My dear friend Amanda doesn’t feel that the CBS TV series Criminal Minds is a good fit for her regular TV series fare. “It’s too negative,” she contends.
I understand her point even if in the final analysis the show does also have a very positive spin. But watching the weekly serial killer(s) wreak death and havoc before the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) aka profilers catch them is hardly easy viewing for some. After all, serial and mass murderers have been a plague on our society from such early spree killers as Charles Whitman and Richard Speck to Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer to the recent shootings at a Colorado movie theater and Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Any sane peaceful person hardly wishes to be reminded of the horrors that humans inflict on others on a weekly basis on network TV.
That makes the show notable and its survival for what is now eight seasons even more so. I came to it kind of through the back door. Last year I stumbled onto its spinoff, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, and though I found it flawed and wanting, ended up watching its full first and only season. It did get better, but not enough to avoid the network ax. But enough to lead me to the original in its seventh season.
I got hooked. Maybe even more than hooked, as I started watching its reruns on the A&E channel in what has almost been a Criminal Minds marathon over the summer.
Although the show has gotten mixed reviews, I’ve come away from by now watching scores of episodes both impressed as a TV critic and quite a fan. I’ve found many merits in this odd bird of a network series about a disturbing subject matter. The very fact that a show about serial killers even exists is surprisingly counter-intuitive to the notion of TV as in some fashion maybe not quite escape but at least refuge from the too often troubling times we live in.
Most episodes follow a standard template: We catch a glimpse of a killer in action at the start. Then the BAU are called in by local law enforcement, and the team jet off to various locales across the nation to set up shop, analyze and profile the “unsub” (unknown subject or suspect) and use that knowledge to find and apprehend them. And usually do so at the last moment before the murderer(s) take another life.
That structure proves to be surprisingly resilient as a vast range of killers and their crimes are slotted into it. There are only a very few episode over the scores that I’ve seen that either stretch credulity or feel forced to me over the scores I’ve now watched.
What has kept me hooked in is the psychological aspects as well as how the ensemble cast of the BAU unit comes to function like a family. Over time Criminal Minds has followed breadcrumbs left earlier into all its characters’ backstories. It features strong female characters that grow even stronger as well as nuanced over time. The series also often opens and closes the episode with pithy relevant and reflective quotes from noted writers, philosophers and thinkers. It also explores the personal and psychological recesses and oddities of humans, certainly by its nature some of the worst but also such qualities as courage, devotion to a higher purpose and a true caring within the BAU team. Criminal Minds also gets visually and dramatically creative in a way few other network shows I’ve seen ever approach. It’s rather daring, adventurous and in more than a few ways groundbreaking TV.
It’s rife with violent murders, about which it rather uncommonly for a network doesn’t pull many punches. Its subject matter is brutal. In virtually every episode, people die in horrific ways. Criminal Minds lays open and sifts through the most distressing aspects of modern human psychopathology. So it’s no wonder that my friend Amanda – one of the more emotionally attuned and empathic people I know – would find Criminal Minds a show best avoided.
For all the violence and emotional disturbance it delves into, there remains a positive aspect to the series. It is at heart about a moral mission. As much as it shows the most base aspects of humanity, it also regularly spotlights the best in mankind in its team (whose fragility the show portrays as well). And in the end the BAU team always apprehends the killers. For all the reasons I lay out here, I have to consider “Criminal Minds” a landmark in network television well worth tuning in to … if you can take the very bad it shows every week with the good.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2012
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