Criminal Minds Review: The Best Comedy on Television, And Here’s My Card
“Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.” –Attributed to T.H. White
“Yes, well not everyone believes in what you do, either.” –A psychic, to one of the CM profilers
If there’s one phrase that gets on my nerves like nails on a blackboard, it’s: “That’s not funny, it’s sick.” I mean, for fuck’s sake, how little imagination can one have to not realize both can be true, and indeed, often the “sickest” things are the funniest? Which brings us to Criminal Minds, the sickest, and funniest, show on network TV. (I’ll add “one of the stupidest” because, after all, it’s up against some very stiff competition, like “The Following”–another show that features “profiling.”) It’s also, in a sneaky way, a very sick, dangerous show. I’ll get to that later.
Ten seasons of complete idiocy have gone by; it looks like there’ll be more. The show purports to be about the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit’s (BAU) Most Elite Team of Criminal Profilers, who jet (literally–the Feebs provide them with a private jet) from one bizarre “crime” to the next. After ten seasons the formula is well established: They get a “case,” usually out of the fifth dimension and bearing no resemblance to any crime that has happened anywhere, at any time, in recorded history. No time to waste, they board the jet and talk about the “UNSUB”–Unknown Subject, or the criminal. Every other episode (at least), Agent Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) says, “He’s a sexual sadist.” Somebody on “The Team” has a personal problem that will somehow lead to an epiphany about the crime. They get into town. Some agents visit the crime scene, others the cops, others the coroner. Then Agent Hotchner, the tight-assed Special Agent in Charge, intones, “It’s time to deliver the Profile.” They then deliver a “profile” notable for its vagueness. Something happens–usually a new crime scene, sometimes a suspect. Some team member, usually the one who had the personal problem, realises “Something’s missing from the Profile!”
Now, suddenly, they KNOW that the UNSUB (perpetrator) has Extremely Specific Characteristics. They now call upon their Tech Analyst Penelope Garcia (who mostly stays in Quantico surrounded by a bank of computers) to “Find someone matching these Extremely Specific Characteristics, Penelope! Time is running out!” And, of course, as fast as she can type, Penelope (“hacking” databases that would be patently illegal IRL) finds the UNSUB’s name, age, address, psych history, tattoos, meds, high school class rank, favourite Rolling Stones tune, the names and manufacturers of all his stuffed animals–oh, and she’ll triangulate his cell phone and find him, too. The team speeds away and finds the UNSUB. Much like those choose-your-own-adventures from middle school, the episode generally goes in one of two directions: The evildoer is usually caught with a would-be victim, at which point one member of the team (are you guessing the one with the personal problem? I don’t want to keep seeing the same hands) has to “talk down” the criminal to get the victim to safety. Then, either the UNSUB is killed (66.7%) or captured (33.3%). Alternatively, seeing The Team, the UNSUB flees, a ridiculous chase scene ensues, and the UNSUB is killed (66.7%) or captured (33.3%). That’s it. Seriously, it makes “Three’s Company” look like improv.
The BAU Team consists of:
Special Agent in Charge Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) (Seasons 1-?): The Fearless Leader. Never smiles or blinks.
Notable Calamities: Gets divorced from his high school sweetheart because, like all TV cop wives, she can’t handle his “being married to the job.” Then his now-ex-wife is killed by the Season 4-5 Big Bad, “The Boston Reaper.” Now he has to raise young son alone. Despite being offered “full early retirement” that would have allowed him to raise said son, he declines. Presumably he now has a nanny, returning to work because “that’s who he is.”
Special Agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) (Season 1-2): Was on medical leave after a major meltdown until the pilot episode; has another meltdown so Mandy Patinkin can get out of his contract.
Notable calamities: Loses girlfriend to Season 2 Big Bad, “Frank” (no catchy nickname). And has meltdowns.
Special Agent David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) (Season 3-?): Formerly retired. Rossi’s character (probably based on real-life profiler Robert Ressler) is considered one of the “founders” of criminal profiling, and is a multimillionaire with “several best-sellers” to his credit. Likes fancy shoes, Scotch, cigars and pasta, and makes a lot of jokes about Italian stereotypes.
