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‘CSI’ cast shakeups leave shows a little paler

Losing Sara Sidle was one thing. Come Friday, two more long-standing citizens of "CSI" nation will have packed up their forensics gear. Their exits will leave voids not just in their casts, but in television.On May 5, "CSI: Miami" said goodbye to Khandi Alexander's cooing medical examiner, Alexx Woods. Thursday, Gary Dourdan likely made his last regular appearance as investigator Warrick Brown on "CSI."Both Alexander and Dourdan have been with their respective shows since their inceptions, and while it's worth noting how these characters' departures will affect the two procedurals, it should also be mentioned that these actors' departures leave their shows a little paler. Both were the sole African-American regulars in their casts.Miami morgue fixture"CSI: Miami" fans, at least, are used to cast shakeups.Kim Delaney lasted only 10 episodes in the show's first season after being shoehorned into the cast after the pilot. Original cast member Rory Cochrane stuck around two seasons. Sofia Milos came and went.Throughout those changes, Alexx had been a fixture in the Miami morgue. Being the medical examiner on a crime procedural is a thankless job, as screen time is usually limited and scenes can be repetitive. That's why so many TV MEs are given quirks. On "NCIS," Ducky rambles about the old days. Dr. Robbins keeps a scrapbook of the dead and plays in a coroner rock band on "CSI." And Alexx made an art out of talking to the dead.Almost every victim she worked on was a "baby" or a "sweetie," and she had the best bedside manner of any ME in TV history — even if the bed in question was a cold metal slab.Alexx injected a bit of compassion into a show full of flashy science and sun-kissed violence.  For a woman working with death every day, she never showed the kind of immunity to tragedy TV MEs usually exhibit.Her relationship with "Mr. Caine," as she called him in her last episode, was always wonderfully cryptic. They seemed to share an almost sibling-like relationship—- Caine the overprotective older brother and Alexx the empathetic and proud younger sister. With Alexx gone, we might lose some of those more tender Horatio moments.

For her part, it's hard to blame Alexander for wanting something more. General buzz seems to indicate that the exit is her decision, and after six years talking to dead bodies, wanting change is understandable.Soul of ‘CSI’
She'll be missed, but not as much as Dourdan.Warrick Brown has always been the soul of "CSI." No character better embodied Las Vegas. Sure, Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) used to be a dancer, but Warrick had a gambling problem and recently developed drug problem, played music at local clubs, and had a sudden, short-lived marriage.And while Warrick's marriage existed mostly off-camera, Dourdan's on-camera chemistry with Helgenberger sparked a fan frenzy that rivaled the Grissom/Sara Sidle fever. Perhaps it exceeded it, as Warrick's and Catherine's sexual tension was never resolved — at least as far as we know.

Dourdan also shared a brotherly rapport with co-star George Eads. When Eads' character, Nick, was buried alive, Warrick fought hardest to find him. Whenever Warrick divulged some new piece of personal information, Nick was usually the first to hear it.Part of the joy of "CSI" is anticipating which characters will be paired up to investigate crimes each week. A Catherine/Sara pairing, for example, was never as fun as a Catherine/Greg pairing. But Warrick somehow fit well into any combination. Yes, he was at his best betting on theories with Nick or flirting with Catherine, but he was also a professional confidante to Sara, a student still hoping for approval from Grissom, and a mentor in forensics and Vegas living to Greg.In this week's finale, Warrick's relationships with the team was tested when he was accused of murdering a gangster. Like Alexander, Dourdan got one last spotlight episode before presumably departing.

Dourdan's contract is up this month, and the actor's recent arrest for narcotics possession might provide insight into why he might not return next season, though reports that he was leaving the show came before his arrest. If Dourdan does leave as expected, he'll be the second original cast member to depart this year. Jorja Fox, who played Sara, left midseason. Both could return as guest stars (assuming Warrick survives the May 15 finale).Still, as much as the departure of Dourdan and Alexander might shape the future of the "CSI" franchise, their replacements could be just as telling about the current TV landscape.

Whiter shade of pale
"CSI" and its "Miami" spin-off are both Top 10 shows with sizable regular and recurring casts. And the fact that neither show's cast could include a black actor come fall is lamentable. These departures are magnified this year by other exits. "Girlfriends," one of the few remaining sitcoms with a predominantly black cast, was dumped by The CW. And "The Unit" killed off one of its black characters earlier this year, though star Dennis Haysbert still has the distinction being one of TV's few black leading men.But should producers purposefully seek out black actors to replace Dourdan and Alexander? "Law & Order" smoothly replaced Jesse L. Martin's Detective Green this season with another black character, played by Anthony Anderson, but few other than the casting director would know if race was a factor. While confronting rumors that she might replace "Grey's Anatomy" co-star Isaiah Washington with "ER" vet Eriq La Salle, creator Shonda Rhimes rightfully said how disturbing she found the notion that one black actor was interchangeable with another. Her comments were specifically about recasting a character, not adding a different one after an old character departs. But even she faced criticism for later recasting Merrin Dungey's "Private Practice" role with Audra McDonald, although recasting pilots is a typical practice.Can you address an obvious issue with representation while still being color-blind in your casting? There seems to be no easy answer.So far, "CSI" has managed to avoid this issue. It's kept its original cast intact for eight years — a rare feat for any show, much less a procedural. And for fans not accustomed to a revolving door, farewells can be tough.
Jeff Hidek also covers television for the Star-News in Wilmington, NC. Read his blog at tv.starnewsonline.com