Thursday, April 30, 2020

Criminal Minds season 8

Criminal Minds debuted in the fall of 2005, as CBS was riding a wave of popular procedurals. The first of these, of course, had been CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which had premiered five years earlier to surprisingly little fanfare. It had been slotted behind a remake of The Fugitive, which CBS was pinning its hopes on — but The Fugitive never delivered on that promise, whereas CSI, week after week, built on its lead-in. So when CBS, after debuting the reality show Survivor to gargantuan ratings in the summer of 2000, decided to launch a second season the following February, they chose CSI, their most popular new series of the season, to follow it — and the pairing proved felicitous. Within a year, CSI had risen to become the #1 show on network television. Spin-offs and similar procedurals — that combined old-fashioned detective work with newfangled forensics — quickly followed: Without a Trace and CSI: Miami in 2002, Cold Case in 2003 and CSI: NY in 2004. And hot on their heels came Criminal Minds.

It was a hit from the start: an unexpected hit, given how awful most of the reviews were. They weren’t just negative; they were brutal. “It deserves to be banned by the FCC,” opined Matthew Gilbert in The Boston Globe. To David Bianculli in the New York Daily News, its premise of an elite group of FBI profilers who catch serial killers was “insultingly derivative ..... [It] has the aura — or is it odor? — of being patched together from scraps of failed CBS dramas of the past.“ And what came under fire most was the perceived misogyny at the heart of the series. In the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Melanie McFarland took umbrage at its very premise: “Criminal Minds doesn’t present any spin on the crime TV genre you haven‘t seen before, save for taking savagery against female victims to new heights.”

But no one was as appalled or as vocal as Robert Bianco in USA Today:

You can choose for yourself what’s most revolting about Criminal Minds ..... Perhaps it’s the signature scene: a caged woman, duct tape on her eyes, crying, screaming, struggling, as the killer clips her already bloody fingernails to stop her from scratching at her blindfold. Or perhaps it’s the plot itself, which plays like a how-to guide for sexual predators ..... Obviously, Criminal will find new crimes to explore in the future and equally gruesome ways to kill. But shows like this are designed to sell on their first assault — and lately, the victim is always a woman. [With each new TV crime series], the level of revolting, sadistic violence inflicted on women goes up, as each show seeks to capture our attention with the darkest, most disgusting crime yet. If it’s a contest, let’s declare Criminal Minds the sick winner and call the game off.

But Criminal Minds persevered, even overcoming the sort of early cast changes that can easily stall a show’s momentum: Lola Glaudini was written off in Season 2 (and replaced by Paget Brewster), while Mandy Patinkin staged a very public exit at the top of Season 3 when he simply didn’t show up for work, leaving the producers to frantically write him off the show and replace him with the (far more palatable) Joe Mantegna. The show continued along for another three seasons with strong ratings and its cast intact: in addition to Mantegna and Brewster, there was Thomas Gibson, Matthew Gray Gubler, Shemar Moore, A.J. Cook and Kirsten Vangsness — all under the sturdy supervision of showrunner Edward Bernero. The cases became more varied, and the cast gelled — and the substitution of Mantegna for Patinkin allowed a lot more humor to seep into the series than you would have imagined from those early episodes.

But still the notion persisted of Criminal Minds — of all the shows on television (and that included NBC’s often savage Law and Order: SVU) — as “notorious for its portrayals of violence against women” (Los Angeles Times). As it was a show about hunting down serial killers, most episodes devoted the first few acts to a succession of victims being tormented and murdered, to establish the pattern and give the members of the Behavioral Analysis Unit (the BAU) a chance to develop a profile of the “unsub” (in police terminology, a person of unknown identity who’s the subject of an investigation); the final two acts were then devoted to the unsub abducting one more victim, whom the BAU would typically save. And although there were certainly male victims over the first five seasons, the majority were female, which meant, through the course of a season, there were a whole lot of women being kidnapped and tortured. And yet fans (like myself) kept coming back: satisfied by the interplay between the characters, the quality of the acting, the emphatic pacing and the procedural aspect.