Notable calamities: Loses ex-wife to Lou Gehrig’s, loses his girlfriend (well,actually his Boss With Benefits) to the Season 8-9 Big Bad, “The Replicator.” Yes, it really is as silly as it sounds–he “replicates” crimes The Team has already solved. (Fun fact: “The Replicator” is played by Mark Hamill, once known as Luke Skywalker.)
Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) (Season 1-?): Despite resembling a human clothes hanger, he’s a genius. We know he’s a genius because he has three doctorates at the age of 24, knows every obscure fact necessary to solve a case, and dresses like a grad student with an ever-present shoulder bag, probably filled with Penguin editions.
Notable Calamities: The biblical Job of the series. Raised by crazy mother (played by what I hope is either an embarrassed or broke Jane Lynch) after dad flounces, apparently not caring what happens to Junior under mom’s tutelage. Mom is finally institutionalized with schizophrenia, so he feels guilty all the time. Struggles with Asperger’s. In Season 2, kidnapped, held hostage, and tortured by a crazed killer with multiple personalities (Dawson’s Creek alum James Van Der Beek). Gets PTSD, then becomes addicted to Dilaudid (basically liquid heroin), then on to AA. In Season 4, our genius finds out that when he was a kid, his institutionalized mom and estranged dad killed a pedo who tried to mess with their boy. This makes him upset, I think. In Season 8, he develops a phone/pen-pal romance with a woman hiding from a stalker. Although he’s never met her, we are assured that this is a greater love than any other love that ever existed in the universe of lovin’. GF is kidnapped by stalker. Reid is also held hostage by stalker, but stalker then kills GF and self. Reid is really, really depressed for two episodes. (Should have stuck with the dope.) Also, throughout the series, Reid’s hair has known numerous, and bad, avatars.
Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) (Season 1-?): Son of a Chicago cop killed in the line of duty. Super-macho. In fact, so super-macho that although he wears suits for the first season in accordance with the FBI’s notorious dress code, he soon switches to very form-fitting shirts and tight jeans.
Notable Calamities: Molested as a child by his football coach, which turns out to be fodder for at least three episodes and is mentioned more than is really necessary. Haunted not only by daddy’s demise but by the disappearance of his cousin Cindy,who was running from a stalker. Later, he and The Team rescue Cindy and her son from said abusive stalker, who, it turns out, has been holding her hostage nearly a decade. Since the molesting coach is now dead, Cindy is safe and he currently has a “serious” GF, I’m guessing GF will be taken out by the upcoming season’s Big Bad, whoever or whatever it may be. (I wonder why they don’t give the dudes of Criminal Minds t-shirts: “I Joined the BAU and All I Got Was a Dead Loved One.” Rossi would have two now–hey, he could wear one while the other is in the wash!)
For some reason, there’s a lot more turnover with the ladies, so I’ll try to stick to the high points:
Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia (Kristen Vangness) (Season 1-?): See above. Basically solves all the cases but never gets credit. Exchanges banter with Morgan that would result in serious sexual harassment sanctions in any other agency or corporation, i.e., he calls her “Baby Girl,” and she call him “Chocolate Wonder,” amongst many other cringe-inducing endearments.
Notable calamities: Shot in Season 3 by a suspect who thought she was on his trail. (She wasn’t, but better safe than sorry, right?) Lost her parents in a drunk driving accident and feels really guilty. Runs a support group for the bereaved, only to be cockblocked when the kidnapper of a girl joins the same group as the girl’s mother, then kidnaps mom, and mom finds out kid is dead. Mom then kills kidnapper: oddly, there are no consequences to this. Also is made to wear outfits that make her resemble a walking Hello Kitty lip gloss kit, in order to show her “individuality.”
Special Agent Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster) (Season 2-7): Replaced the previous chick, who was also a brunette. Gets almost a whole half season to herself (6) with some story arc regarding her undercover work with the State department, the IRA, arms dealing, and the season’s Big Bad, Ian Doyle. Is apparently killed by Doyle, then resurrected for the following season. Finally decides to take a job in London and is replaced first by Jeanne Tripplehorn (whom I don’t really recall) and then Jennifer Love Hewitt (who hasn’t had much to do). Also brunettes.
