The era of the police procedural on television grinds forward. A network already dominated by three brands of C.S.I. (not to mention the other procedurals Without A Trace and Cold Case), which invariably clashes with NBC’s 3 brands of Law & Order (or Conviction or ... you get the picture), cashes in on the popularity of movies like Seven, Saw, and Hannibal Lector (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal) with the new series Criminal Minds. Airing opposite cultural phenomenon Lost, the show, which has carved out its own niche among the procedurals by focusing on serial killers, has managed to become a breakout hit in its own right.
Criminal Minds centers on a crack team of profilers: burn out-cum-mentor, Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin); his ever-brooding number one, Special Agent Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson from Dharma & Greg); the resident genius and socially clueless Dr. Spencer Reid (Marrhew Gray Gubler, The Life Aquatic); requisite hot chick Elle Greenaway (Lola Glaudini, The Handler); requisite hot guy, Agent Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore of The Young and the Restless); and computer oracle Garcia (Kirsten Vangsnees). Executive-produced by Ed Bernero (co-creator of Third Watch), the show doesn’t stray far from the C.S.I. mold in terms of quick cuts and gruesome close ups. However, Criminal Minds focuses on the “why?” instead of the “how?” of a criminal. The psychological motivations of the unsubs aberrant behavior. By the end of each episode, you understand exactly how the evil was nurtured and formed before it was unleashed.
Our culture has a fascination with serial killers. Even pre-romanticization with the character Hannibal Lector, the serial killer has been long mythologized. Caught up by the charming face evil often wears or a simple fascination with the brutality we are capable of inflicting upon one another. Call it sin or our nature, it’s like we realize that there is something fundamentally broken about us. Sometimes this brokenness evidences itself in ways both sick and criminal. Evil has many guises, yet there are those who have to figure out the pattern of brokenness.
Horror deals with the total depravity of man. Sometimes this comes out as wrestling with the theme of man having a darker nature to resist, restrain, or kill (with such archetype monster tropes such as the werewolf or Mr. Hyde). In fact, the modern day serial killer has become the natural incarnation of man’s capacity for evil.
“In my experience, evil is not a cultural phenomena. It’s a human one.” –Jason Gideon
A trope that depicts the dark side to our nature, serial killers specifically remind us that evil death is all around us in the form of each other, lurking in the ordinary. The horror at the core of the show is about fear, an attempt to get a cathartic release from dealing with what scares us - be it the unknown or ultimately, our fear of death. Criminal Minds is about real, undeniable evil. The commonplace evil that we do to one another. It delves into the terror that only a thin line separates a normal housewife from being a serial killer, the fact that any of us could be pushed over that edge. That we are all capable of evil. Once we are confronted with this evil, someone has to face it, track it down, and stop it.
We, the viewing audience, can’t seem to get enough of how good pursues evil. We want to know why. The “whys" of life haunt our lives: Why do bad things happen? Why this person? Why this victim? Why do unsubs (investigator jargon for "Unknown Subject Of An Investigation") do the things they do? Each episode is part morality tale, whether dealing with serial killers on death row, a chemist who poisons employees, a serial arsonist, or a cannibalistic killer who drinks blood to get closer to God. An evil comes to light, a pattern is detected, the circumstances that shaped the evil are studied, and the evil is confronted.
“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others we become disguised to ourselves.” –Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Criminal Minds is a show about those trained to stare into the abyss of evil for a living. One wonders what the toll of that will be. Mandy Patinkin’s temperamental gravitas carries the show, though we aren’t sure whether his Method acting style will lead to a personal breakdown or him suddenly leaving the show (Chicago Hope anyone?). Its taut, suspense thriller plots keep viewers coming back for more.