Then CBS made a big mistake. As Season 6 began filming, an announcement came that both A.J. Cook and Paget Brewster were being written off the show. It was presumed to be a cost-cutting move — then word came from the network that it most assuredly was not a cost-cutting move, that it was designed to help keep the series fresh: a cliche so tired, it only bolstered the belief that it was a cost-cutting move. (CBS’s denials came with the news that a new female profiler would be added, as she was; fans of course resented and rejected her.) So a show that has already been accused of misogyny writes off its only female agents, leaving as the sole remaining woman the quirky tech analyst Penelope Garcia, who has been used largely for comic relief. It was not, to put it mildly, good messaging; in Jezebel, a scathing piece by Irin Carmon carried a headline noting that, in both its fictional world and in real life, “Women Are Expendable on Criminal Minds.” Ultimately, the network admitted its mistake; Cook was welcomed back to the fold, and Brewster was basically strongarmed back when the network took advantage of a clause in her contract that forced her to do one more season. As Season 7 began, the fictional BAU team was reunited, but in the real world of Criminal Minds there was a change behind the scenes; Ed Bernero departed the series (he stayed on as a “consultant”), and Erica Messer, who had been on the writing staff since Season 1, was promoted to showrunner: the new, female showrunner of a series about “expendable women.”

Messer began by hiring a lot of excellent new writers for Season 7. Janine Sherman Barrois, one of the show’s strongest scripters, had come aboard in Season 6; Messer bolstered the distaff side of the writing team with the excellent Sharon Lee Watson, and promoted staff writer Kimberly Harrison to story editor. She brought in the splendid Virgil Williams and the reliable Bruce Zimmerman. Yet despite the infusion of fresh writing blood in Season 7, and a new emphasis on character beats and subplots — including a continuing story-line that helped humanize section chief Erin Strauss (the formidable Jayne Atkinson, recurring since Season 3), who had been far too one-note and adversarial in her early appearances — Season 7 feels very much like a new showrunner and writing staff proving that they can deliver “the same show” as their predecessors. It’s still distinguished by the same strengths, and still plagued by the same issues. Indeed, in The Washington Post, Diana Reese reported her response to the second episode of Season 7: “I accidentally stumbled across an episode of Criminal Minds in which a woman was tied to a chair. Her eyes were taped open. A man was about to pour acid into her eyes. I don’t know what happened next because I switched channels. It was too much to watch. Too much to even think about.” And this was an episode, notably, written by a woman.

Paget Brewster fulfilled the one remaining season on her contract, then she was eager to leave. Messer wrote her out in the Season 7 finale. In a series of interviews, Messer (no doubt aware of how quickly fans turned on newcomer Rachel Nichols in Season 6) stated that she had no intention of replacing Brewster — then what felt like ten minutes later, CBS announced that Big Love star Jeanne Tripplehorn would be joining the cast for Season 8, replacing Brewster. CBS was calling the shots, and Messer dutifully complied. But she did something more. She set about transforming the series. She’d shown in Season 7 that she could run things without Bernero by her side; now she began to remold the series into, one has to imagine, something more to her liking — or at the very least, to fashion a season that would lay to rest once and for all the charges of rampant and gratuitous misogyny that had plagued the series since its debut seven years earlier. And that mission — and the ensuing accomplishment — is what makes Season 8 of Criminal Minds so fascinating.

In earlier seasons, Bernero had defended the profusion of female victims by pointing to a simple truth: most crimes in this country — serial crimes in particular — are perpetrated against women. Statistics bore out the story-telling. One gets the sense in Season 8 that Messer, newly unleashed, doesn’t give a fig for statistics. She's had her fill of female victims. And as a result of Messer's new directive, there are strong female characters all over the screen in Season 8, starting — rather amusingly — with a host of female unsubs. And it’s not a subtle shift in approach: it’s one that Messer makes a point of calling attention to.

In the season’s second episode, Barrois’s “The Pact,” the BAU keeps presuming the unsubs are men — simply, we’re left to imagine, because that’s the presumption they’ve been making for seven years. And it’s only when the emerging details force them to reexamine their thinking that they realize — to their surprise — that they’re looking at a pair of female killers. (It’s a scenario that plays out several times during the season: the expectation that the perpetrators will be men, only for the profile to be upended.) And the addition of female unsubs ties neatly into Messer’s decision, the previous season, to devote more time to the personal lives of the profilers; here she starts to focus more on the background and motives of the killers. Because the truth is, you can create a male serial killer and, with so many examples in U.S. history to draw upon, you don’t have to do much to make him convincing: you give him — as Criminal Minds always did — a stressor (what made him turn bad) and a trigger (what prompted him to initiate his crime spree), and you’re halfway there. But with female serial killers, there’s no easy template to fall back on, so the writers have to work harder to explain how they “got that way” — to dig deeper into their backstories.