Notable calamities: Being stalked by Doyle and his mick minions through Season 6. Eventually captured and tortured by Doyle before “dying.” Is estranged from Mommie Dearest, a former Ambassador and Charlie’s Angel (Jaclyn Smith.) Also haunted by memories of an abortion when she was 15. (Fun fact: Walton Goggins, Boyd Crowder of “Justified,” plays the baby daddy. Oh, and in this episode he’s possessed and needs an exorcism, or his hairline does. No, I’m not making this up.) And despite being by far the prettiest woman on the show, Prentiss never has a serious relationship or even an occasional “date.”
Special Agent Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (AJ Williams) (Season 1-?) A blonde, her name should be Mary Sue. By far the most annoying of the cast. Started off as the BAU’s “communications liaison,” then in Season 7, ”passed the tests (?)” to become a full-fledged profiler. Got knocked up by and then married a former New Orleans detective whom we met in Season 2. Around Season 7 there was apparently a change in showrunners, from a man to a woman–and while I’m not a misogynist, they’ve since used JJ’s character to show various domestic dramas that wouldn’t pass muster in the lamest soap opera. The actress was fired for financial reasons in Season 6 and replaced by one Rachel Nichols, also a blonde. Nichols was better, but she was dumped and JJ brought back with a vengeance in Season 7.
Notable Calamities: In keeping with her Mary-Sue charmed life, almost none, though she’s always whining about an older sister who offed herself (with her as a sib, I would have too). Also, her husband and son were briefly taken hostage in the Season 7 finale, largely as an opportunity for her to show off her round-kicks.
Now, before we take on the specific idiocies of “Criminal Minds,” we must tackle the issue that the “science” of criminal profiling in itself is largely, to put it as eloquently as I can, hokum, bunk, and balderdash. Much like the CSI franchise, Criminal Minds vastly overstates the importance of the profession to law enforcement Forensics IRL is more about confirming they have the right man than solving crimes, with the occasional exception of cases solved by DNA. But if you were to only watch CSI, you’d get the impression that detectives, lawyers, and investigators are irrelevant except as a hindrance. The CSI team surveys the crime scene, looks at every possibility, interviews everybody–and when they invariably get the right suspect, they’ll even suit up and arrest him! One-stop shopping, whilst everyone else presumably twiddles their thumbs and plays Minesweeper.
Similarly, “profilers,” (and if you want more info, you can read any one of the approximately 8000 books by current and retired profilers–John Douglas, Roy Hazelwood, Robert Ressler, Roger Depue, Pat Brown, etc.) for the most part, did not go to crime scenes, and certainly didn’t put on vests and run out to confront the criminals. They did not work in “teams,” or even in pairs. They were asked to evaluate the crime by local LE, and it would stay the local’s case. The profiler would read over witness statements, coroner’s reports, information about the dearly departed, etc., and then try to give an educated guess as to what kind of person might have committed the crime and why. This supposedly enabled local LE to focus their investigation–”A family member did this, and the motive was revenge!” “This crime was committed by a white transient between the ages of 35-45 with serious mental issues!” And so forth.
Rare footage of FBI profilers in action.
As time went on, yes, the profilers had some “hits”–but usually it was because either the profile was more general than the newspaper astrology column or the locals had already leaked who they were looking at. Also, mistakes were made, some of which led to innocent people serving time.
Criminal Minds does tackle this in one episode, where a presumed serial killer, Brian Matloff, wakes up after four years in a coma, without his memory. No, he isn’t faking; neurological tests “prove” he has no memory of the murder. Even worse, the lead witness and the original detective have croaked! The case is “rail-thin,” so, natch, Hotch takes the witness stand to explain why Matloff, according to “the science of behavioural profiling,” is really the killer. The defense attorney then attacks Hotch and his “pseudo-science, sneering that a “profile” lead the Feds to arrest Richard Jewell for the Olympic Park bombing, imprisoning him for months until it was proven that, while something of a jackass, the late Mr Jewell was not the bomber.
Hotch then utters one of the stupidest lines ever on the show: “Yes, but if you look at the real bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, you’ll see our profile was dead on.” No, it wasn’t. Not in the fucking slightest! Rudolph was a “cause-oriented” bomber, miffed about America’s declining morality or something; the “profile” surmised that the bomber was a “hero” type, creating a situation where he could rescue people from the bomb he himself had planted. Jewell, whatever his other faults, did save lives. Rudolph could not have cared less. The defense attorney mentions that the profilers thought BTK was an impotent loner; now we know that he was a pretty outgoing fellow with a responsible job, a wife and two kids, and plenty of friends who were shocked when Rader’s secret was exposed. Of course, Hotch gets the jump on the uppity lawyer when he tells him not only what colour the lawyer’s socks are, but also reveals that the lawyer has a serious gambling problem! And Hotch is absolutely right! SEE! PROFILING TOTALLY WORKS!
