Criminal Minds and criminal mindedness

February 28, 2010 at 4:42 am (TV) (, , , )

While I was unemployed, and becoming more and more nocturnal, I discovered reruns on a couple of stations of the show Criminal Minds;  I remember when the show started, because Mandy Patinkin was one of the stars.  I don’t know why I never watched it, though; I love Mandy Patinkin.  (For the record, I adored him even before The Princess Bride.  Inigo Montoya only increased that exponentially.)  I stumbled on an episode one evening a couple of months ago, came to really enjoy Penelope Garcia and her relationship with Morgan, and never looked back.  It’s been odd watching it on two channels alternately; they both seem to jump around in the seasons, so that one hour will have Jason Gideon (played by Mandy) and the next will have Dave Rossi (played by Joe Mantegna); one will have Elle Greenaway and one will have Emily Prentiss.  I’ve had to piece together the stories, and I still haven’t had all the bits – I think there are more episodes which deal with Reid’s drug use and Hotch’s marital issues, but I haven’t seen them.

I have now seen Gideon’s last episode, and its aftermath, and went looking for the reason Mandy Patinkin left the show.  Which was, according to an interview, that he was burned out.  Of episode after episode – 16 hour days spent working on and with all the details of a realistic crime drama.  He developed a deep loathing for the premise of the show, its content, of the display of horrors for entertainment purposes. 

Well, that gave me pause.  There’s the eye opener that playing a federal agent in the FBI BAU can have, does have, has had some of the same drain/strain on the actor as actually being one of said agents.  Not to the same degree, naturally – on the one hand SSA’s are trained for it, and on the other the real job is so far beyond the performance it’s unthinkable.   And, of course, an actor can walk away from the job and go on to another.  As did Mr. Patinkin. 

More personally, there’s the reminder that looked at from that point of view Criminal Minds – and CSI, and Law and Order, and all the other shows which focus on crime and death and destruction, and medical dramas too for that matter, and legal dramas – capitalize on misery and horror and sadism for entertainment.  It’s something I’ve thought about – I haven’t been able to watch L&O for years in any of its permutations because of its tendency to use real tragedies as springboards for its stories.  I think that’s appalling and disgusting and should be illegal, and I refuse to be a witness to it.  And I had to stop reading Patricia Cornwell because of the depth of detail, blood and torture and death.  I read a couple, and they were well done, but I realized that every victim, every killer, every scene of violence was leaving a mark I wasn’t going to be able to get off.  I read plenty of “mysteries”; not so many procedurals, more character-driven stories … with the full realization that these character-driven books are hung on stories about people’s deaths.  I read these strange things called “cozy murder mysteries”, but I often suffer pangs of conscience, I guess you could say, about that genre appellation.  “Cozy”, for God’s sake.  “Enjoying or affording warmth and ease; marked by or providing contentment or comfort”.  Stories in which someone stumbles over a body, or, more usually, a string of bodies – called “cozy” … that isn’t right.

After reading what Mandy Patinkin said I did quite a bit of thinking.  Why am I watching this stuff?  Why am I newly addicted to this show, in which every episode features a new “unsub” who seems driven to outdo previous bad guys in his level of depravity?  I’m the one who stopped reading Cornwell because of the irremovable stains – what possible justification can I have for CM?

Part of it is that the Cornwells were, obviously, books.  The written word has a greater power, in some ways, than film; for one thing, the imagination has freer rein.   And the detail is far greater.  Patricia Cornwell can, and does, go into painstaking detail about wounds and deaths and how they were done, about the mindsets of the criminals and what insects were involved when, and it’s all a little overwhelming.  On tv, even a ten o’clock time slot, you just can’t show certain things.  There is apparently a formula as to how much blood and gore – and skin – can be shown on US television (and in the movies), and so the writers are forced to rely on verbal descriptions, unseen or half-seen photos, and actor reactions.  (In the episode in which the unsub was starting a pattern of robbing banks and making the customers he held hostage strip, they repeatedly said that the victims were naked – but they were shown in their underwear.)

Part of it is the science – the same reason CSI continues to hold fascination, even though I am aware that quite a bit of the science is tweaked for tv.  And I am aware that CSI is like House, a freak-of-the-week sort of show; it doesn’t represent the daily grind of most of what goes on in the lab … Still, I like to know things.  I like detection.  My secret (not so much now) desire has long been to be Sherlock Holmes.  I want to be able to look at someone and tell what they do for a living, hear them speak a sentence and Henry Higgins their life story.  That, and I just want to know everything.  Someday I will win on Jeopardy.  Or at least, you know, not fail the test as miserably as I did last month.  I, peculiarly, like knowing that strangulation causes petechial hemorrhaging.  (although the hangings and strangulations on tv bear little resemblance to reality, from what I’ve read: sanitized for your entertainment.)  I like knowing that a body found laid out with arms crossed on the breast shows remorse in the killer.  I like knowing the reasons for things, as well as the things themselves.