In “The Pact,” we learn that the two women (vividly played by Mackenzie Phillips and Kim Wayans) are getting revenge on two men who caused them pain years earlier. (It’s a classic Strangers on a Train maneuver, in which each woman goes after the other’s tormentor.) And because the women’s trauma is so laid bare, and because the men are in fact guilty of committing crimes, our sympathies — quite unusually — go to the unsubs. Yes, they take things too far, and their emotions and actions spiral out of control, but all along, the pain they endured in the past and the bond that sustains them in the present make them genuinely appealing. Near the end, they escape to a beach in Mexico, where Rossi (Joe Mantegna) manages to track them down. He tracks them down at the exact moment when Wayans’ character has gotten up to get refreshments; he only spots Phillips, who insists that she and her friend went their separate ways and she hasn’t seen her in days. As Phillips is led into custody, we see — from her point of view — Wayans boarding a bus for points south. Phillips flashes a broad smile — gratified and proud and hopeful — and we’re meant to root for Wayans to escape. And we do. The female unsub gets away, and we cheer her on. Now that’s female empowerment: a sort the show had never before seen, and it sets the tone for Season 8. And one only has to compare it to the second episode of Season 7 — also written by Barrois — in which women are blinded with arsenic, to see how the show is clearly and effectively reinventing itself.

The Season 8 scripts are unusually nimble; they’re not uniformly strong, but they multitask very well. And they multitask with an impressive singularity of purpose: to repopulate the show with empowered women, without upending the very qualities that had made tens of millions of viewers tune in, week after week. Typically, when I look at seasons of shows I quite like, I work my way through them — if not episode by episode, then at least block by block. That approach won't work here; between the season's weekly mysteries and its two (splendid) long-term story arcs, I'd be spoiling far too many surprises. Fortunately, the first five episodes — in and of themselves — showcase all the tonal and textual elements in play. Episode 4, “The God Complex,” is a intense episode written by Breen Frazier, who — aside from Messer — had been with the show the longest; he was an excellent writer, steeped in the style and mythology of the series. It’s a brutal crime involving limb amputation and transplantation (with an especially fine performance by Ray Wise, as the unsub — Season 8 does very well by its guest stars). The unsub’s early victims are men, but when it’s time to devote the bulk of the episode to one victim, it’s a woman — and even as you’re watching, you’re forgiven for thinking that this is one of the unfortunate hallmarks of the series: that the victim the episode ultimately chooses to focus on will be a women, and that her fear will be used as a form of titillation. Male victims are disposed of quickly; female victims are forced to lie there and suffer. Except in this case, the woman literally doesn’t taking things lying down. She manages to break free and — grabbing a scalpel off a nearby table — announces, as she awaits the unsub’s return, “I’m ready for you, you son of a bitch.”

In Criminal Minds Season 8, the female victims are rarely reduced to damsels in distress. They’re prepared to fight: for their lives and for their dignity. Throughout, you see the writers resisting the urge to succumb to old story-telling habits. A late-season highlight, “Nanny Dearest,” is about a male serial killer who annually abducts nannies and their charges, then returns the child while torturing the nanny. That’s the premise: now how do you shake it up? The device that writer Virgil Williams utilizes refocuses the episode, beautifully. As he scripts it, one nanny of the last five managed to escape, and the episode centers around the profilers encouraging her to (finally) talk about her ordeal: to recall the details she’s blocked, to help them catch the killer. By shining a spotlight on a former victim enlightening the profilers and, more importantly, empowering herself, Williams can focus less on the brutalization of the current victim. Near the end, once the killer has been apprehended, the final, powerful image is of the mother of the recently abducted child seeking out this nanny and thanking her; the two hug, in a moment of shared sisterhood and solidarity that evokes the end of “The Pact.“ (To his credit, Williams rethinks many of the tropes that Criminal Minds had grown dependent upon. Garcia had become a too-handy device for exposition, rattling off the killer’s backstory with a few clicks of her keyboard. Here, Williams reveals the killer’s story in flashbacks stemming from his own tormented psyche, and director Doug Aarniokowski allows the present to bleed into the past and back again with eerie elasticity. Season 8 works hard to freshen familiar tropes.)

But let’s get back to “The God Complex,” because it’s worth looking at all the ways Frazier eases the show away from its misogynistic roots. In a subplot, we learn that Gubler’s character, Spencer Reid, has recently gotten himself a girlfriend, one he’s only spoken with by phone — and one he's keeping secret from his colleagues. Her name is Maeve, and who she is and why she’s so insistent that they only speak by phone is a mystery that will be resolved through the first half of the season. (She ultimately becomes such an important character that she’ll haunt the series till its final episode.) But critically, even in her initial appearance, she proves crucial to solving the crime at hand. Her work as a geneticist gives Reid insights he wouldn’t otherwise have, and helps break the case. No women are mere window-dressing in Season 8; if Maeve is going to exist as a mystery, she’d better be a useful one. And admirable in her own right, as Dr. Maeve Donovan is here.