Except no, it doesn’t.
I’m a lawyer who, many would say, sits on the “wrong” side of the aisle–in other words, a defense attorney. Although I have worked in Big Cities, I now practice mostly in a few rural counties in a notoriously tough-on-crime state. Sometimes I’m court-appointed, but I have a good enough rep that some of my clients are willing to pay, and a few even have me on retainer (they’ve got their reasons, which I’ll take to my grave). I was so jealous watching that scene–I’d love to take on some of these retired FBI profilers-for-hire (with the exception of Roy Hazelwood, for whom I have some respect) and better yet, some of these self-appointed profilers like Brent Turvey. I have mixed feelings about Pat Brown–she’s usually quite sensible, very sensitive to issues of race and class (she was the only profiler who “called” the Washington Sniper case correctly), and I like the way she often takes on cold cases pro-bono. On the other hand, she’s STILL convinced the West Memphis 3 are guilty against all evidence and sense and has a weird obsession with the Madeleine McCann case, so I’m not so sure I’d call on her. Although I’ve considered it, once, or maybe twice.
In this New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, he makes the point that profiling is similar to how fake psychics “cold read” someone who comes in for a palm reading. As in: Most killers are males, so it’s probably a guy. Check. The victim was white, so most likely the killer was too. Check. No sign of forced entry? Now it gets (slightly) more complicated. Maybe the killer was someone she trusted, so she let him in. On the other hand, it could be a cunning serial killer wearing brown coveralls saying, “I’ve got a package for you!” How do you know? Well, this is supposedly where profilers come in.
But however well-intentioned they may be, their guesses are usually no better than yours or mine. I can just imagine if I got killed while working at home, as I usually do when not in court: “This was obviously a sex crime. Mrs Fraser was wearing only an oversized 5XL Pittsburgh Penguins T-shirt and panties, and the shirt was pulled up so the UNSUB could stab a butcher knife in her breast, which pierced her heart. This is indicative of–” Nice try, Mr Profiler. However, did any of my friends or family tell you that I always wear just a t-shirt and underpants while I’m working at home, and sometimes less? Ergo my state of undress doesn’t mean much. Also, suppose the killer has no sexual interest in a flabby middle-aged woman–what would the stab to the breast mean? Welp, if you want to stab a woman in the heart (to, you know, be really sure she’s DEAD), you need to go through a breast first. So my hypothetical murder could be regarding any number of things.
In the opening montage of Criminal Minds, there are onscreen mugshots of a bunch of famous and serial killers. Despite the hint, none of them were actually “caught” by profiling. Ted Bundy? He was caught because he was driving drunk (twice). Fun fact: As far as the DUIs go, the same is true of star Thomas Gibson. The Unabomber? Little brother figured out what he was up to and turned him in. Charles Manson? His bitches couldn’t keep their mouths shut. John Wayne Gacy made the mistake of abducting his last victim at a drugstore where the kid worked, where everyone knew Gacy. Tim McVeigh? Driving without plates, the moron. Susan Smith? Told a bullshit story and finally confessed. Son of Sam? Caught by a parking ticket. Lee Harvey Oswald? Bitch, please. In fact, if you read the profilers’ books, much of the profiling is “after the fact”—they may talk endlessly about Ted Bundy’s “profile,” for instance, but it was the dude’s failure to pay attention in Driver’s Ed that was his undoing. (Incidentally, the characters on the show endlessly reference these cases.)
And now–the silliness that is “Criminal Minds.”
I first discovered it one lonely night while channel surfing. It happened to be the pilot, when Mandy Patinkin was starring as profiler extraordinaire Agent Jason Gideon. I watched, enthralled by the ridiculous dialogue, the cardboard characters, even the delightful guest appearance of DJ Qualls as some kind of criminal mastermind called an “extreme aggressor.” The show has since become the basis for many family jokes. We’re never disappointed by an episode that might “make us think” or is “imaginative.” No, week after week, the crazy stakes get higher.
