Ever since I first watched Silence of the Lambs back in 1991 I’ve been fascinated by fictional serial killers, and fascinated and repulsed by real life ones. I can’t remember when Criminal Minds first came across my radar, but I do remember resisting watching it for a while. I have only ever seen it in DVD box sets, rarely catching an episode I’ve already seen on TV. I wrote the entry on it for the 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, and continue to think that what I wrote on it for that book as true. It’s a solid ensemble show that gets more right than wrong, especially when you factor in the requirements of delivering 20 plus weekly episodes where the team have to solve a problem in about 40 minutes.
The strengths of the show are the ensemble cast. The Behavioural Analysis Unit are a team. They have their roles, their specialist capabilities, and because of what they see and do they bond. There is a consistency to the strains on their relationships that we see not just through the women, but the men. How they realise the ways they need to cope with the horrors they witness. The show often takes the tropes of crime fiction – the cop who fails at relationships – and explores variations on that theme. In the last few seasons, Rossi has got to address some of his past failed relationships with new insight from being more mature.
The show is not perfect.
The FBI Academy in Quantico, VA, is nestled within acres of US Marines training grounds. It’s not a place the general public can just wander into, and it’s also a fairly long drive from Washington DC. Yet, too often the characters are visited by members of the general public without prior arrangement, and often the characters zip between DC and their offices as though it’s just downtown. Also, quite a few of the characters seem to be able to afford living in Georgetown. Not entirely convinced their salaries would allow that, but who knows.
The biggest thing that never fails to make me laugh is the idea that in the Criminal Minds universe Interpol is some hot international spying group filled with Jason Bournes and James Bonds. Nope. Nope. Just no. It’s a bureau function. It enables the sharing of information and intelligence (processed information, not all from secretive sources) across international jurisdictions for local police to act upon. London is not their HQ, and it would be really difficult for the UK’s bureau to be headed up by an FBI Special Agent.
But what the show does get right more often than not are the realism of the perpetrators, the unknown subjects (unsubs), the team are called in to identify and stop. A few do exist on the preposterous end of the spectrum in terms of their dastardly abilities and focussing on our team, but most are realistic or even mundane. The team, mostly Dr Spencer Reid, provide details of where these offenders overlap with real life examples, and where they divert. The team doesn’t only advise on serial murder, they couldn’t and maintain credibility as a show. Again, while not perfect, the show manages to mostly not sexualise violence against women – a difficult balance to achieve given the statistical frequency of sexual violence by men against women when compared with men against men, or women offenders. The show is quite good at pointing out that while there can be a sexualised element to serial murder this isn’t a defining characteristic.
The show is also generally good at being sensitive about victim groups. From pretty much the start of the series, the team do not judge victims and victim groups on the grounds of their sexual orientation, skin colour, mental health, class, or profession. They do observe the relative risks evident in the cases they are called in to provide advice, but don’t preach.
One of the show’s other strengths is that it doesn’t shy away from the FBI’s history, nor the breadth and range in professionalism across the USA’s many, many police forces. The show is also pretty good on trends and how they are used and abused by criminals. Selfies on social media to target victims, bitcoin, the dark web, even SWATing have appeared in the show before they become really well-known in the zeitgeist.
I enjoy the show, but it has its faults. The 11th and 12th seasons have both seen some extensive cast changes in the team. I think for the better, in many ways. I just hope it keeps its nerve as a generally good quality FBI procedural show with a cracking ensemble cast.