And “God Complex” also uses its Reid subplot to devote more time to characterizing Jeanne Tripplehorn’s new character, Alex Blake. Messer had introduced her in the season opener, "The Silencer," and made it clear she’ll bring singular talents and temperament to the team; in addition to working with the BAU, she moonlights as a professor of forensic linguistics at Georgetown: a specialty that comes in handy in breaking a few cases. (Messer cagily uses Garcia, a fan favorite, as the one most resistant to Blake joining the team — letting her play the audience surrogate — so that when she comes around by episode's end, we do too.) "The God Complex" furthers her evolution by reinforcing a growing bond between her and Reid; she not only is the first to realize that something is up with him, but she realizes it because of the way he’s covering each time he darts off to call Maeve — her linguistic skills allow her to deduce that he’s lying. We've already seen how valuable Blake can be in the field; now we discover how impressive she can be in her off time. Making her a confidante for Reid both eases her into the texture of the show and further elevates her in the eyes of the audience. And acclimating viewers to a new character doesn't sound like a tough challenge to meet, but the last time the show tried to replace a female lead, back in Season 6, the approach was so heavy-handed that the backlash was severe, and the actress was sacked after a dozen episodes. The introduction of Alex Blake in Season 8 is clearly a reaction to that, but it's a smart, thoughtful and mostly satisfying reaction.

Near the end of "God Complex," we learn that the actions of Ray Wise’s character stem from a twisted and misguided effort to help his wife, who was born with her right leg missing at the knee. He's determined to fit her with a new leg, even if it's someone else's leg; his horrifying crimes stem from love. The humanization of the unsubs is critical to the approach — and to the success — of Season 8. Because the female unsubs need to be carefully crafted and their actions justified, the male killers are forced to have stronger — and frequently, more sympathetic — motivations too. And although there are still plenty of irredeemable male killers in Season 8 — because to make every unsub sympathetic would be preposterous — they’re balanced by men whose delusions are so vivid, their backstories so sad, or their obsessions so misguided that you can’t help but be drawn into their stories: Brad Dourif in “The Lesson,” Patrick John Flueger in “Broken,” and Scott Grimes in “Carbon Copy,” to name three sensational episodes that manage to humanize their killers despite the heinous acts they commit. The show never ignores or underplays their psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies, but it does more than follow a narrative. It tells a story. There’s a humanistic approach at the heart of Messer’s seasons, and although the show — from the beginning — was about getting inside the heads of serial killers, Season 8 starts to do so in a much less angry, less confrontational way. You feel — for lack of a better term, and with apologies for the whiff of chauvinism in the phrasing — a woman’s touch.

(As an aside, perhaps the greatest character study of the season is in Messer’s own “All That Remains,” with Ken Olin as a blackout drunk whose wife and a children have gone missing — and who has no idea if he’s responsible. It’s a tour-de-force for Olin, and it neatly upends the format of the show by abandoning the typical whodunnit that consumes the first half of every episode in favor of honing in on one man’s actions, motives and makeup — with all the twists and turns flowing from character rather than plot. And that said, a sign of how the show is still finding its footing is that Messer doesn’t quite trust the simplicity of the premise, and ends up giving Olin’s character a dissociative identity disorder, one in keeping with the bizarre psychological afflictions that the show had been feeding on since episode 1. And that said, a sign of how the show is getting other things very right is that the episode — ostensibly about Olin’s character — ultimately boils down to a battle of wits between two smart women.)

Episode 5, Bruce Zimmerman’s “The Good Earth," shows both the aspirations and the challenges of the new house style. It also demonstrates its usefulness as a story-telling device. It starts with a woman seemingly fleeing from someone: darting through the woods, glancing behind her — a typical Criminal Minds victim. Instead, it turns out it’s a personal trainer on a jog, waiting for her male client to catch up with her. The CBS procedurals had been doing that sort of fake-out for a decade — typically a cold open with someone alone in an alley, presumably about to be preyed upon, who then stumbles on a dead body — but this sort of misdirect is specific to Criminal Minds, not merely acknowledging but exploiting its viewers’ expectations. “You’re preconditioned to expect the first female you see to be attacked and brutalized,” it reminds us: “Well, that’s how we used to do things.” Instead, Zimmerman flips the script: when the client drives away from his training session, he’s the one who’s abducted.

