MarvMarsh returns once more to the scene of the crime, to ponder the conundrum that is Criminal Minds.
“A trilogy is a pretty abstract notion. You can apply it to almost any three things.” – Jonathan Demme
Over its nine glorious seasons Criminal Minds has taught me that if you want to lend what you’re doing some empty profundity then start with a quote and as this is the third time Mostly Film has been good enough to let me on here to write about the serial killers of film and television, Jonathan Demme’s thought-provoking words on trilogies seem appropriate. I wonder what groups of three would fail to pass the Jonathan Demme trilogy test. How about a chicken, a candle and a Barry White impersonator called Ian? Could they be a trilogy? Probably, if Jonathan Demme is to be believed.
Criminal Minds, a simple tale of serial killer profiler folk and the serial killers they profile and catch, is a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit. As well as showing the viewer the group of highly-trained super-sharp law enforcement officers hunting the bad guy (or unsub; short for unknown subject) it shows the bad guy themselves, rather like Columbo, only with a gang of hot-shots backed up by technology in place of a one-eyed scruffbag and his aged basset hound. We see what the bad guy is up to on his way to horrifically murdering yet another poor innocent (usually young and female) victim and to top it off we even get some hints as to the reason he’s found himself deeply into a bit of serial killing because Criminal Minds is, or purports to be, about the criminal mind. It is very firmly a scion of The Silence of the Lambs, which did as much as anything to fetishise the work of criminal profilers and turn them into cerebral superheroes and that approach is keenly adopted here.
There are 20 odd episodes per season of Criminal Minds and there have been nine seasons, so some quick maths tells us there have been absolutely loads of bad guys and reasons why they are being bad. That puts a lot of strain on the imagination. Working on plots for Criminal Minds is like coming up with the plot for 20 serial killer movies a year and they all have to be different. Each time, you need a person, a method and a reason why. The basics are going to be used up pretty quickly so it isn’t long before you’re into a wildly off-piste game of Cluedo. Professor Plum in the lounge with the candlestick isn’t going to get the job done anymore; Criminal Minds needs Professor Plum in the shed full of rocking horses while dressed as a jockey with the horseshoe that represents the horseshoe his father made him clank himself in the face with for falling off a horse during his first time learning to ride.
Unusually for a serial killer drama, which usually favours a lone wolf who thinks like the killers and catches them that way somehow, the catching of unsubs is very much a team effort, as best and most bizarrely demonstrated in one of the set-piece scenes in every episode: the delivery of the profile. The profile, you see, is the blueprint of the criminal mind, it is the reason our team has been called in to work on the case. Its delivery usually takes place at some point after the third body has turned up in bits behind a skip or upside down in a park fountain because although it is the ultimate tool in the search for mentally unhinged killers, it takes a while to put together. Once they finally work out what kind of person the murderer is the local flatfoots are gathered together to let them know. Everybody gets a line. Rather than one of them explaining concisely what type of person they are looking for (usually a white male in his thirties) they take turns. It is seamless. There is no way on earth they could do it if they hadn’t rehearsed, so presumably they gather in one or other of their hotel rooms and work on who will say what. It’s probably for the best we don’t get to see it; our respect for them would take a blow if we witnessed a strop over being relegated to a brief aside about the unsub’s mother.
The Criminal Minds team are a varied bunch, including a young mother, a black man who understands the language of the street (because he is black) and a leader who is so stone-faced that if you watch in HD you can see bits of lichen around his nose. One member, though, was absolutely inevitable. Nowadays you can’t make a television drama without at least one of the characters being a socially awkward super-genius. It’s like Egon suddenly became the most popular Ghostbuster and the golden age of Venkman is over, which is terrible because Venkman is by miles the best Ghostbuster but at least we haven’t entered the age of Stantz and I don’t think we ever will. I don’t want to know a world where most people like Ray Stantz best, I don’t even want to know about possible other timelines where that has happened.
Criminal Minds’ resident super-genius is Spencer Reid. As he is played by Matthew Gray Gubler he has the considerable advantage over Egon of being very pretty, though in the most recent series he has tried to level the playing field by getting his hair cut by somebody with a brain injury and safety scissors. Spencer knows everything, possibly literally everything. Sadly for the Criminal Minders, he only turns that knowledge into something useful after the second ad break. Before then he chips in with references to serial killers of old, or interesting factoids about toast, but leaves the heavy lifting to the more pedestrian team members. The other strange thing about Spencer is how he carries his gun: he places the holster rather more to the front of his trousers than is conventional. I don’t know if he has a wonky elbow that means his arm bends round to the front but I think somebody should raise it with him. In a shootout he might go for his gun and end up stuffing his hand in his pocket. Look, this is what I mean:
I haven’t conducted a poll but I would guess that Spencer is the most popular Criminal Minder with viewers, what with being nice to look at, endearingly socially awkward and a massive genius. He is also probably the heart of the show. My personal favourite is no longer part of the team. Jason Gideon was their original wise old head and as played by Mandy Patinkin, really classed things up for a couple of seasons before Mandy decided he didn’t like all the brutal murders of women and drove off into the sunset. He was replaced by Joe Mantegna standing with his legs slightly too far apart. That seems a poor substitute but he has grown on me, with his stilted delivery and his goatee that conveys oceans of pain. But those legs. Always a little bit too wide apart, as if Joe Mantegna believes he is a taller man than he actually is.
Criminal Minds has a strange relationship with seriousness. This is a programme that lost its lead because he felt the foulness of the plots was beginning to cover him in its stink and that often has its characters talk about how their job is potentially toxic to them but expects the viewer to be entertained by all the horror. It is both deadly serious and also absolutely not. The quotes, for example, are a pretence to seriousness, but if they actually succeeded in lending the programme any credibility the ludicrous hokum would transform into something appalling: if the viewer took the events seriously they too would be covered in the stink of it. But without the serious face Criminal Minds would have no defence against accusations of cheap nastiness. The programme needs to appear serious to survive, but it also needs the viewers to not take it seriously. Maintaining that balance has meant an established pattern from which it rarely deviates has emerged, as to do so risks the whole thing collapsing.
That pattern is followed right to the end, where, after being too slow off the mark to save the first three victims, the Criminal Minders always manage to burst through the door just as this week’s lunatic has finished a speech to his latest victim and is about to crack on with his task. Every time. Never do they burst in to find our man watching Take Me Out with his dinner on his lap. Instead, it’s all, “Freeze! Put down the stapler!” and, “This is your mommy, Kevin. I know you love me but I need you not to kill the nice lady,” then on with the cuffs or bang bang depending how Kevin responds and deep breaths all round before heading home on their private jet (they have a private jet!).
As well as starting with a quote, Criminal Minds likes to finish with one and so I will do the same. Jonathan Demme, anything more to say?
“I don’t think it’s sacrilegious to remake any movie, including a good or even great movie.”
Thanks Jonathan. If doing things again is ok with Jonathan Demme then Criminal Minds has no need to feel embarrassed about doing it twenty times a year. It seems to be working, after all.