The Second Season
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All photos © CBS
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
BS has, in recent years, been incredibly successful with its crime shows, so unless that’s your kind of thing, it’d be easy to write off “Criminal Minds” as just another one of the pack. Crime procedurals aren’t my bag by a mile, and yet there’s something about “Criminal Minds” that fascinates. It centers on the Behavioral Analysis Unit (the “BAU”) of the FBI, and each week it’s their job to get inside the heads of unsavory criminal types and stop them before they strike again…which often doesn’t happen, as many a death occurs on their watch before apprehending or taking out the “unsub.” The easiest way to describe it is as the TV series version of “Silence of the Lambs,” and it’s almost as grisly.
Watching this 23-episode box set is a worthwhile endeavor, but be warned: it may result in serious depression and overall despair where humanity’s concerned. (Don’t watch it in four days like I did.) “Criminal Minds” is a really dark show, and it’s a good thing it resides on network television; if it were on cable, it would be too much to take every week, as no doubt the ugliness would be amplified tenfold. It’s good where it is, because the producers and writers are forced to be a little creative with the presentation. Season Two ups the stakes and drama by frequently focusing on the personal lives and issues of the BAU and how these people’s personalities both clash and dovetail with their work. Are they closer to the nutjobs they’re dedicated to tracking down than they’re comfortable admitting? This seems to be the underlying theme of the season.
Mandy Patinkin is the BAU’s ace in the hole profiler, Jason Gideon, a complicated man who loves art, cooking and chess, even as he almost imperceptibly teeters on the edge of his work. He’s so good at what he does, one wonders about the darkness inside the man. Thomas Gibson plays Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner, the guy in charge of the unit. Hotch is the straight man, and Gibson may have the toughest job on the show, but you wouldn’t guess it by watching his performance. My adoration for Gibson’s talents goes way back, and I continue to admire his work here because playing the humorless boss isn’t an easy task, yet one never gets the impression that Gibson is anything but totally at ease allowing his co-stars to have the most colorful storylines. (At the time of writing, Patinkin/Gideon has left “Criminal Minds” and Joe Mantegna will be showing up shortly to take his place. Hopefully, Gibson will be given more meat in Season Three; not only can he handle it, but he deserves it.)
The box set opens with “The Fisher King, Part 2,” the conclusion to the first season’s cliffhanger involving yet another vicious whack job who knows just a little too much about each member of the BAU. In Part 1, Agent Elle Greenaway (Lola Glaudini, “The Sopranos”) was shot and looked to be dead; here, it’s revealed that she’s actually just on the brink, and parts of the episode take place in a between-life-and-death netherworld. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that Greenaway is not long for the BAU world, but her story is not as simple as living or dying; Elle’s arc is the first that shows Season Two is going for a different kind of procedure. The other three episodes that round out Disc 1 are an accurate cross-section of exactly how disturbing this show can be: a child is put up for sale via a 24-hour Internet auction, a pair of sadistic killers torture, rape and kill women and then send video recordings of the sessions to the victim’s families, and, finally, a robber holds banks hostage and forces strangers to undress and have sex with each other for his gratification. Yeah, “Criminal Minds” is disconcerting, to put it mildly. Hopefully, the actors and behind the camera talent find distractions between takes to forget about the darkness they collectively weave each week. (I’m convinced Patinkin’s abrupt exit had to do with playing such unsettling material every day.)
It would be a disservice to the show to say the rest of the season consists of variations on the same theme. Yes, in some ways it is, yet the writers do a bang-up job of keeping the surprises coming, and each episode leaves the viewer wondering, “How many different kinds of psychos do we have in our world?” It’s a credit to the show that it rarely repeats itself. “The Last Word” (2.9) has two serial killers operating in the same geographic area (and trying to outdo one another). “Empty Planet” (2.8) features a guy whose M.O. is inspired by a science fiction novel. “Lessons Learned” (2.10) boldly – and responsibly -- tackles Islamic terrorism. “North Mammon” (2.7), a season standout, has three teenage girls abducted and placed into a cellar; they are told, “Two of you can leave when one of you is dead,” with the idea being that they must decide not only which one will die but which two are capable of killing. It’s a horrific concept with a gobsmacking ending (on several levels) that would’ve made for a fine feature film…and that leads us to a couple criticisms of the series.
