Jorja Fox, one of the longtime stars of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, never dreamed she’d be celebrating this milestone.
The show’s 300th episode, titled “Frame by Frame,” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.
When Fox signed on as Las Vegas-based forensics expert Sara Sidle back in 2000, she honestly figured a run of half a season would be more likely.
“I was completely intrigued by the premise,” Fox says. “I felt like I almost fell into a trance reading that first script. It was different. It was haunting. But I also really thought nobody was going to watch it.”
She wasn’t the only one to make that mistake.
Three other networks — ABC, NBC and Fox — had opportunities to put the show on their schedules when it was initially shopped around, and they all passed.
One of original production partners, Alliance Atlantis Communications, believed so little in CSI’s potential that it sold its stake in the show before the premiere.
And most TV critics that fall, instead of touting CSI and its unique focus on the science of contemporary crime-solving, paid more attention to the short-lived Friday night lead-in, The Fugitive, starring Tim Daly.
At least Fox, the actress, gets credit for believing enough in the show to give it everything she had.
“I thought we’d do 12 episodes, we’d have a good time and that would be it,” she recalls. “It was a show about death, while all the medical shows that were doing really well at that time were about saving lives. Also, it was on Friday night, so I thought it was going to be disastrous.
“But I wanted to participate in it for the short time that we’d be doing it, because it was so unlike anything I had ever seen on television.”
But after CSI’s premiere Oct. 6, 2000, things quickly started percolating, with positive word of mouth driving more and more viewers to the show.
“By December and January, we started to get the feeling something big was happening,” Fox remembers.
CSI ended its first season, in a Thursday night time slot, as the No. 10 show on television, averaging 20.8 million viewers. The next season, it was No. 2. And by year 3, it was the top-ranked show on the air, averaging more than 26 million viewers.
It spawned two hit spinoffs, CSI: Miami (2002-12) and CSI: NY (2004-13), and inspired numerous copycat forensics dramas, some good, others not so much.
“It was bigger than my wildest expectations from the get-go,” Fox says. “I certainly never thought I’d still be doing this 14 seasons later.”
To Fox’s way of thinking, reaching the 300-episode milestone is like “hitting the jackpot in Las Vegas.” Given that CSI is set in Vegas, the beating-the-odds metaphor is particularly apropos.
Fox wasn’t in the series pilot. Her character, hired by department boss Gil Grissom (played by William Petersen), was added in the second episode. In the years that followed, in addition to solving many a mystery, Sara and Grissom had a flirty relationship that viewers found intriguing.
Ultimately, in Season 6, it was revealed that the two were in a romantic relationship; then, in Season 8, they married. The characters are currently divorced, but Fox suspects the story, after a decade of twists and turns, “is never over till it’s over.”
She says she’s still good friends with Petersen, who left the series in Season 9. He was an important guiding force for the show in the early years, in front of and behind the camera.
“Intelligence is an overused word, but Billy really is a brilliant man,” Fox says. “He had a mind for storytelling, for how to flesh out a story. He did all the thinking for the two of us in that Sara-Grissom romance. He would come up with all kinds of amazing ideas.
“It was great to get to work with him every day, to be around his strength of character and intensity and authenticity. I miss him every day at CSI. I wish he would come back.”
Fox isn’t always happy about the more graphic and gruesome episodes, especially those that victimize the helpless.
“I shudder to think how many young women we’ve killed on CSI,” she says. “Sometimes it’s three or four in one episode. It has been an incredibly violent 14 years of television.
“But at the same time, I like the idea of these forensics experts fighting for justice and doing it with their minds and their hearts instead of with a gun and being violent characters themselves. On CSI, they are thinkers. That gives me comfort.”
In fact, a few times over the years, Fox has met young real-life CSI types who told Fox they made their career choices after being inspired by the show as teenagers.
“That always floors me when something like that happens,” she says. “It always makes my day.”