Friday, September 23, 2005

Sometimes You Need To Think Like Your Prey

Criminal Minds is yet another entry into the apparently overcrowded police procedural market this year, but before you dismiss it from consideration for that you may want to watch it first. While the subject matter might seem to be mined out this series about a team of FBI profilers offers something more than the others.

Mandy Patinkin plays Special Agent Jason Gideon, head of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit - profilers by any other name. Gideon has been away from active control of his unit for some time after a traumatic event in the fairly recent past caused him to have a nervous breakdown - although as Gideon says, that's not what they call them anymore. We learn later that the event was successfully finding a notorious serial killer who in attempting to avoid capture killed six FBI agents in a bomb blast. Gideon feels the responsibility for that event. Since his psychological break he's been on the sidelines and when we meet him he's teaching at the FBI Academy in Quantico Virginia. But now there's a new case and the FBI wants Gideon on it not because he's the best - although he is - but as an assistant director tells his second in command Agent Aaron Hotch (Thomas Gibson) because the FBI needs to know if Gideon can cope with being in the field again. The rest of Gideon's team are Agent Derek Morgan and Agent Dr. Spencer Reid - Gideon makes sure that everyone knows that Reid is a doctor (he actually has three doctorates) because his age would otherwise cause other people to underestimate him.

The case in the first episode is a killer in the Seattle area who abducts women, keeps them for seven days before finally killing them after a period of extreme torture. A new victim has been taken and Gideon's team has been called in. There's a limited time before she's due to die which has most of the team worried that they don't have enough time to do a full profile, but after visiting the last place where the last victim was found and examining some of the evidence in the case Gideon is ready to deliver a profile. As it turns out the local FBI office has a suspect high on their list who fits the profile whom they promptly arrest. Now mind you this all occurs in first twenty minutes or so. You might be excused for thinking that the rest of the show would be spent interrogating the suspect and finding out what turned him into a serial killer - not to mention finding the latest victim who they know is still alive because the suspect said "isn't she the girl" rather than "wasn't she the girl". You'd be wrong. After meeting the suspect Gideon realises that while the pathetic little loser, who has done prison time for minor crimes, is involved with the case he's scarcely the mastermind. After looking at his former cellmate as a possibility - ruled out because the cellmate is slightly dead they turn their attention to a prison guard who took care of the first suspect while he was in prison. Although the guy eventually outsmarts Gideon and a female agent (who will be joining his team shortly if the IMDB listing for the show is to be taken seriously) by swapping cars with another guard, they eventually catch up with him thanks to some information from the first suspect's computer that Morgan and Reid are able to dig up combined with Hotch's skill in interrogating the suspect to make him believe that his partner had turned on him. Gideon and the female agent are able to stop the guard before he kills his victim.

There are a number of reasons to watch Criminal Minds. Before all of the other reasons is the presence of Mandy Patinkin. Patinkin always brings a special quality to characters that he plays and he is never better than when he is playing characters on the narrow place between sanity and mental breakdown, like Jason Gideon or Dr. Jeffrey Geiger from Chicago Hope. There are scenes where he sells the character's combination of brilliance and lack of confidence that he's ready to be back in the field with just a look. His co-star in this, Thomas Gibson (who was also in Chicago Hope although he is of course better known for the comedic role of the uptight husband on Dharma And Greg) is also strong underlining - if it was necessary - that he is primarily a dramatic actor. I'm also impressed with Matthew Gray Gubler's performance as Dr. Reid. He plays a nerdish type character without many of the affectations that most actors bring to such roles - stuttering or behavioural tics - so that the only thing that set him apart are his hair and his clothes. At one point you see him fiddling with a paper clip and figure that this is a nervous behaviour but instead he uses the unbent paper clip as a tool to open the CD-ROM drive on the suspect's computer to reveal a vital clue. It's a nice touch.

The whole thing wouldn't fly just on the quality of the actors alone of course. The writers have to produce the sense not only that the characters are likable but that what they are doing is how they would really work. In the series Profiler Sam Waters worked in a way that implied that her ability to analyse a killer was a "gift" on the same lines as the "gift" that Patricia Arquette's character has on Medium. There's no sense of that here. Gideon's ability is based on his ability to analyse the behavioural traits likely to produce a particular type of killer. While he puts himself into the mind of the killer it is done in a manner that has a scientific basis which he is able to explain.

There are some neat touches in the first episode script. We're introduced to most of the characters by seeing them in their time away from work - Hotch putting together a crib and talking about baby names with his wife (one of the names is Gideon), Morgan trying very hard to chat up several female trainee agents in a local bar - but Reid is only introduced to the audience when he brings a note to Gideon while Gideon is teaching. Gideon gains insight into the killers when he sees a note from one of the crimes which is a copy of a note that he received in the case that caused his breakdown - he knows the killer is taunting him. In a scene with Lola Glaudino's character, Agent Elle Greenway, Gideon asks her to give good reasons why they should stop the car which supposedly carries the prison guard murderer. For him there has to be a reason, particularly when he's working with someone he doesn't fully trust, who isn't part of his circle. Gideon's own psychological position becomes clear in the final confrontation with the killer, where he uses himself as bait to allow Greenway to shoot the guard. He reveal his complete understanding of exactly why the guard is committing these murders while taunting him, but the fact that he does it in the open offering the man a chance to shoot him, would seem to indicate that although he has mostly overcome his sense of guilt and his nervous breakdown enough to work in the field, he still isn't healed enough to care whether he lives or dies as long as he dies in the line of duty like the six agents who died in the earlier case.

Criminal Minds is an intriguing show which I hope will settle comfortably into its Wednesday time slot. While I don't expect it to topple Lost from first place in the ratings I do think that it is better than Jerry Bruckheimer's series E-Ring on NBC and it should beat Nanny 911 (replacing the "dearly departed" Head Cases) although it may have trouble with the American Idol results show come January. Still, I think that the series is sufficiently different to appeal to that part of the audience which isn't married to Lost and which hasn't found Veronica Mars.

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