This show could really benefit from doing more in-depth two-parters. The cases often feel as if they’re resolved too quickly, which can lead to that familiar “TV” vibe. On the other hand, the two-parters here are designed less to offer up multifaceted cases and more to serve deeper explorations of the core characters. “The Big Game” and “Revelations” (2.14 & 2.15) are actually a disguised two-parter, since they aren’t labeled as being connected. At the end of the first, a schizophrenic serial killer – James Van Der Beek of “Dawson’s Creek” in an outstanding turn – kidnaps BAU Agent Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), while the follow-up is a psychological game between the two -- or three or four, given the material -- as a tortured and drugged-up Reid uses his knowledge of schizophrenia (his mother suffers from it) to stay alive. It’s no mean feat to deliver the kind of dialogue Reid’s frequently given without sounding like a smartass, but Gubler always accomplishes it with great ease and humility. He’s often the show standout, and from “Revelations” to the end of the season, his character grows increasingly complex due to the fallout from the kidnapping. The rest of the cast -- Shemar Moore, A.J. Cook, Kirsten Vangsness and midseason newcomer Paget Brewster – is each as sharp as those already mentioned; there isn’t a weak performer in the BAU ensemble.
Season Two’s other two-parter is oddly split up between episode 13 and the finale, 23. It’s some crazy, over-the-top madness featuring Keith Carradine as a serial killer named Frank who’s been deftly operating across the U.S. for over 30 years. Gideon encounters him in a diner in the middle of the Nevada desert in the first installment. When they meet again at season’s end, it’s a showdown between hunter and hunted...but who’s hunting who at this point? The Frank storyline sees the show almost drifting into comic book territory, but Patinkin and Carradine save it through fine acting. It’d be unfair to say it’s anything less than entertaining, but “Criminal Minds” needs to be a little more judicious with its season finales; it may be at its weakest when it resorts to such theatrics. Indeed, episode 22, “Legacy,” features a villain/story just ambitious enough to have been prime finale fodder.
But perhaps I’m in the wrong to call aspects of the approach into question. The producers and writers deserve major kudos for developing a strategy for keeping the show on the air without dumbing it down, and the second season of “Criminal Minds” sets a higher bar for this type of network series. It’s compelling psychological crime drama that offers up mostly standalone stories, while simultaneously infusing quiet character arcs along the way for faithful viewers. As with many series these days, it comes as no surprise that the episode presentation here is crystal clear and in 16 x 9.
Special Features: Four episodes (“The Fisher King, Part 2”, “The Perfect Storm,” “Profiler, Profiled,” and “Revelations”) sport informative commentary tracks from various members of the cast and crew. In listening to them, it’s clear how much the people working on this show enjoy what they do. Disc Six offers up four featurettes: “Profilers, Profiled” is a series of interviews with selected talent, including Patinkin, Gubler, Moore, and executive producer Edward Allen Bernero; “The Physical Evidence” takes a look at what the creative team has done to make the show different for Season Two; “Behavioral Science: Real-Life Criminal Minds” is a look at how accurate the show may or may not be; and “Meet Kirsten Vangsness” is a whimsical meet and greet with the actress who plays Penelope Garcia, a character that brings the show much needed comic relief. Speaking of which, there’s a gag reel, which is more amusing than the norm given the show’s seriousness, and two deleted scenes. Lastly, it must be mentioned that Disc One kicks off with a mesmerizing, salivate-over-this upcoming-release trailer for “Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition,” which streets on Oct. 30th.