So I watched the first episode of the Criminal Minds spin-off Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior last night along with a fifth season episode of the original.
Now I mainly watch crime dramas or police procedurals, as we’re apparently calling them these days (And why did the term change anyway? They were always called crime dramas when I grew up) for the characters and their interplay. I don’t particularly care for the crimes, because the crimes are rarely interesting, frequently nonsensical and often so formulaic I can tell who did it after fifteen minutes. Never mind that the crimes featured on US crime dramas these days are so interchangeable that you mostly can’t even tell which show it is if you just look at the crime.
Indeed, a few years ago I binged on crime drama and watched three or four different shows in a row, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace and at least one of the CSIs. The next morning, I could vaguely remember the cases and I could remember the personal life drama of the main cast in great detail. But I couldn’t for the life of me have told you which show featured which case, except that the one where the victim turned up alive was likely Without a Trace.
Criminal Minds is better written than most crime dramas. The cases are grisly, but the show doesn’t indulge in the sort of almost pornographic gore and violence you find on other shows of this type. It’s fairly unpredictable, i.e. you can’t tell how it will all play out within fifteen minutes or so. Both the victims and the perpetrators are actual characters rather than props and cardboard cutouts. Quite often the show even has empathy for the perpetrators instead of simply portraying them as monsters, evil for evil’s sake. There are plenty of geeky references, e.g. the episode I watched tonight referred to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. And finally, there is none of that irritating moralizing that mars the CSIs and makes any variation of Law and Order unwatchable, you know, the whole “You had sex in a socially not-approved way, therefore you are a bad person and deserve to die and/or languish in prison for the rest of your life” message that permeates so many shows of this type. What is more, Criminal Minds usually also manages to steer clear of threatening suspects or just random people who rub the investigators wrong. There is no harping on about evil sex offenders (even though Criminal Minds deals with more genuine sex offenders than most of the other shows). And, most importantly, suspects being interrogated are not constantly threatened with prison rape and/or the death penalty.
When I was younger, death penalty threats made by non-villains (villains can threaten all they like – that’s why they are villains) were such a dealbreaker that I would immediately stop watching a show I otherwise liked if one of the good guys started threatening a suspect with the death penalty. For me, that was a violation of an unspoken contract between TV-executives and viewers. “Yes, the US has the death penalty, but we don’t talk about that on TV, because otherwise how could you root for a detective character, if he or she is responsible for people being sentenced to death?”
Of course, that unspoken contract only existed in my mind, because I stupidly imagined that the sort of people who created enjoyable TV shows would find the death penalty as abhorrent as I did and would therefore not mention it, unless it involved rescuing someone innocently condemned to death. In fact, the mere existence of the Law and Order franchise pretty much gives that whole assumption the middle finger, which is why I can’t even watch ten minutes of anything labeled Law and Order without screaming obscenities at the TV. Nevertheless, twenty years ago there were not a whole lot of cop shows whose protagonists would threaten a suspect with the death penalty, let alone prison rape. Nor did you get the sort of moralizing you get in CSI and the like.
So one of my reasons for liking Criminal Minds (in addition to the fact that I like many of the characters) is that as a whole the show usually doesn’t do any of the things that piss me off about American crime drama. There are no death penalty threats, no prison rape threats, no “the victim deserved it, because they had sex” insinuations, no “the evil perpetrator is evil, because he is evil” reasoning. Not that these things don’t occasionally rear their ugly head, e.g. the Joe Mantegna character uttered a gloating death penalty threat in one of his earliest episodes, whereupon I disliked him for a long time. But as a rule, the show doesn’t do these things, which is a large part of what makes it so good.
So now the spin-off starts. Okay, so I can’t remember the names of any of the characters save Garcia, but then it took me a long time to remember the names of the characters in the original, too. But the case itself was pretty good and even included a bit of social criticism regarding the fact that missing or kidnapped white (and preferably blonde) children always get a lot more media attention than missing or kidnapped black or Hispanic kids. This also applies to Germany BTW, because there’s always a lot more media attention given the ethnic German kids that go missing or are murdered than to missing or murdered kids from immigrant families. And blonde missing kids generally get more attention than dark-haired missing kids.
However, there is one character in the team, the balding white guy with the high forehead and the weird eyes (like I said, I don’t know the characters’ names), who is on probation and apparently was even in prison at one point because he shot a pedophile, which begets the question what he is doing working for the FBI at all. We learn all this early on, because some FBI director type is worried that the pedophile shooting agents will snap when confronted with child kidnapping case. I found this whole backstory a bit worrying, but nonetheless I was willing to give the show a chance. The case involving a kidnapped child, of course registered sex offenders are checked. And one, it turns out, lives near where the kid was abducted and has a job at a library catering to kids. And what does our balding ex-pedophile-killing agent do? He roughs up and threatens the registered sex offender and probably would have done worse, if his colleagues had not stopped him.
At this point, my Mom and I (Criminal Minds has a very late timeslot in Germany, so I record it and we watch it together) looked at each other and both said as one, “I hope this guy gets fired pronto. Because someone like him has no place on this team or on this show.”
Really, if I wanted to see investigators bullying supposed sex offenders and other suspects, I would watch CSI or Law and Order where that sort of thing is common. I precisely watch Criminal Minds because I know they are better than that. Never mind that in the original Criminal Minds, the brunette woman who was on the team before Prentiss, was fired because she committed an act of vigilantism and shot a rapist in cold blood*. So why was agent pedophile-killer on the team at all?
Agent pedophile-killer (well, I suspect I could also call him balding guy with weird eyes) sort of redeemed himself at the end, when he tried to talk the kidnapper out of shooting himself. And I will watch again and may even come to like agent bald and weird-eyed one day, if he never pulls that sort of shit again.
But the question is still why the writers would resort to such a shitty plot device at all, when Criminal Minds is normally so much better than that?
*This is another reason why I like Criminal Minds. Because unlike NCIS, the good guys aren’t allowed to get away with murder, just because they are the good guys, whereas Gibbs and Director Jenny have both killed in cold blood and gotten away with it. Ziva, too, but she is a special case and actually least conflicted about some of the things she has done.