In addition to the omnipresent Christmas theme, the episode also showcases a bunch of new second unit location shooting of New York—including, possibly, even David Caruso and guest star Helen Slater on location there. Maybe they filled in somewhere else. It’s fairly convincing, especially since every other time there’s a suggested street scene it doesn’t happen, instead cutting right to interiors.
The Christmas stuff—decorations everywhere, constant diegetic and non-diegetic sound—is a little much until the episode resolution, where it becomes a wonderful, reassuring, albeit depressing cushion for the action. It’s a different kind of episode—Gardner Stern gets solo writing credit—because for the first time, Caruso’s got an equal. Slater’s an assistant district attorney who he wants to swap cases with so he can get mob boss Seth Jaffe, but they have a dating history. We’ve rarely gotten to see Caruso as outwardly self-reflective as in this episode and even then… not to this degree. It initially seems like they’re spinning their wheels with Slater’s presence in the plot, but it really works out by the end.
The A plot is the Jaffe case, which has first Castulo Guerra wearing a wire, then Richard C. Sarafian. It’s a decent guest star turn for Sarafian. It’s not too deep a role, he’s playing a caricature (even after some character reveals), but it’s decent. Slater overshadows him—the episode’s got a bunch of guest stars, including Gregg Henry hanging out to talk Caruso’s permanent appointment to his U.S. Attorney job, which barely gets any attention—and it feels imbalanced until the end.
But the supporting regulars—Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Rebecca Rigg, Peter Outerbridge—they all do the A plot. The B plot is Hillary Danner’s ableist, classist arc about a wanna-be cult leader (Sherman Howard) who uses religious freedom to con women into prostitution. Sincerely held religious belief after all. It’s a bad subplot, however, because Stern’s script is shitty to the victims—Jenna Byrne and Michelle Beaudoin, who it presents as too stupid or too uneducated to realize Howard’s exploiting them. Part of the plot is Danner getting called on the classism, but it doesn’t add up to anything. Maybe there’s a disconnect between Stern’s script, Danner, and Fred Gerber’s direction, maybe it’s just a bad story arc.
Lots of good acting from Caruso, who’s on display—Slater is convinced there’s something behind the choir boy and seems to have the receipts, whereas everyone else in the show just gets the choir boy. Drawing attention to the lack of projected personality—the show even opens with Henry trying to get Caruso to make a statement on personal beliefs about abortion and gets shut down with a “it’s the law” (Caruso as old man Rorschach as Judge Dredd, though one assumes his “CSI: Miami” money keeps him having to work)—it just ends up showing, thanks to Slater’s subtle influence on their scenes, the humanity in the performance.
It’s good. The episode seems like a bit of a misfire throughout—none of the problems of a John Romano episode, but also not the heights of a Haggis or Anne Keanney one—but the end really delivers.
Hopefully they’re able to keep Slater around.