Criminal Minds: The First Series Review
The criminal drama has always been a popular staple for television viewers the world over, and remains so to this day with shows like CSI seemingly unstoppable while even the edgier cable shows like The Shield pull in the viewers on a regular basis. In spite of their popularity though, new takes on the genre frequently come and then go just as quickly, with the Fox produced The Inside premiering just a few months prior to Criminal Minds back in 2005 and featuring a not too dissimilar premise. Both dealt with specialist FBI units, profiling crimes usually of a serial nature, but where The Inside went down a considerably darker route, exploring the concept of climbing inside the disturbed minds of killers, Criminal Minds takes a somewhat friendlier more mainstream route, analysing the method to understand the killer, as opposed to the killer to understand the method. For anyone who is yet to see The Inside these comparisons will mean very little, but where The Inside failed in the US and was subsequently cancelled after just 7 episodes had aired Criminal Minds succeeded and quickly became a top-rated series, one that is now well into its second season and even scored a recent two-part episode that was broadcast in the highly coveted post-Superbowl time slot. Yes, it’s doing well…
…but is it any good? Well yes, actually it is. But first, a brief synopsis…
The show follows one of the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Units as they are brought in by local law enforcement to help solve crimes of a specific nature. Usually murder, rape or kidnapping, quite often serial cases, the team employ their special training and methodologies to understand the “unspecified subject” (un-sub) and subsequently deliver a profile that can be used to track down and capture the criminal. The team consists of experienced lead Agent Gideon (Mandy Patinkin), Unit Chief Agent Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) along with their fellow specialists Doctor Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), Agent Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore), Agent Elle Greenaway (Lola Glaudini), Agent Jennifer ‘JJ’ Jareau (A.J. Cook) and computer analyst Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness). All bring something unique to the team, be it their previous experience in another specialised department (Morgan and Elle), press and public relations skills (JJ), walking encyclopaedia (Reid) or computer whiz (Garcia).
The series begins a little stronger than it means to continue, with the Pilot episode designed to hook the viewer by introducing you to the team not through the inexperienced newcomer as the majority of these shows inevitably do, but instead through the return of experienced lead agent Gideon. Currently on leave and struggling with a decision in the field that we later learn resulted in the death of several agents under his command, we find Gideon teaching at the FBI academy in Quantico before he is re-enlisted. This makes for a fresh approach, seeing an experienced and revered member of the team scrutinised by those around him throughout the Pilot episode, questioning his ability, all the while introducing us to the other members of the team and what exactly they bring to the formula. Just to be safe however the writers go for the double whammy as we are introduced to Elle, at this point an FBI agent working in another division, and here is seen to be effectively interviewing for a spot on the BAU team (which she joins full time by the next episode). Tackling the introduction from both angles is somewhat unnecessary given how well things were going with the Agent Gideon approach, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the Pilot which continues strongly and not only does the character introductions well, but also delivers two of the show’s most inspired hooks that continue throughout the season with great success.
The first is the use of quotes by famed philosophers, historical figures and on occasion everyday men and women. These are featured at the opening and close of each episode, delivered by one of the cast members as voice-over and as you might expect, having relevance to the episode content. It’s a simple hook, and one that through careful selection can help the episode resonate with the viewer long after they’ve finished, and when they don’t it’s a storytelling method that at the very least leaves the viewer feeling educated and more than a little cultured. The second hook is the way in which the BAU team delivers their profile to the local law enforcement, or in the case of the Pilot which is very much an FBI case, to their fellow agents. Here in the Pilot we see Gideon deliver the profile, talking to those around him and in turn, the audience while video is projected in front of or behind him. He then seamlessly interacts with the video, either becoming a part of it or by making some form of contact with someone in the footage. This helps to bring home the points being made without the need for an abundance of verbal exposition. If you’ve seen any of the numerous metaphors delivered by David Krumholtz in Numb3rs then you might have some idea of how it plays out, aiding the viewers understanding through visual aids it’s a neat editing trick that is repeated throughout the series to even greater effect as the profiles in subsequent episodes are gradually delivered by all members of the team who take turns fleshing out each aspect.