It was a fast deterioration. The show’s earliest plots were often similar to crimes that actually had happened. At least they were in earth’s orbit. One, for instance, was based loosely on the Mark Hofmann Salt Lake City bombings (though there was still a subplot where the bomber was a protege of another bomber who had killed a bunch of agents and caused Patinkin’s character to have a mental breakdown–yes, I’m serious.) Little girl gets kidnapped by a pedo–it happens. The pilot involved a man pretending to sell a car, then kidnapping the women he took on test drives and briefly holding them captive before killing them–plausible enough. Then there was also the collegiate arsonist who sent fires as a way of relieving her OCD–ok, things were starting to get strange.
Often most of the fun of the early episodes was watching Mandy Patinkin or another agent interview or interrogate the UNSUB, but after Season 4 that pretty much stopped. You do occasionally see them interrogate the WRONG guy, or a dimwitted accomplice, but whatever nuance there was has disappeared into chases and corpses. Also, despite the fact that two-thirds of the episodes end in a fatal shooting, one hears never a word about the required investigation, nor is anyone ever placed on desk duty pending the outcome as they would be IRL.
For example: The first Big Bad of the series is “Frank,” introduced in episode “No Way Out” and billed as “the most prolific serial killer ever” in breathless tones. Frank, played by the near-geriatric Oscar winner Keith Carradine (apparently his schedule was open), travels the country with a torture trailer attached to his car, abducts mostly transients, drugs them with ketamine and then dismembers them while alive. (Frank’s character was, most likely, loosely based on the very real David Parker Ray, although Ray stayed in one place and worked with his trusty girlfriend.) OMG! In the first five minutes of the episode we have the Most Prolific Serial Killer Ever! Surely they slap on the cuffs, haul him to jail and hold a big press conference!
Pity, no. Turns out it’s a flashback. You see, it turns out that every year the Most Prolific Serial Killer Ever takes something of a vay-cay in a godforsaken town called Golconda, Nevada. Why Golconda? It seems thirty years ago Frank was hunting fresh victims in Golconda when he grabbed a young lady, Jane, trying to fix her stalled car. He strapped her down, drugged her, and then, apparently, fell in love. Rather than killing her, he tucks Jane back in her own bed. So every year since he stops in Golconda to spy on his lady love, now a crazed old coot (Amy Madigan), convinced she was once abducted by an alien who looked just Keith Carradine. (Actually, I have little doubt that latter part probably HAS happened.) He leaves her handmade gifts, such as a wind chime made of human rib bones and a whistle carved out of a femur. Everyone knows it’s handmade gifts that show the most thought.
So after presenting a profile and interviewing the loony lady, they locate Frank in a local diner having a milkshake. Local deputies and townspeople surround the diner with rifles and shotguns. Time to slap on the cuffs–oops, no. Agents Gideon and Morgan sit next to him and tell him he’s a real psychopath, with which he seems to agree. He then reveals the true purpose of his cat-and-mouse game–he wants Jane. And he wants to go free. Time to slap–oh, wait.
Suddenly everyone’s phone buzzes with a text: the town’s children have been kidnapped! “A school bus,” Hotch laments, “that’s the one thing we didn’t think to check!” (Note: Brilliant, guys.) Now Frank has left the poor kids stranded out in the mountains, where it’s cold and they are at the mercy of the “rising coyote population!” Frank’s terms: Bring him Jane, have Jason drive them out to the mountains, and he’ll show him where the kids are. Frank will then go free. Oh, but as a bonus, he promises that with “Jane in my life, I will never harm another human being.” This ludicrous deal is actually made (without, of course, consulting with any FBI higher-ups or US attorneys.) Frank leads him to the kids, and after exchanging some dialogue that (I think) is meant to be foreboding, vanishes with Jane.
Naturally, the stage is set for the second-season cliffhanger, wittily titled “The Evilution of Frank.” Frank kills Jason’s girlfriend (who we meet for all of 12 seconds, so it’s not like we get attached.) It seems Jane has left Frank after he broke his promise and is now wandering around DC, and dad gummit, he wants his Jane back. A series of yawn-inducing mind games and showdowns happen (or, at least, I think that’s supposed to be what’s happening) until Frank and Jane commit suicide by throwing themselves hand-in-hand in front of a Metro train, resulting in thousands of weary DC commuters getting home late. (Sadly, they don’t show this part.) Sadly, compared to the Big Bads and even plain UNSUBs that follow, Frank was a masterpiece of character development.
