Crime Scene Investigation has long been the televisual highlight of the week in my house, so it was with some sadness that I tuned in last week to witness the apparent demise of one of the show’s greatest assets: the relationship between team supervisor Gil Grissom (William Peterson) and CSI Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox). What made this portrayal of heterosexuality so notable was not anything intrinsically subversive about its set-up (older, more powerful guy gets it on with younger, more attractive woman) but the refreshingly non-formulaic way it was represented.
From the earliest seasons of CSI Grissom and Sara had ‘chemistry’, but in the six (six!) series it took to reveal they were having some kind of intimate relationship the story arcs of the show had not revolved around the kind of tedious will-they-won’t-they narrative forced down our throats by the likes of Ross and Rachel (Friends) or Carrie and Big (Sex And The City). Grissom and Sara’s relationship was not presented as the pinnacle of human fulfilment for either of them, neither did we have to endure them whining about one another in homosocial friendship situations, which is the ploy TV usually uses to subordinate all other significant relationships, especially women’s, to the search for romantic love.
Grissom and Sara disobeyed the rules of heterosexual romantic plot development by never hating each other, then deciding they were madly in love and instantly getting married. Instead they actually had both personal and professional respect for one another, and genuine shared interests (in, you know, searching hotel rooms for semen stains and peering intently at corpses). Obvious though this sounds when it comes to finding a compatible partner, it’s amazing how infrequently we actually get to see it.
When the time finally came to reveal that Grissom and Sara were more than just ‘good friends’ the announcement was unusually ambiguous. There were no grand declarations, no farcical misunderstandings, and no last minute dashes to the airport/train station to retrieve a fleeing lover in the nick of time. We saw them together, outside of work, in dressing gowns, talking. The implication was of post-coital soul-bearing, but it the details were left entirely unclear. The viewer could not presume either that this was their ‘first time’, nor that their relationship would be/had been necessarily normatively sexual.
It’s this opaqueness which gives the Grissom/Sara relationship a distinctly queer character. The near invisibility of their intimacy continued throughout the following series of the show where we were given only glimpses, mere suggestions, as to what they might be up to after their shifts were over. Such a portrayal is not only characteristic of the kind of subtextual longing that is the subject of much slash and fan fiction, but also of the hidden-in-plain-sight mode of representing gay and lesbian relationships in much mainstream television – we only saw them kiss once (rather chastely), and personal remarks remained firmly coded. By the end of season seven, when Sara’s kidnapping forced their relationship into the open, Grissom even had to literally ‘come out’ to the rest of the team.
Perhaps I am attaching too much significance to what I see as the mildly progressive non-normativity of Grissom/Sara. Should I really be more concerned about the absence of out queer characters on CSI, or its persistent pathologisation of ethnic/sexual minorities? However, while it lasted Grissom and Sara seemed to offer the possibility of doing things differently. Maybe though we should be adhering to the CSI maxim of following the evidence: in the context of such an ambiguous relationship, can we assume the end is really the end?