The trial period Gideon is on in the Pilot episode lasts for a total of just three episodes, after which he is secured as the lead member of the team and any question about his ability to perform on the job is all but forgotten until the season finale. Likewise Elle is the newcomer to the team for about the same 2-3 episodes and is soon incorporated as a regular member who knows her job inside and out. It is for these reasons I say the series starts out stronger than it intends to continue, with the opening episodes fuelled not only by the cases we find the team on but also their own internal problems and growth. This latter aspect is not completely lost for the remainder of the season. It is however toned down and re-focused upon Reid, who despite being a full-time member of the team from the start becomes the viewer’s entrance to this world. To help you understand why and how this works, some knowledge on the character is required. Reid is literally a genius, someone who can read pages in books the way your average person might scan a page for a specific word, boasts an eidetic memory which makes him the walking encyclopaedia I described him as earlier, but more importantly has the ability to use, interpret and adapt these abilities for his work. This puts him in the position of being a source of knowledge to the team and audience, quoting statistics and previous examples of the criminal type being profiled. He is also however a character whose knowledge and experience is almost entirely founded on books so he is now gaining real-world experience, in much the same way the audience is.
Although episodic in nature, like all good series Criminal Minds offers a little something of its central characters in each episode, slowly developing their personas and roles within the world they inhabit whilst also forming individual attachments with the viewer. The two most frequently tapped characters are the previously discussed Gideon and Reid, the former a veteran agent whose time in the field has taken a considerable toll on him at a personal level, and the latter an innocent whose self-confessed genius makes him crucial to the team but also someone who is prone to the real-world evil the job brings him into contact with. These starkly different characters inevitably display a father/son relationship with the age gap to match, and how they feed off each other makes for one of the finest dynamics in the show. Reid in particular is a fountain of knowledge who we see is constantly learning how to put those resources to their best use, and Gideon is primarily the character we see helping to develop him in this area. We first see this in episode three where Gideon takes the experienced agent developing the new talent role, and then by the following episode he takes a more fatherly interest, giving Reid a much needed push on a more personal level.
The use of Reid as a developmental character for the others on the team is frequently tapped, with Hotch quite often seen taking the stern approach to push Reid further in the field, making him a better agent. This – much like the Gideon/Reid centric episodes – always makes for very compelling viewing with “L.D.S.K” being a prime example. In this episode Reid is lacking a gun after failing the required tests that Hotch has been tutoring him for, but when they later find themselves in a hostage situation Gideon and Hotch’s tutorage comes into play as the concept that the profile is the most dangerous weapon they have is put to the test. This episode is one of the finest in the early stages of the season, throwing a convincing red herring at the viewer and presenting a particularly disturbing form of killer but it surrounds the nearly always compelling crime scenarios with profiling that connects with the team on a personal level. Where the episode excels however is in furthering the character of Reid and his stature within the team, it also seamlessly furthers the character of Hotch within the viewer, taking a previously stern authoritative and therefore somewhat distant character and bringing him down to earth, putting him on a level we can all associate with and appreciate.
Trying to discuss the other members of the team inevitably leads back to Reid, as beyond he and Gideon there is little in the way of individual development elsewhere that doesn’t tie back into these central figures. Morgan for example is a character I find very hard to like, but for all his faults, he is called upon time after time to act as the big brother to Reid, someone who the young genius can talk to when he’s looking for guidance he would rather not seek from Gideon. These moments redeem someone who at all other times alienates this viewer with his machismo approach to the law enforcement the BAU are often seen assisting, and the “baby girl” banter which grows in quantity between he and computer tech Garcia as the season progresses. There’s nothing particularly destructive about this character in terms of relationships with the other team members and how they communicate as a whole with the viewer, but he does stick out more often than not as an FBI agent from another series.
At this point it seems fair to say the acting in the series if is of a generally high standard throughout, with obvious nods going to Mandy Patinkin and Matthew Gray Gubler who as Gideon and Reid both make their dialogue work beyond what is written on the page and who without which I really couldn’t see the series working as well as it does. Regardless of how well the central characters and relationships within the series work however the show would be nothing without a solid foundation in the criminal minds of the title. Fortunately it rarely disappoints, with the episodes featuring all manner of crimes whose resolutions are always reached in a satisfying and – save for the short timeframe which I can forgive an episodic series for – believable manner. Many familiar conventions of both serial crime and television are adhered to, for example the culprit is quite often someone who injects themselves into the investigation or someone we’ve already seen in the episode, but for every time one of these familiar aspects turns up so does something new and interesting while the episodes are not afraid of showing the darker side of human nature (which the show handles particularly well without ever succumbing to overt graphical images). Of course the usual bases are covered in terms of episodes, be they the crimes involved or a familiar setup such as one of the central characters being caught up in a situation from the start. This occurs in “Derailed”, but in what is a common trend with the series what should have been a strong character episode for one character – in this case Elle - is swiftly taken over by Reid. I have no complaints in terms of the episode outcome, as it’s another fine example of why this character is so appealing, but it’s a shame more wasn’t done with Elle.