And meanwhile, the strong women keep on coming. When the BAU arrives in town, it’s a female sheriff who greets them. It wasn’t uncommon, in the series’ early years, for the BAU to wander into a town and there be hardly a professional woman in sight; now they’re frequently collaborating with females in local law enforcement — sheriffs and medical examiners and police chiefs — and these women, like Rebecca Wisocky’s sheriff in “The Good Earth” (or Suzanne Krull’s ME in “The Lesson” or Claudia Christian’s FBI agent in “Alchemy”) are more often than not carefully and sometimes memorably drawn. And again in this episode, it’s a female unsub, and the writers are careful not to repeat themselves. In “The Pact,” we knew the unsubs’ sex ahead of the profilers. Here we’re one step behind them. And once they revise their profile, everything about the episode that’s been a turn-off — because we’ve been watching men bound and gagged, with tubes stuffed up their noses — becomes absorbing, precisely because it’s a woman doing it. It’s a double standard that’s tough to admit to, but difficult to ignore; whereas men torturing women is heinous, a sole woman overcoming a trio of men and managing to hold them hostage — even if it means subduing them in a grotesque fashion — holds a certain fascination: “How did she manage it? It’s rather impressive.”

But “The Good Earth” also reveals the pitfalls of the new house style, because in its effort to humanize the female unsub, Zimmerman ultimately over-delivers: flailing in too many directions to make her both casualty and perpetrator. And what could have been a simpler, more effective story-line gets unnecessarily fussy. (A late-season offering, Watson’s “Alchemy,” suffers in much the same way.) The show will need to learn (as it does, over time) that imbuing the series with a more feminist slant means it’s OK to let some of its female unsubs — like many of its male unsubs — be unrelentingly evil. Those kinds of growing pains are to be expected when a show is doing this kind of overhaul, and they’re easily forgiven. Besides, the episode is ultimately enlivened and rescued by the ending, when not only does Blake save the day with a clever bluff, but the actress saves the day with a wonderfully wry delivery.

Which seems like a good time to talk about Jeanne Tripplehorn, because her talent is formidable and her impact on the series — at this point in its long run — is inescapable. Most of the profilers on Criminal Minds were identifiable types, right from the pilot episode. There was brainy Spencer and gentle J.J., stolid Hotchner and smoldering Morgan. And that trend continued as new characters were introduced. It was clear what Joe Mantegna would bring to the series before his first episode even aired; he might as well have still been playing the father on Joan of Arcadia, transplanted to D.C. In later years, replacements Jennifer Love Hewitt and Aisha Tyler could pretty much have been lifted off Ghost Whisperer, with minor adjustments — and was Adam Rodriguez really playing a different character than he’d played on CSI: Miami? These are actors who, when necessary, reduce easily to type.

But Tripplehorn is different. She’s a chameleon who needs a character to inhabit — and the writers, for much of Season 8, don’t give her one. And it’s not so much that they don’t know what she can do; they don’t seem to know what she can’t do. Across the board, every other principal on Criminal Minds is cast to fulfill a function, then their roles are expanded and shaded as the series goes along. Tripplehorn works in reverse: she takes all the seemingly contradictory attributes the writers are handing her — affability in one scene, an edgy brusqueness in another; later, maybe a quiet intensity, or a wicked wit — and creates her own internal consistency: locating the core of the character and letting those traits stem from it. You never know, as you watch Season 8, which side of Alex Blake you’re going to get from episode to episode, or even from scene to scene — but nothing Tripplehorn does ever feels inconsistent. Instead, you have the exhilaration of watching the rare character in a procedural who seems vibrantly alive; you have the joy of the unexpected, expertly and sometimes dazzlingly delivered. And in a season that’s devoted to prizing and lifting up women, that’s an awfully valuable commodity.

