I’ve been a fan of the type of mystery stories commonly referred to as “police procedurals” since I was a teenager, reading Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. In my college years and twenties, I was a huge fan of the television show Law & Order. I watched CSI for a short time. But within the last few years, I have really gotten into the series Criminal Minds, which is broadcast on CBS, as well as re-run in syndication. With the Season Eight premier scheduled to air on September 26, I wanted to take a glance back at the show’s past.
Criminal Minds follows the adventures of an FBI division known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit, or BAU. The agents of the BAU use a combination of psychology, forensics, and computers to track down an assortment of criminal “Unsubs” or unknown subjects. The majority of the BAU’s targets are serial killers, although they have also tackled rapists, arsonists, mad bombers, kidnappers, religious cults, and terrorists.
What I find most interesting about the series are the characters. The members of the BAU are all very well written parts, played by a group of talented actors. There is a lot of real chemistry on screen, as we see this group of profilers working as a team to crack a case. A large part of this is that the BAU has bonded into a surrogate family of sorts. Dramatically, this makes a lot of sense. The criminals they pursue, who are among the most depraved examples of humanity, often come from extremely dysfunctional, broken backgrounds, or they are sociopaths, individuals who are incapable of true emotional attachment & connections. Given this, it makes sense that the BAU members would form a kind of family unit to hold themselves together and retain their sanity in the face of unremitting horrors.
If there is one character on Criminal Minds that I can identify with, it would have to be Spencer Reid, portrayed by Matthew Gray Gubler. If I was a much, much, much smarter man, I could see myself as Reid, who possesses an uncanny encyclopedic knowledge, yet who is both extremely socially awkward and who is haunted by fears of mental illness. Gubler really does a superb job making Reid a three-dimensional character.
I also love the character of Penelope Garcia, a former computer hacker who was recruited by the FBI to be the BAU’s resident tech whiz. In a way, Garcia sometimes veers dangerously close to being a plot device, with her uncanny ability to near-instantly access any electronic information just in the nick of time. But she’s saved for becoming a deus ex machina both by the writing and the acting. Kirsten Vangsness makes her into a lively, sassy geek girl who is a mixture of attitude and innocence. I was once talking over Criminal Minds with a friend who also watches the show, and she was not at all surprised that I like the character of Garcia, as she saw similarities between her and my girlfriend. Had not noticed them before, but yeah, I guess she’s right about that.
The original lead character on Criminal Minds during the show’s first two years was Jason Gideon, portrayed by Mandy Patankin (yep, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride). When we first meet Gideon in the pilot episode, he is returning the BAU after suffering from a work-related nervous breakdown. After an intense manhunt for a mass murderer who had claimed over a hundred victims, Gideon finally realized he was once again suffering from burnout and abruptly quit the BAU.
His replacement could not be more different. Whereas Gideon was cerebral and low-key, David Rossi, played by Joe Mantegna, could be described as something of a hot shot, career-driven superstar profiler. One of the agents who helped establish the BAU, Rossi subsequently left the FBI for a time to write true crime books, becoming a bestselling author. But eventually he came to have a crisis of conscience, realizing that his books were immortalizing the monsters that he had helped capture, while causing the victims to be forgotten. Rossi returned to the BAU to tackle a twenty year old unsolved case that had haunted him, and stayed on in hopes of making amends for putting his ambition ahead of other considerations.
The head of the BAU is Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner, portrayed by Thomas Gibson. An intense individual, Hotch spent many long hours on the job, much to the consternation of his wife Haley, who finally divorced him. Tragically, Hotch became caught up in a game of cat & mouse with a serial killer who took on the alias of the Reaper, and Haley became one of his victims. After killing the Reaper in a brutal hand-to-hand fight, Hotch was left to raise his young son Jack by himself. Choosing to stay on with the BAU, Hotch juggles the demands of job and family, while trying to re-establish a personal life for himself in the wake of his tragic loss.
I would say that the majority of the episodes of Criminal Minds do adhere to a certain formula, in that a series of killings take place somewhere in the United States, and the BAU is called in. While the team carries out their investigation, we see the parallel plotline of the killer at work, stalking his latest target. It soon becomes a race against time, with the BAU attempting to identify and locate the Unsub before he can finish off his current victim. What makes the show work, despite the repetition, is the aforementioned high quality of writing and acting. In addition, there is the fascinating look at the BAU assembling psychological profiles of the criminals, methodically deducing through actions and evidence just what makes these twisted individuals tick.
Admittedly, there appears to be a certain amount of, shall we say, exaggeration for dramatic purposes. The majority of episodes of Criminal Minds take place within a matter of days. In real life, it might take the FBI or other law enforcement agencies weeks or months, perhaps even years, to crack a particular case. Obviously events are truncated, otherwise Criminal Minds would be a very slow moving show.
Criminal Minds is often an extremely dark show. And, certainly, I sometimes think the on-screen violence gets too intense. So I would not recommend it for everyone. But it is definitely a very well produced series, and I’m looking forward to its return to television later this month.