Another oft-used premise in crime drama is that of one of the central team being stuck at headquarters while the rest are out in the field, with Gideon the willing housebound subject in “Blood Hungry”. One of the most generic episodes it does however maintain the high standard of mystery and detective work seen throughout the series whilst taking some time to introduce the office tech Garcia to another member of the team. At this point she is slowly becoming a more commonly used character, someone who by the end of the season is a regular cast member whereas in the initial third of the season entire episodes would pass by with no requirement for her.
There are many standout episodes in the 22 episode run, some of which I’ve highlighted below with spoiler free discussion…
“The Fox” is one of the most affecting episodes of the season, portraying unimaginable crimes without ever resorting to graphic images or reconstructions. Instead it follows the standard formula of the series, the cold opening which establishes the crime and the investigation which follows, before leading up to an ending that is at once both satisfying and cruelly depressing.
“What Fresh Hell?” is a good example of a crime we’ve seen played out on screen a dozen times, child kidnapped, parents distraught and the authorities are racing against the clock to track down the victim in a time sensitive situation. The team approach the crime like any other member of law enforcement would, covering the father first but soon they move onto more interesting avenues and we see them extend the full resources available to them in unique fashion. This results in a tense episode, not just because of the nature of the crime but due to how we see it affect the lead member of the team, Gideon, taking us back to how the season opened, as we begin to understand how deeply connected Gideon is to the work.
“Riding the Lightning” is one of the best episodes of the run, seeing the team called in to interview a convicted serial killer husband and wife team who are scheduled for execution in 36hrs. With another body just discovered, the question initially is how many more are there? But it soon becomes a quest for truth with regards to the role the wife had in the murders, if she had any at all. A strong Gideon episode Mandy Patinkin is in exceptional form given the chance to play off a well written guest role. Along with the supporting actress the two manage to bring out the beauty within an inherently dark series of events, with an ending that reverberates with the viewer and continues to do so with repeat viewings.
“The Real Rain” covers the subject of vigilante killers, referencing Taxi Driver in the title and within the episode. Another high quality episode with constant developments to the profile the BAU team is using to capture the killer, we are also given a little more insight to Hotch and his past work with Gideon, once again showing how the series always manages to reveal a little of its lead characters in the just the right degrees when it needs to, personalising the cases and evoking a more emotional response by the episode’s resolution. The two different quotes from a single luminary to close out the episode’s subject are also some of the most poignant in the season.
“Somebody’s Watching” tackles the theme of celebrity stalking with a relatively straightforward approach, seeing the “un-sub” targeting the rival talent of their heart’s desire. Where this episode stands out is through the characters and situations it places them in, and once again the focus is heavily on Reid who we see for the first time placed in to a romantic situation, with often amusing but very telling results. Gideon too is subject to a very aggressive woman in the opening moments of the episode, which I find noteworthy as it results in one of the most deliberate comedic moments of the season.
“Machismo” is a low point, not for the crimes involved but for how Mexico is portrayed with every local character seen to be speaking fluent English. This really defeats what could have been a more insightful portion of the episode, that of cultural and language divides, but instead they gloss over it fairly quickly with any character who starts out requiring a translator quickly revealing they can speak English. This took me out of the proceedings repeatedly, and I can only assume was done both for time, possibly laziness and potentially a primetime network that is probably afraid of having an episode that is over 50% subtitles. This is a shame, as seeing the team on loan to Mexican law enforcement and tackling the unheard concept of a serial killer in Mexico makes for otherwise interesting viewing.
The last few episodes take a different approach by injecting the BAU team into investigations of a more unique nature. “Charm and Harm” sees them brought in to locate rather than identify a serial killer terrorising the Florida area, he having evaded police capture and knowing he’s been identified is now on a killing spree. Capturing him is done through the traditional method of chasing up leads via his last known location, but also by profiling the killer and identifying where he might go next. This makes for good viewing and like the few other episodes in this season with a similar approach (one being “Riding the Lightning”) they can use more prominent supporting actors as there is no risk of the viewer identifying the killer by the pedigree of actor on screen.