Yet another part of the equation is the cast.  I love these characters.  As I said, Garcia was the one I stayed tuned in for with that first episode, and one of the main reasons I keep on coming back.  I adore Penelope.  I want to be Penelope when I grow up.  From the streaks in her hair to the wicked cool shoes, from the romantic streak to the sense of humor to the sheer brilliance of her, to the way she answers her phone, I love her to pieces. 

Fabulous!

And I love her with Morgan.  Here she is, not a size 6, quirky, and while gorgeous not the usual girl you see on television; and here he is, the chocolate god, and they flirt madly.  She is unintimidated by his hunkiness, and he is unfazed by her quirkiness, and they really do love each other – not quite as brother & sister, but best friends in a really wonderful way.  In the episode “Lucky”, when the two of them had a falling out, it hurt.

The entire cast, and cast of characters, is pretty wonderful.  They’re rounded, they’re not cookie-cutter types, they have lives whether we get to see them or not – or they don’t, because their jobs are their lives.  The writing and the acting and just about everything else about the show is quality.

The biggest factor in the attraction CM holds, though, is the flip side of what Mandy Patinkin talked about.  It’s the same thing that gives Harry Dresden a lot of his power, for one.  Just about all fantasy, really: without the darkness there could be no light.  The deeper the darkness, the greater the brightness of those who fight it.  In any of these shows that are done well – the ones I watch, that is – the cops, the doctors, the agents … put it this way.  I’m a sucker for a knight on quest.

Well, on CSI they’re more like a ragtag band of mercenaries.  For them it’s almost a 9-5 (or 4-12 or whatever shift) job, although they are crimebusters.  It is a job.  There’s rarely any indication that they care a great deal about the cases they work; they want to beat the bad guys, but it feels more like a high school football game – root for the home team – than the fight of good against evil.

Criminal Minds … for the team of the BAU, this is their vocation.  The seven people featured at any given time in CM live and breathe the fight against evil.  They’re not perfect – Hotch is an absent father and kind of a jerk at times, Gideon is twice divorced, Morgan and Rossi play the field, etc.  But.  They all of them are driven to come into this department of huge pressures and massive stress and to take on the worst of the bad – to save lives.  Hotch tried to leave – for the sake of his marriage he tried very hard to extricate himself.  But he’s good at his job, and the knowledge that not being there with his team could be the deciding factor in whether someone lived or died was too much: he went back.  That seems to be a prevailing theme in the show: there are always far more cases than they can manage.  JJ always has a stack of files on her desk; she has to make the decisions as to which cases to present to the team, which deaths they will try to vindicate or which deaths they will try to prevent.  Every hour spent not doing the job is an hour in which someone could die.

The episode “The Fisher King” featured an unsub who cast the BAU in the roles of Arthur’s knights.  (Reid as Galahad was particularly apt.  And I can see Hotch as a careworn Arthur.)  That’s kind of what I’m going for.  These are the knights of the modern world, fighting the dragons of the modern world.  (Especially since in the 21st century actual dragons would be surrounded by animal rights activists, captured humanely, relocated to specifically designed zoos where their flames would be medically damped, and live out their long years glaring at the tourists flocking to take their pictures.)

So, yes, there is a high degree of horror in Criminal Minds.  But it’s the handling of it, and the depiction of the fighting of it, that makes it watchable.  Instead of the clinical depiction of the wreck of a human being as in Cornwell, the show uses the details of a crime as indicators of the perpetrator’s psyche.  Instead of the light-hearted approach of a “cozy” in which some civilian keeps tripping over bodies (and, seriously, if you knew someone like that would you really want to continue the relationship?), the show uses humor to relieve the grimness, as Gideon used his Chaplin films, and to demonstrate the close bonds shared by the team.  And it’s very well done indeed.

The difference between CSI and CM is like the difference between … oh, say, Drougie’s Pizza and Modern Apizza in New Haven.  Drougie’s, a local place, is okay; it has proximity going for it.  But the crust when we had it not long ago was tasteless, and the bacon on the bacon & onion was almost burnt.  It was just okay.  Modern, on the other hand, is pizza like pizza’s supposed to be, made by people who give a damn about what they do.  It’s one of the Big Three pizza places in New Haven (that I know about), along with Sally’s and Pepe’s, and the only one I’ve had recently, and it’s worth a drive and a wait.  (Aw, now I’m hungry.)  CSI is okay… it has all the basic elements, just like the Drougie’s pizza had the sauce, the cheese, and the crust… but it’s tasteless in some parts (in more ways than one) and overdone in others.  (Well, that simile turned out even deeper than I expected.)  What CSI lacks is the level of proficiency of Criminal Minds.  On CM, characters don’t turn to each other and explicate over an autopsy what petechial hemorrhaging is; the writers find another way of info-dumping without making their characters look like morons.

So – I understand why Mandy Patinkin had to leave.  But I don’t feel it necessary.  I find the show life-affirming rather than otherwise.

Even if it does make me certain I will never hike in my life.  Or jog.  Or walk the dog on the street.  Or put groceries in the car trunk in a less-than-busy parking lot.  Did I lock the door?

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