Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Devolution of "Criminal Minds"

I know enough about the criminal justice system and all the affiliated governmental agencies to be pretty skeptical about anything that happens on prime-time crime dramas. Nonetheless, most of them do a darn good job of being entertaining - I just wish they didn't make me suspend my disbelief so often.

Take "Criminal Minds," which follows a group of FBI profilers out of Quantico who track serial killers. I've gotten hooked over the past month thanks to ION running through about ten episodes - nearly half a season - every week. It's currently in its fifth year on CBS, and started out as one of the better entries to the cop-show genre with good writing, good actors, and a better eye for accuracy and realism than most. Subsequent seasons have been wildly uneven in tone and quality, and now it's pretty much been dumbed down into another "CSI" clone. Sure it's still entertaining, but I do miss being able to watch a whole episode without spotting things that would never, ever happen in real life roughly every five minutes.

Some of the biggest recurring issues:

1) Wardrobe - One of the first things I notice about most crime dramas is that the law enforcement professionals aren't dressed right. The women have overdone makeup, inappropriate hairstyles, and low necklines. The men tend to come off better, but still have a tendency to push the dress code. The "Criminal Minds" pilot had most of the cast sporting the suits and ties and tasteful blouses we expect with G-men and G-women, and it all went downhill from there. Subsequently the only one still regularly seen in a suit is the team leader, Agent Hotchner (Thomas Gibson). Meanwhile Agent Morgan (Shemar Moore) has been in T-shirts and polo shirts for the better part of four seasons and the team techie, Garcia (Kirsten Vangness), has seen her outfits go from business casual with a few quirky accessories to looking like a younger version of Mimi from "The Drew Carey Show."
2) Getting Personal - It's natural that as we get to know the principals in the show, we'll see their personal lives intersect with the job. I don't mind this happening on occasion, like the cliffhanger season finales that traditionally feature go-for-broke dramatics. The trouble is that the writers have been relying on it far too heavily, turning most of the major characters into walking founts of angst. I don't think there's a single character left who hasn't been revealed to have a troubled or tragic childhood. Poor Agent Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) apparently doesn't have enough to deal with, being a socially awkward prodigy profiler who is the youngest member of the team. No, he has to have a schizophrenic mother, a father who abandoned them, job-related PTSD, a drug habit, and a peculiar ability to be taken hostage at the drop of a hat.
3) Celebrity Rehab - Luke Perry, Wil Wheaton, Frankie Muniz, and way too many other B-list celebrity guest stars have shown up in various episodes. It's one thing when you have good career character actors like Tony Todd dropping in for a cameo, but it's another thing entirely when you're cycling through former teen heartthrobs of the 90s of dubious talent and billboard appeal. By far the worst instance was a post-"Dawson's Creek" James Van der Beek playing a serial killer with dissociative identity disorder. The guy could hardly handle one personality, let alone three.
4) Tropery - One of the things I really loved about the first season of "Criminal Minds" was that every member of the ensemble was professional, intelligent, knowledgeable, and contributed equally to cases. The characters had different specialties, but the crucial deduction or ultimate insight could come from any of them. Since then the writing has suffered a significant drop in quality (alongside the cinematography, direction, and pretty much everything else). All the characters have now been neatly distilled into their most obvious personality quirks, with most of the greatly reduced exposition coming from Garcia or Agent Reid. The character who's suffered the most has been Agent Morgan, whose role has largely been reduced to kicking down doors and providing innuendo-laced banter.

I know that Mandy Patinkin's departure at the end of the second season was a major turning point in the show for the worse, but it also looks like budget cuts did away with most of the interesting visuals and research-intensive writing that characterized the earlier seasons. What depresses me is that this has actually helped the show, because the ratings for "Criminal Minds" have been steadily improving even as the quality has dipped.

I do find it refreshing to find a crime drama that is so shamelessly pandering to women. Thomas Gibson, Shemar Moore, and Michael Gray Gubler provide a great variety of masculine eye-candy. On the female side of the cast, Paget Brewster, AJ Cook, and Kirsten Vangness are certainly not unattractive women, but neither are they aggressively sexualized the way you see in so many similar shows.

All in all, there are enough redeeming elements that I keep watching "Criminal Minds." Despite all the issues I have with it, I have to admit that it's far better written than most of the other crime dramas and will occasionally do something really riveting. It's just a shame that the federal agent characters it portrays are somehow less realistic and believable than the ones found in far older and less ambitious shows - like "The X-files."

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