At this point in the series, diva Mandy Patinkin bowed out with the deepest regrets.
“The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do Criminal Minds in the first place. I thought it was something very different. 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. After that, I didn’t think I would get to work in television again. I’m not making a judgment on the taste [of people who watch crime procedurals]. But I’m concerned about the effect it has. Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.”
Well, thanks for sharing, Mandy. Golly, how did you know what I need to be dreaming about? Also, what the hell did he think he was getting into when he signed on? Surely his agent told him the show was called “Criminal Minds,” not “Rainbows and Fluffy Bunny Rabbits.” Did it really take him two years to catch on to the fact that he was, in fact, starring on one of the most violent shows on network TV? Personally, I think it was a cynical grab for some retirement cash before a show like “Homeland” came along.
Mandy is replaced with Mantegna. We get a parade of freaks, each seemingly more bizarre than the last, and damn if they don’t follow the formula as if they were making the finest of souffles. We get one episode that is a combination of “Saw” and “Captive,” set up by a dude who likes to cut himself. A prison employee turns into a serial killer to win the affections of a woman whose serial killer husband was just executed. Amazingly, the tactic works. Former Academy Award nominee Brad Dourif is a puppeteer who turns his victims into human marionettes. There’s a crazy farmwife who literally plants men in order to cure her imaginary skin condition. A hilarious guest turn is given by a bloated Jason Alexander as a professor who kidnaps a daycare center, the better to take revenge on Rossi for helping send his big bro to Death Row. A former chess prodigy stages a Return of the Zodiac Killer in order to win his best friend away from his fiancee. A victim of Houston’s “Piano Man Rapist” (so called because he plays the same piano ballad over and over whilst in flagrante) takes the man she believes responsible hostage and tortures him. (With wires, a gun, a taser–and the piano ballad.)
CM’s brilliant reworking of “Frankenstein?” A drifter in a trailer who attempts to recreate his dead little brother out of body parts he collects during electrical storms. Season 9 features a loon who kills people with a certain birthday, leaving maggots beside the body so they can’t reincarnate into people. (Huh?) The Season 6 finale involves the hunt to rescue a fresh-faced young FBI agent who was posing as a fresh-faced young college student to infiltrate a sex-slave ring that offers fresh-faced young college students for sale, and then infiltrated the sex-slave ring. (There’s a logic there I don’t get, but my head hurts already.) Naturally, we get a harsh critique of “gamers” when two afflicted teenage boys kidnap a school bus and force the students to act out the game “Gods & Monsters.” (Wait, wasn’t that a Brendan Fraser masterpiece?) We’re treated to a hemophiliac who takes sadistic revenge on gallery owners who don’t appreciate the paintings he lovingly creates with his own blood. A social worker lures kids away from bad or incompetent parents so he can kill the ‘rents and raise the kiddies in his childhood home. The series wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the Waco disaster, so we get former Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry (in fairness, a decent actor) as the David Koresh of Colorado. Then there’s the LA cabbie who attempts to make scented candles out of–women. Yeah, whole women. I wonder what the marketing strategy would be.
At this point in the show’s evolution, I really miss Frank.
But leaving aside the soap operas, almost all the court/police procedurals on TV may have a have a far more sinister effect. No, it’s not “The CSI Effect,” though that is, to some degree, a real problem (and occasionally a boon for the defense). Nor do their ominous warnings deter criminals. The people who sit beside me at the defense table are usually too crazy, impaired, or disabled to process and appreciate the message: “We WILL catch you. Always. No matter what you do. Our teams of smart, handsome (and mostly white) detectives, CSIs, profilers, etc. will always find the clues you left behind, and then it’s off to the slammer or death row for you.” This is, incidentally, completely untrue: The solve rate for homicides is around 60%, the lowest it’s ever been, and the only reason it’s even that high is that a majority of homicides still take place between husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, etc. On the more realistic CBC show Da Vinci’s Inquest, a number of the cases go unsolved or are “solved” but not prosecuted. This happens IRL in the US every day, of course, but when was the last time you saw that on American TV? We can’t even deal with real trials that don’t end in a cinematic way, even if the verdict was legally the correct one.
