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Reviewed by Will Harris
ur culture is so violent and we’ve become so course that we can support more than three dozen violent cop shows that feature sick killings nightly, each more shocking than the last. ‘Chief, we’ve got some sicko out there who’s killing random male stock brokers.’ ‘Jesus, that’s terrible.’ ‘Wait, I’m not done. And he’s sawing off their arms and using them to rape college co-eds.’ ‘Son of a bitch!!’” – David Cross, “I Drink For A Reason”
When David Cross wrote the above lines, there’s no reason to believe that he was specifically referring to “Criminal Minds” (actually, he claims that the dialogue was excerpted from “CSI: Grand Rapids”), but anyone who’s seen more than a few episodes of the CBS series about a team of profilers from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit can easily accept the possibility that it could have come from there.
Season Three of “Criminal Minds” saw the show survive what could well have been a fatal blow to a lesser series, transitioning out the show’s lead, Mandy Patinkin, and bringing in the ever-dependable Joe Mantegna. Purists may well feel obliged to forever claim that things haven’t been the same since Jason Gideon gave up the Bureau for greener pastures, but make no mistake: David Rossi quickly proved to be a more than capable member of the team, and it’s arguable that the new dynamic to the show – an elder agent comes back and accepts a lesser position in order to both serve and instruct – directly influenced the decision to make a similar change on “CSI” this past season. (Think about it: Laurence Fishburne’s character isn’t a direct replacement for William Petersen’s, but he’s still got a lifetime’s worth of experience in criminology.)
If there’s one thing you can count on in a procedural, it’s that each season will consist of a large number of “team” stories which are interspersed with episodes that shine the spotlight on various members of the team, so it’s no surprise that “Criminal Minds” follows the format to a tee. The best of these comes when Reid returns to his hometown and, in the process of visiting his schizophrenic mother (Jane Lynch, in a rare but highly effective dramatic turn), begins to wonder if his father’s disappearance many years ago may have been connected to a murder, but Prentiss’s past is delved into during “Demonology” after one of her old friends dies as a result of what appears to have been an exorcism.
There’s also an increasing tendency for these procedurals to maintain a season-long arc, and the thread that runs through Season Four is that every single member of the team – Hotchner, Rossi, Morgan, Reid, Jareau, Prentiss, and Garcia – has a crisis of conscience, wondering if indeed they can handle the horrors of their profession. Given the sort of awful things they see each day, it’s no wonder, but the fact that they all seem to have this realization during the course of this particular season is perhaps a bit heavy-handed. Nonetheless, they’re all valid reasons, including Hotch’s instincts failing him during an interview, allowing an unsub to get away; Rossi not taking a criminology student seriously, which leads to her murder; and Jareau worrying that having a child has compromised her ability to do her job.
There’s clearly something about playing a bad guy on “Criminal Minds” that brings out the best in the show’s guest stars, as some of the season’s best episodes come courtesy of one-off performances by recognizable faces who have taken on that very challenge. Luke Perry plays a deluded cult leader, Mitch Pileggi plays a “normal” guy who snaps after a personal tragedy and turns into a killer, and Alex O’Loughlin is a murderer with enough of a conscience to leave messages at his crime scenes asking for help. Years of straight-to-DVD movies have obviously helped C. Thomas Howell hone his acting abilities sufficiently to play a full-fledged sociopath – or, at least, I presume he’s acting. Really, the only high-profile guest star who doesn’t manage to escape from his usual niche as an actor is Jason Alexander, who looks so ridiculous in his white hair and pencil-thin moustache that it’s kinda hard to take him seriously as a murderer, but the conclusion to the episode still manages to be quite gripping.
Yes, the murders on “Criminal Minds” are often excruciating, both in their violence and in their emotional impact, and although I’m not versed in every procedural currently on the air, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they’re the most consistently gruesome of any such series on television. With that said, however, it’s just as easy to argue that “Criminal Minds” is the most intelligent of the bunch. That’s not really an excuse, but at least the gore doesn’t feel as gratuitous as it otherwise might. Season Four of the series continues the success of its previous year, and with a cliffhanger ending, fans are already chomping at the bit for the premiere of Season Five.
Special Features: Although there are no commentaries to be had, we do get 11 behind-the-scenes featurettes for various episodes throughout the season (“Working the Scene”), along with several deleted scenes, profiles, and a gag reel. Yes, a gag reel. Trust me, on a show this dark, laughter is a much needed release for its cast.