Inside the Criminal Mind(s) of Television

After the firing of a big star and the departure of another, how will one of TV’s most popular crime procedurals fare in its 12th season?

Criminal Minds
Criminal MindsCredit: Screengrab

The column you are just starting to read, the thread of words drawn (and quartered) by yours truly into sentences and paragraphs, was in the very recent past just a file, sent from my laptop to the newspaper’s digital system over the vast virtual world wide web. That little file, which in our digital world happens to be made up of words, originated in two Latin words of identical etymology drawn from the world of textiles, not text: the noun filum, meaning thread, and the verb filare, meaning to spin.

This verbal yarn of text I’ve been spinning is meant to plant in your reading mind a clue about the content of the TV series I’m going to deal with here: “Criminal Minds,” an American procedural crime drama that recently finished its 11th season in the U.S. (The 255th episode was aired on May 4, viewed by almost 9 million viewers; the 12th season is due on air September 28.) In Israel, the 6th season is being screened on HOT Zone, and the 9th can be viewed on Yes Stars Action and Cellcom TV. Actually, it is more of a franchise than just a series, with two spinoffs, “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” (since 2011) and “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” (since 2016, starring Gary Sinise, who was for many seasons the star of “CSI: New York”).

Although it is currently in a broadcasting hiatus in the U.S., the series was in the news recently. One of its stars and mainstays, Thomas Gibson, who played the chief of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit since the series’ inception in 2005, was fired following an “altercation” with one of the writers on the set of an episode he was directing, as well as acting in. For altercation, read: Gibson allegedly kicked the writer Virgil Williams following “creative differences” on set. The way his character will be written out of the show in season 12 remains to be devised. But as both the actor and the writer have shown off their volatile characters on set in the past, despite having attended anger management sessions, there will probably be more to the story.

The name of the unit headed by FBI Special Agent Aaron Hotchner (the character Gibson plays), gives us the second clue about the specific nature of the series. It is a Behavioral Analysis Unit; many of the episodes start and end on board a special FBI jet that has flown to a place somewhere in the U.S., where some bizarre crime, or set of crimes, was committed. The special agents assist local law enforcement teams in hunting for the perpetrators, usually trying to apprehend them before they commit yet another hideous crime. They utilize forensic data collected from the crime scenes (details most gory), and data from crimes solved in the past and analyzed, providing patterns that allow for profiling the criminal minds of possible culprits.

The key word here is “profiling”, in the sense of “The recording, itemization, or analysis of a person’s known psychological, intellectual, and behavioral characteristics, esp. as documentation used (in schools, businesses, etc.) in the assessment of an individual’s capabilities; (also) the compilation of databases which store such information and that can be used to identify any particular subgroup of people” (OED, first use of the word in that sense documented in 1964). This is really an everyday activity most of us engage in when we look at a person and draw inferences as to what his or her behavior is bound to be in particular instances, based on visual clues and data about people with similar characteristics we met in the past. It is supposedly a reprehensible approach – there is a very clear anti-profiling sentiment in the enlightened common mind, which rejects racial and ethnic prejudice.

Serial crimes

In the case of “Criminal Minds” the profiling is based not on the looks of a particular person, but rather on clues collected at the crime scene. Most episodes deal with serial crimes, and the plot of each episode is a race between the profilers refining the profile and the criminal obeying the subconscious directives of his sick mind. The investigators constantly narrow the field by adding details to the profile, and it all ends in a showdown between the behavioral experts and a troubled psyche. Most episodes begin and end with a voiceover quoting some sage, past or present, about the strange ways a human mind happens to function and malfunction.

As with any TV police procedural, it’s all about a crime being solved and the diseased minds of the criminals, as well as the imprint it leaves upon the minds of the investigators, each with his or her psychological profile. Apart from Hotchner, the Behavioral Analysis Unit contains Dr. Spencer Reid (played by Matthew Gray Gubler), a former child prodigy who is a walking encyclopedia of crime and a vast trove of information on matters mundane and arcane. There are some female agents, each one with her own back story; most members of the unit are constantly profiling each other. And of course there is the fixture in any TV crime series – the “cyber-wiz” hacker who in a matter of seconds can compile any digital information, however heavily encrypted and deeply hidden. In “Criminal Minds” her name is Penelope (think of Homer and his Odyssey). She is a former hacker turned into a Tech Assistant, played by Kirsten Vangsness, and is referred to as “baby girl” by Derek Morgan, one of the agents with whom she has a platonic relationship spiced with erotic innuendos. (Shemar Moore, who played Morgan, announced his willing departure from the series recently.)

One of the clues to the imploding of Gibson’s own psychological profile can be found in what happened to the actor who was cast as the chief profiler in the series when it premiered in 2005. Mandy Patinkin, who created the character of Dr. Jason Gideon, but by the third season announced his departure from it, explained in an interview: “I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality, and after that, I didn’t think I would get to work in television again.”

Patinkin, who has a very successful career in musical theater in the U.S. (in many Stephen Sondheim musicals) was replaced in the series by the actor Joe Mantegna, who created the character of Special Agent David Rossi, an expert profiler and author who comes out of semi-retirement due to some unfinished business in the past. It now remains to be seen how “Criminal Minds” will fare in term of ratings in the next season, without some of its brightest, even if psychologically tarnished, stars. This is a classic story of (criminal) mind over matter. If you – the viewer, that is, not the actor – don’t mind, it does not matter.

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