Much as I hate to bring Foucault to a discussion of a show as stupid as CSI or Criminal Minds, these shows do invoke his famous “Panoptican” effect. We come to believe both we and the bad guys are monitored every second of every day. On one hand, this has a reassuring effect for the “silent majority:” No matter what goes wrong, be it a crazed serial killer, a stalker, or shady sex offender, there are dedicated cops, CSIs and profilers who will make everything right again and kiss all our societal boo-boos. We can sleep at night because we’ve outsourced our safety to really cool, smart people, like Rossi, or Vince D’Onofrio’s Goren on L&O: Criminal Intent, ounmanr Gil Grissom. Hell, we can always just dial 911…except when we can’t. If there’s a deranged fellow with an AR-15 in our school, movie theatre or house, we’re kind of on our own, and there’s a certain learned helplessness being promoted here.
But there is also a chilling effect: They deter us from stepping out of line in any way, no matter how minor. Form a union at Wal-Mart? No, the management will make sure it doesn’t happen, and you’ll most likely be out of a job. You want to join Occupy Seattle? Fine, as long as you don’t mind being tear-gassed or arrested (here’s my card). Get snarky with a cop? You might be beaten, arrested on a BS charge (here’s my card), or shot in the face, if you’re wearing the wrong apparel, or you’re the wrong colour, or if you’ve done something stupid, even if your offense doesn’t generally warrant the death penalty.
Think back to all those Law & Orders you’ve watched seven or eight times. How often did you see Lennie Briscoe threaten someone with an “obstruction of justice” charge and jail time if they didn’t tell him everything they knew? I generally shy away from giving free legal advice (here’s my card), but that is nonsense: You always have the right to NOT talk to a cop, and it’s a very good idea, as many well-meaning people have talked themselves into jail trying to be “helpful.” Here’s my card.
Trust me on this point; it happens more than you think. I’m willing to bet most people reading this article have, at some point or another, committed a crime (again, here’s my card). It may be as minor as having smoked some wacky tobaccy in college, or hunting out of season. You may have a special “concession stand” in the men’s room where you work, or had a 17-year-old girlfriend when you were 21, which in my state would be good for several years up the river and a lifetime on a “registry.” The point is not that discouraging crime is a bad idea, but that these shows take away our–and law enforcement’s–sense of proportion. When smoking weed becomes, in our minds, the equivalent of the Manson murders, you’ve got a boiling pot whose lid is juuuust about ready to fly off.
Even more crippling is the notion that you are allowed no private life, and no secrets. I’m sure that most of us have something: medical condition, secret addiction, weird taste in porn or even–gasp!–books, sexual proclivity, that blowjob you once gave a congressman, your spouse’s credit score, a relative in jail, sessions in therapy, a dismissed charge lost somewhere in our college town’s courthouse, an ex who still texts, or something, that we’d prefer our boss/neighbours/friends/parents/kids/dealers/bookies/known associates didn’t find out about. Well, forget it: Penelope Garcia will learn every detail about you, and much of it isn’t pretty. And apparently it’s all on the Internet, or in vast government databases. On one show, Agent Prentiss orders the girlfriend of a serial killer to tell her every detail of their sex life. “I think that’s private,” the teary girl stammers. “Your boyfriend is a serial killer,” Prentiss says, without compassion. “Nothing is private.” She then shoves a legal pad at her with the words, “Write it all down.” Sobbing, the girl does.
Yeah, we might as well all get out the legal pads now and start writing it down, before we the Law require it and it’s in one of Penelope’s databases. Now, that congressman was from Wisconsin, and if I recall he got voted in on that whole Contract With America thing, and we were near the Vietnam War Memorial, and geez it was so long ago–why do they need to know this? Can’t I keep something for myself? Please?
I could go on, but you get the point. Forget profiling. Please, if you enjoy Criminal Minds, enjoy it for the silliness (I do), but make sure you’re aware of the subtext behind it. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.) Criminal Minds is a joke. It’s not a well-written or particularly well-acted joke, but it’s one you’ll LYAO at nonetheless. And despite Mandy Patinkin’s dire warnings, trust me, you won’t be dreaming about it. Because you won’t remember the story ten minutes after it’s over.
Though you might remember all those databases.