Even in those static scenes that are the bane of every Criminal Minds episode, when the core characters line up in front of law enforcement to “give the profile," Tripplehorn remains dynamic: eyeing her fellow agents as they speak, seemingly absorbing information and processing it. (As a sidenote, just as “Nanny Dearest” rethinks a couple of overworked devices, Rick Dunkle and Danny Ramm’s moving “The Fallen” momentarily fixes the “give the profile” trope, as the BAU addresses two audiences simultaneously: the police looking to apprehend the killer and the homeless people along the LA Boardwalk who’ve become his targets — and Aarniokowski’s camera cuts between them. Again, Season 8 dismisses and devours a lot of sacred cows.) Tripplehorn’s rapport with Gubler showcases her ability to be warm and maternal yet cool and analytical — and even a little fierce. (Call it a no-nonsense empathy.) She works especially well, too, with Mantegna; although she’s only five years older than Brewster, her gravitas means that Rossi treats Blake like a peer rather than a protege. When they’re paired on a case, they come off like two old pros respectful of each other’s experiences and expertise — and there’s a memorable moment in “#6” when they break a case and (in what’s become a popular GIF) celebrate with a fist bump. In fact, pretty much anytime Blake makes a discovery — whether character-based (deducing, in “All That Remains,” that JJ’s sister died when she was young) or case-driven (realizing, in “Magnum Opus,” why the victims are posed the way they are) — the screen comes alive, in a way it simply doesn’t with anyone else.

That’s not to say the other leads aren’t good; on the contrary, they’re superb. Season 8 finds them very much at the peak of their powers: the events of the previous few years — the ill-advised cast shake-up of Season 6, the reuniting of the ensemble in Season 7, and the addition of Tripplehorn in Season 8 — have kept them on their toes. There’s none of the malaise that often sets in with actors around this time, in Season 7 or 8 or 9, as performances start to lose meaning and merit. And indeed, the season manages to give them all at least one effective showcase that links the case at hand to some aspect of their ongoing story-line — Mantegna in “The Fallen,” Moore in “Restoration,” Gubler in “Zugzwang,” Gibson in “Brothers Hotchner,” Cook in “Nanny Dearest,” Vangsness in “The Gathering” — and they make the most of it. But Tripplehorn brings qualities and an approach that balance and complement the rest of the ensemble, and she’s extraordinarily valuable — and somewhat underused. But when she is used, she’s sensational, and so is the series — and when she finally gets an episode that focuses on her personal life and puts her at the forefront of solving a case (Frazier’s late-season “#6,” a marvel), the show is unbeatable.

Around the time that Tripplehorn joined the cast, Mandy Patinkin decided to speak publicly about his exit from Criminal Minds: “It was destroying my heart and soul,” he informed the press: “I’m very disturbed this is what people go home to, [a series that would] kill and rape all these women, every night, every day, week after week, year after year. They watch horrible, misogynistic, violent activity.” Of course, this was Patinkin doing damage control, as he’d just returned to the small screen in Homeland and needed all the good will he could get. And although it seemed obvious at the time how he was manipulating the press, standing up for victims while playing the victim himself (to be clear, he didn’t sit down with the producers in Season 3 to hash out his concerns; he simply didn’t show up for work, leaving cast and crew hanging), the critics lapped it up anyway. And when Tripplehorn, around that time, had to do the usual rounds of interviews in advance of her first appearance on Criminal Minds, she was left having to respond to Patinkin’s remarks. And happily, and impressively, she didn’t hold back: “I don’t know the relationship he had with the producers and network, and I think there’s a lot more going on [with Patinkin] that’s none of my business. It’s not the same show that he was on. And I think it’s really funny that people are giving [his remarks] any kind of attention. The show has moved on.” As indeed it had.

Tripplehorn preferred to focus on something else: the fact that half the people working behind the scenes on the show now were women, and that, as a result, there was an abundance of “female energy on the set.” This is from an interview from 2012, one I didn’t get around to reading until earlier this month, as I was researching this essay. But in 2012, that female energy fairly burst off the screen, and the careful and crafty refocusing of the show was there for everyone to see and marvel at. The series felt renewed and reinvigorated — while losing nothing of what had made it so appealing. (My husband and I, when Season 8 originally aired, would sit there during the cold opens and try to guess if the episode was written by a man or a woman. And most of the time we guessed right. The “female energy” was evident — and infectious.)

Although Season 8 is a fascinating season, it's by no means a flawless one. Of its 24 episodes, there are a handful of lesser entries — all of them, notably, in the first half of the season. And that's unsurprising: when you’re overhauling a long-running show — in particular doing something as delicate as overhauling a sensibility — the occasional missteps and backslides are to be expected. And thus it’s forgivable that in “The Apprentice,” an intriguing character study charting the bond between a novice and a veteran killer, the script falls back on the tired and tacky device of their victims being street prostitutes. Similarly, you’re willing to look the other way when “The Wheels on the Bus,” a taut locked-room mystery, wraps up with the sort of macho display that early seasons thrived on, as the four male agents ride in like the cavalry to save the day. Throughout, you’re so aware of — and impressed by — the aspirations and achievements of the new house style, you’re more than willing to overlook the occasional stumbles. And by the season’s midway mark, it’s clear that the writers have found their footing, and from there, it’s pretty much one triumph after another; the second half of Season 8 boasts as accomplished a set of episodes as anything in the show’s long run.

