of Silence". The meaning and relevance of the clues that are left seem to crystalize in episodes of crisis for the characters: the "Weeping Willows" episode your post references and also the "Grave Danger" episode that closes out that same season 5. Those elements also surface as we see them encounter cases that "hit close to home" (like almost anything having to do with domestic abuse for Sidle or child endangerment for Willows).

I hate to keep bringing everything back to Bones but that's what's been in my brain lately. In Bones there are personal motivations that drive both Brennan and Booth. For Brennan the unsolved mystery of her parents' disappearance takes center stage in the first season's finale, "The Woman in Limbo" when the team happens to identify a body in the Jeffersonian's bone vault as Brennan's missing mother. This discovery sets off a chain of corresponding episodes where her brother and father (both small-time criminals) are reintroduced as recurring characters. I have to admit, beyond offering an intriguing line of analysis regarding Brennan's almost pathological emotional detachment as a counterpoint to her family's interpersonal panache, I find the insertion of the personal into the professional space of Bones rather annoying. But maybe that is just my aversion to Ryan O'Neal.

Yes!!  Though as I argue in my book, I am not convinced that Grissom's failure to find balance is necessarily a liability in the show--indeed, everytime the personal intrudes, most notably but not always in Catherine's case, it causes problems for a CSI's professionalism.  As the clip I chose for my post shows, Grissom's point--and that is the view I think which is endorsed by the series--is that analyzing things is a life.  In other words, I do see a defensiveness in the exchange from his point of view but it does not in any way challenge the significance of Grissom's reticence to sentimentalize the personal--the defensiveness is aimed at the viewing audience, I think.   I am not always sure when watching the series that the personal is scary and dangerous so much as bland and banal (and domesticated), though it certainly is a source of crime. And I think the series began to hop (I don't like to think it has jumped just yet) toward the shark with the Grissom and Sara 'ship' and the miniature killer, an arc which I thought made no sense whatsoever, not in comparison with the Blue Paint Killer. 

Needless to say, I think CSI began to lose steam after Danny Cannon and Josh Berman left.

As for Law and Order, I have to confess I was completely taken by my surprise to learn, after Claire was written off the show, that she and Jack McCoy had been having an affair right under my nose! 

Indeed, what always most engages me about procedurals is the lack of conventional characterization of the investigating team, which is not always what television as a medium is comfortable in doing.

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