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'CSI's' Marg Helgenberger returns for 300th show

Marg Helgenberger, left, hugs Capt. Jim Brass as

Marg Helgenberger, left, hugs Capt. Jim Brass as other CSI members including Ted Danson, left, Jorja Fox and Eric Szmanda look on in her last episode on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" "Willows in the Wind." Photo Credit: CBS

THE SHOW "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"

WHEN|WHERE Wednesday night at 10 on CBS/2

WHAT IT'S ABOUT For Wednesday night's 300th episode, Marg Helgenberger returns for a one-night-only appearance to help in a 14-year-old cold case about a onetime casino executive who was squeezed for a similar crime all those years ago. Expect flashbacks -- hey, what was the gang doing way back then, and -- more important -- what was Catherine Willows' hairstyle? Also, expect maybe a surprise or two? (No review screener was available.)

MY SAY Hard to tell how seriously even "CSI" takes itself anymore. Last week, for example, began with a contestant on a cooking reality show who disgorged an eyeball, with the camera lovingly capturing its trajectory across the floor. Naturally, the eyeball was a human one -- a fricasseed specimen, complete with a contact lens.

"CSI" has always had a morbid sense of humor, possibly a writers'-room defense mechanism against staleness -- or insanity. Either one might easily come with this kind of territory after 300 episodes. Only eight other prime-time dramas in TV history have exceeded 300, three of those on CBS, none of them (with the possible exception of "Gunsmoke") approaching the body count. But great serial franchises don't endure on blood and eyeballs alone, no matter how imaginatively rendered, but on great characters.

They have been here in abundance, although only two have truly stood out over the years. William Petersen's Grissom left in 2009, and as perfectly adequate a replacement as Ted Danson's D.B. Russell has been, he is no Gil. Eccentric, and emotionally disengaged, Gil was also a practicing entomomaniac. Yes, that's a real word -- someone who is unusually passionate about insects -- and needless to say, Gil was TV's first.

The other one returns Wednesday night -- Willows left after the 12th episode of the 12th season, and took with her a backstory even nuttier than Grissom's. But when she left, so did most of "CSI's" exotic allure. As good as Elisabeth Shue's Finn is, she's much more like a soccer mom than a splatter specialist. Willows was all shadows; Finn is all light.

And so, Willows returns for a brief reminder of the golden years, when "CSI" was TV's most-watched scripted series (2002-07), and No. 1 show (the 2002-03 season) -- and no one then did anything as loony as spitting out eyeballs to get attention.

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