At the top, I noted all the hit procedurals CBS was airing when Criminal Minds debuted: in sheer number of episodes, Criminal Minds outlasted all of them except the original CSI, and it came within a dozen episodes of overtaking it. Hit shows often become long-running series because they’re adaptable; they’re able to reinvent themselves when a fresh approach is called for. (The show I catalog most at this site, the nighttime soap Knots Landing, was a master at this: softly rebooting itself no less than three times.) Rewatching Criminal Minds, it’s clear that the changes Messer implements in Season 8 give it a new lease on life: they allow it to continue and even to flourish when the sort of chauvinism and female victimization that were hallmarks of earlier seasons became not merely troubling, but blinding. And mind you, Messer in 2012 wasn’t seeing evidence of a cultural shift (the #MeToo movement wouldn't gain traction for another five years); she was anticipating it, by holding true to her own convictions. Her retooling comes midway through the series’ run; without her bold new approach, it’s doubtful the show would have lasted another eight seasons. Season 8 is a primer on how a new showrunner can trust their instincts, and in doing so, keep a long-running show fresh and relevant. Even if procedurals aren’t your thing, it’s worth a watch.

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Do you enjoy in-depth looks at hit shows? Check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries. Or if you're looking for something a bit more current, I have a new piece called "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by women and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. And if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show Episodes and 10 Best Designing Women Episodes; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.


  1. You're a dangerous writer, Krasker. You take a show I've literally only heard the title of before, and by the end of a single article, I'm trawling Amazon and eBay to see how much Season 8 costs. I have resisted temptation...for the moment.

    1. You are very kind. This is an essay I'd obviously been thinking about for a number of years (pretty much since I watched the season originally), so I'm delighted my arguments seemed persuasive. I confess, I was glad, when I decided to write about this season, to discover it was on Netflix; with the last few essays I wrote, I had had to purchase DVD's, and sometimes, whole DVD sets! I don't think you have Netflix, though, do you? Because (like me) you are a devout feminist, in your viewing and in your writing, I would certainly be interested to see what you made of the season -- although you'd have to watch a few *previous* seasons to see what's different. I'd also be curious to see if you found Tripplehorn as fascinating an actress as Philip and I do -- and as Bob does (below).

  2. My wife and I are making our way through Criminal Minds on the Netflix. She loves procedurals, and I am...not really a fan. But of all the shows we've watched, Criminal Minds was always the brutalest and the one I found hardest to watch.

    In a remarkable bit of coincidence, we just finished off Season Nine, so this essay was fortuitously timed. And I agree with you -- this season had a different feel. Oh, it was still brutal and ugly. But at least they scaled back on the brutality.

    And it was good that Messer focused on the characters' relationships. One of the reasons I don't care for these shows is that usually the characters aren't really people -- they're just filling a "type" that the audience expects to see in these sorts of programs. But Messer's shift made me feel like the BAU group were more than a "type."

    And I do have to say you are spot-on about Tripplehorn. She was the one actor I always watched on the screen. I will miss her on the show.

    One more thing, off the topic of Season Eight -- if you enjoyed Paget Brewster, track down her performance as Sadie Doyle on the comedy podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour. She's absolutely brilliant.

    1. In this age of social media, there are very few showbiz secrets left: in particular, if an actor mysteriously leaves a long-running series, you can usually find some site that tells you why. At least one person will spill the beans, somewhere. But I swear, the best-kept secret in show business is why Jeanne Tripplehorn left 'Criminal Minds.' I could not find a definitive answer, and even superfans doing those blog entries like "10 Things You Didn't Know About Criminal Minds" were loathe to admit that they had no idea why she left either. I don't know if she wanted off the show, or if CBS wanted to replace her with someone younger (which is what ultimately happened), to shore up the younger audience. I suspect the latter, and in fact, I *suspected* the latter in 2014, and it was enough to get me to stop watching the show for a couple of years. I was pissed -- in particular because I felt (as I'm delighted to see that you felt too) that Tripplehorn was a remarkable addition to the cast: the rare procedural actor whose work transcends the genre. Just as you said, Bob, when I watch Seasons 8 and 9, I can't take my eyes off her. It's funny: as I was remarking to a friend the other day, because I'm so writer-focused when I do these essays, I often barely mention the casts at all. I mean, I just did a whole 'Maude' essay and only mentioned Bea Arthur, I think, twice! I rarely do an essay like this and devote several paragraphs to a performer -- but I think Tripplehorn is a lot of what makes Seasons 8 and 9 special, and certainly her addition to the cast at precisely the moment that Messer starts to fill the screen with so many strong, impressive women is fortuitous.