“Secrets and Lies” sees the team brought into a crisis situation at the CIA, where they must identify a mole within a locked down unit as they race against the clock to locate a mother and two children hidden by a murdered agent. Pitting the FBI against the CIA is an interesting angle though ultimately it doesn’t result in dialogue or mind games more intelligent than seen elsewhere, and the mole is rather easy to identify, but it’s a satisfying episode late in the season for anyone that has invested in the characters – Gideon in particular – for which this episode tells us a fair bit about.
“The Fisher King, Part 1” brings the season to a close in style, first giving us a glimpse at what the BAU team do to wind down in their vacation time, and then by rudely interrupting them as a killer targets and starts playing a game with the team. It ends with a bang, leaving the audience on a cliff-hanger until season 2, and that is where I leave you…
A cardboard slipcase holds three dual-thinpak cases which in turn house the six discs which make up the set. Criminal Minds is nicely presented though the artwork featured on the individual thinpak cases does lack imagination. The menus for each disc are simple but effective with the main theme playing on a loop over the top, with each episode accessible from the primary menu screen whereupon the episode either starts or you are taken to an option to access a commentary (should one be available). My only gripe here is the lack of a “Play All” function.
Episodes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and with just four to a disc they are afforded plenty of space to breathe. The results are good, with the clean source materials reproduced with no discernable compression problems, a fine level of detail and satisfying colour reproduction. There is some minor edge enhancement and the overall appearance is a little soft but this is otherwise a decent transfer. Likewise the English DD5.1 Surround audio is pleasing without ever going above and beyond in terms of sound design, which is pretty much to be expected from a TV series (even in this era of High Definition video and 5.1 audio broadcasting).
Commentaries are provided on 3 episodes. The first, “Extreme Aggressor (Pilot)” is with the creator and writer of the episode, Jeff Davis, and executive producers Mark Gordon and Deborah Spera. The three are clearly proud of the series, and in particular this Pilot episode but as good as it is, they go a little overboard with their comments making it hard to filter out the useful information from the praise. The commentaries on “Derailed” and a personal favourite of mine, “Riding the Lightning” are helmed by executive producer Edward Allen Bernero and a combination of writers, directors, special effects director and make-up artist. Predictably in the instance of “Derailed” this combination leads to a very technical track pointing out sets, locations, use of camera and lighting etc. but also a little insight to the aim of the episode and giving a reason to the placement of Elle on the train which in turn helps explain my personal grievance with the episode, which is how contrived and worse still, underused this plot device is. The track for “Riding the Lightning” is the best of the three, with the writer Simon Mirren giving plenty of insight to the research behind this and many of the episodes, while the group as a whole keep things jovial and enlightening without ever over-praising their work.
The sixth and final disc of the set hosts two featurettes, a small selection of deleted scenes and two Easter Eggs. “Making Criminal Minds” is a fairly standard mixture of promotional sound-bites, talking heads and clips from the show but it covers the usual bases – casting, writing, effects and day-to-day life on the set – with sufficient detail and input from those involved to remain interesting for its 25-minute duration. Mandy Patinkin in particular must be a featurette director’s dream, giving some wonderful quotes in his interviews. The second featurette, “Meet Matthew Gray Gubler” focuses entirely on the young actor who portrays Reid, showing us just how close his look and mannerisms are to the character in real life. A very unique and often quite strange guy he is always a blast to watch, with a lot of interesting pursuits in life and plenty to say about the show he makes this 15-minute piece about him well worth your time. The last of the listed extras on the disc are 5 deleted scenes taken from 4 of the episodes, none of which are particularly essential viewing but instead excess baggage making points already made in their respective episodes. Their inclusion is however welcome and I’m surprised more aren’t present given the frequent mention of running over in the commentaries.
The two Easter Eggs can be found on the Special Features sub-menu and run for a few minutes each. "Stage Tour" is self-explanatory, giving us a look behind-the-scenes but from a more crew orientated perspective while "Goobie Awards" sees Lola Glaudini and Matthew Gray Gubler present some awards to the crew with categories like “Best Hair” being covered. Hardly substantial but a welcome inclusion anyway, the latter is actually also quite fun and shows a good atmosphere amongst the cast and crew.
A very strong opening season is complimented by an equally impressive showing on DVD with some welcome extras and solid presentation.