When Criminal Minds debuted in 2005, critics maligned CBS' umpteenth procedural crime drama for its tired premise and clichéd, scandalous storylines. The best thing Newsday, as an example, found to say was, "The whole project feels salaciously sleazy, unless you're enjoying the proceedings, in which case it's juicily depraved."
Viewers couldn't have disagreed more. Both then and now. The program quickly became and is still a Top 10 regular, tangling toe-to-toe with other CBS heavyweights such as CSI and NCIS.
Criminal Minds' vast domain may be part of the reason for that success. It presents us with an elite team of FBI profilers formally known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit. Attempting to anticipate a psycho-killer's next move, each member applies unique expertise ranging from psychoanalysis to an understanding of sex offenders. This lets plots head into different territory with every episode. One week a case gets cracked by using math, another might focus on forensic science, still another indulges straight-up criminal psychology. It's the Kellogg's variety pack of modern crime dramas.
The series doesn't completely ignore the private lives of its agents, but the spotlight's beam always lingers on the crimes themselves—or, more fairly, the criminals. And in delving so deeply into their minds, Criminal Minds creates more than just a few problems for itself.
Although investigators detest the pain inflicted by their suspects, audiences get hammered with a relentless stream of extremely dark, sometimes sadistic stories. Over the years we've seen a serial killer cage young women before raping and murdering them; a child abductor auctioning off a 6-year-old boy in an online pedophile ring; a bank robber forcing hostages to undress and simulate sex acts in front of everyone; a teenager on the verge of a mental breakdown fantasizing about hacking away at prostitutes while having sex with them; and a small-town elementary student hunting down his peers in a forest, then beating them to a pulp with a baseball bat.
CBS tries to lighten things up with a steady dose of gallows humor and the wacky antics of tech analyst Penelope Garcia. But juxtaposing wisecracks against the horror here can feel disrespectful, bordering on lewd. If Garcia's zany personality is a bid to make Criminal Minds less grotesque, it succeeds only if the viewer has reached a certain level of desensitization. Just as Garcia would've had to experience a lot of horrific stuff to joke through it all, so a viewer would have to watch a lot to laugh.
"The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do Criminal Minds in the first place," one-time show star Mandy Patinkin told New York magazine. "I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality."
It's affected others too. In 2011, a 10-year-old boy killed his father, inspired in part by Criminal Minds. He says he saw a child kill his abusive father on the show and decided to do the same.
"He told the truth and wasn't arrested and the cops believed him," the boy was quoted as saying in the Associated Press. "He wasn't in trouble or anything. I thought maybe the exact same thing would happen to me."
Thankfully, few people who watch Criminal Minds are or will be so inspired. But that fortitude doesn't mitigate the show's purely puerile appeal. So we must agree with Patinkin:
"I'm not making a judgment on the taste [of people who watch crime procedurals]. But I'm concerned about the effect it has. Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn't what you need to be dreaming about."
"The Good Earth"
A disturbed single mom is kidnapping men and keeping them chained up in a barn so she can eventually kill them, chop them up and use them as fertilizer. (She believes that she and her 10-year-old daughter have a disease that only healthy eating and the death of innocent men can cure.) We see the men chained and gagged, a feeding tube duct-taped to their faces. One man she kills and dumps, and the corpse is later discovered. Another she drags out into the field, raising her ax before the camera cuts away.
She buries her unconscious daughter neck-deep in the earth, cutting a man's arm and letting the blood drain over her little girl. She kidnaps a pregnant woman and slices her open to steal her placenta. (We see her with the knife and hear the woman's screams.) She consumes part of it and tries to get her daughter to eat the rest.
One victim throws up. (We hear the retching.) Agents find marijuana in one of the victims' cabins. The killer uses a bevy of natural sedatives.
"I Love You, Tommy Brown"
A former teacher, convicted of seducing a teenage student, is released from prison and searches for the baby she and the 16-year-old conceived together—killing many of the baby's foster parents along the way. Then, once she finds the baby, she and her teenage lover run away together.
She shoots several people, including a gay couple. She forces a lady to take off her dress. (We see the terrified woman in her slip.) And when the victim begins to recite the Lord's Prayer, her tormentor gets angry and shoots her several times. We see her lifeless body later, and we see other corpses or pictures of crime scenes, complete with blood and bullet wounds.
The teacher and teen kiss and run around a house half-naked. (He's shirtless, she's wearing lingerie under an open robe.) Another teen talks about knowing enough to have sex. And a couple of teens sneak out of the house, kiss and clutch in the grass. There's a joke about sending around a nude photo.