      I do like Brewster, but candidly, I prefer her doing comedy, so I will definitely check out 'The Thrilling Adventure Hour.' Thanks for the tip!

  3. Aww, somebody beat me to using the word 'fortuitous." Four days later, Criminal Minds series 8 picks up on Ion TV, the weekly Monday and Tuesday CM-a-Thon. And yes, Tommy everything you pay to watch is still free on broadcast, ha ha. Binge-watching this series is kind of too intense some times, so I just watched "The Pact" and will comment on that. When you wrote that the guest stars were Mackenzie Phillips and Kim Wayans I sorta though, 'huh?' - but as is obvious from this episode, previously comedic actors have no problem with the most skillfully dramatic characterizations. I didn't even recognize them at first. Watching through the behavioral analysis at midpoint in the episode, I was thinking, gosh, they're talking way too fast, I can't keep up. Then, the female unsubs reveal done pretty much completely at that point, it set up the totally plot- and character-based second half. How often on police or detective shows do we have to wait til the end for the big reveal. And yes, of course, we feel for them. And yes, we're hoping for at least and at last a sorta Thelma and Louise moment, which we did get. So I certainly concur it's a welcome reboot. I'm still conflicted though, about the continued use of the catch-phrase 'baby girl' - am I wrong to find it possibly offensive? Still, if the women running the show were okay with it, who am I to judge.

    1. So cool that ION TV is currently airing Season 8 -- kind of fortuitous. (Is there an echo in here?) I agree, it's a tough series to binge, but I'm glad you got to see "The Pact," and that you shared my feelings about it. In 2012, Philip and I definitely felt a shift in the content and nature of the story-telling, one that -- as I outline here -- we saw more and more of as the season progressed. (You're right: there's a definite 'Thelma and Louise' feel to that episode -- I'm surprised I had never picked up on it.) As I note, there are some weaker episodes in the first half of the season, but I think throughout you'll see evidence of the story-telling shift I discuss here. Definitely don't miss "God Complex," episode 4. And "The Lesson," episode 10, which is creepy and awful and amazing all at the same time.

      As I recall, "Baby girl" is something that Shemar Moore adlibbed early on: I suspect because in the early episodes, there wasn't much characterization of some of the core characters, and not a lot of character-specific interactions. So he came up with that, and Kirsten Vangsness responded, and in fact, started coming up with a lot of her own lines herself. (She was, after all, a writer.) So I guess it could be considered offensive, but it's something the actors devised as character building. There's such a big change in how Garcia is viewed as the series goes along, and again, you'll see it in Season 8. In Season 3's "Penelope," as I remember, she's dating this really good-looking guy, and makes a remark about how guys like him never go for someone like her. Now THAT I found offensive! In Season 8, they give her a subplot about how she once dated -- and perhaps starts dating again -- this good-looking guy, and they don't feel a need to remark on the "improbability" of the pairing. They don't treat her like the "comic relief" or an unlikely romantic partner. They recognize that she's a prize, period.

  4. Hi! I just wanted to say that I think you're an amazing writer, and although I don't agree with all of your observations, I realize that many do. Apologies for my late reply, as your husband posted this to my CM facebook page in MAY and for some reason I am just seeing it now. I wish all Criminal Minds bloggers put as much depth, honesty, and research into their pieces as you've done here. Thank you for devoting so many inches, and so much head space, to a show that is, and always will be, a favorite of mine.

    1. Tari, I can’t thank you enough for your kind comments. And believe me, I’m always delighted when folks express a differing opinion. Sometimes I feel that these essays run so long, and that in my quest to be clear and persuasive, I get so overbearing that folks are sort of afraid to write, “You’re totally wrong.” :) And I so appreciate your kind words about the work I put into my essays. I swore, when I started this blog, that I wouldn’t take on any subject I didn’t feel passionately about. Criminal Minds Season 8 fascinated me then, and it fascinates me now. This essay was really the culmination of a decade of thoughts and ideas that had been buzzing around in my head.