Sep 29 2008 4:01pm

The Predictable Thing

See, when Patrick Nielsen Hayden invited me to blog for, one of the things I had decided was that I wasn’t going to do this. Because yes, I have a favorite TV show. But I’m a freak, and my favorite TV show isn’t SFF. At least...not patently.

It’s CBS’s Criminal Minds, just beginning its fourth season, and in that time its gone from being a dark horse that nobody expected to see last out thirteen episodes to being a top-twenty show that consistently wins its night, despite having been led-in by such notorious dogs as Kid Nation.

But then I saw that Theresa Delucci is blogging Dexter here, and I couldn’t resist holding up the side in favor of my favorite serial killer show.

Briefly, Criminal Minds is a TV show about seven geniuses with post-traumatic stress disorder attempting to save the world from the worst human monsters imaginable. But the important word in that phrase is human; the underpinning discussion of the show is about why people break, and if you give it a few episodes to do its thematic sleight of hand, you come to realize that what they’re conducting is a very high-level argument about nature versus nurture and good versus evil, with side trips into the existence of free will—and they’re admitting they don’t have anything like a satisfying answer. They also like to deconstruct other media—with special attention to comic books (there’s a third season episode that does lovely things with The Crow, for example) and slasher movies.

(It’s also an Arthurian romance and a meditation on the existence and evolution of God, but that’s another column.)

Right, that’s the backstory. I don’t have time to go through three seasons worth of character arc (and the characters do, indeed, arc—a significant part of the game the creators are playing involves the deconstruction of stereotypes and snap impressions. One of the initial seven characters is a rape survivor. It’s not the one you think. In fact, it’s not any of the women.) so we’re just going to jump in with the resolution of last season’s cliffhanger.

When last we left our intrepid band of adventurers, they had determined that killings previously believed to be perpetrated by a Son-of-Sam style random gunman in New York City were actually dry runs by a terrorist cell planning to bomb eight locations around the city. The episode ended with a payoff on one of the longest-term bits of setup I recall from series TV: for three seasons, we’ve had the team driving everywhere in anonymous black SUVs.

In the final frames of the third-season finale, one of those SUVs blew up. Which one?

Well, it’s one way to keep your primary cast from renegotiating their contracts....

The opening sequence of the season 4 premier (entitled “Mayhem,” for those of you who love such things) is one of the best examples of point of view I’ve ever seen. We begin with a lingering shot of a dark city street, burnt papers drifting, a lamppost with signs exhorting motorists to “DO NOT EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE.” Utter silence. No music.

And then a bloody hand, held open, cradled upwards. The camera pans up the arm to the battered face of one of our primary characters, Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson).  The camera swings around over his shoulder, and we see him standing before a shattered shop window, a broken car door thrown up against it, and behind that window television cameras and wide-screen TVs showing...Hotch, and the burning hulk of a black SUV behind him. I’m particularly impressed by this shot, because the previous season’s finale made a great deal of hay over both the cops and the terrorists using CCTV as a weapon.

Now we have SFX, a ringing sound, sirens. He turns and stares at the burning vehicle. An bystander appears and seems to be attempting to help, but Hotch can’t hear him, and begins demanding the bystander call 911, trying to take control of the scene of a crime of which he is the victim. All in all, very unsettling, and a very clearly detailed presentation of the experience of shock.

No, I’m not going to do the entire episode scene by scene, but honestly this is one of the two best scenes in the episode.  (The other is Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) clearing the subway train, complete with adrenaline tunnel vision and rattling breath.) I wanted to make the point of the show’s attention to detail and characterization, and the way its creators (who include an FBI profiler and a former Chicago beat cop) pay attention to the myths of Hollywood and how much more interesting the reality can be. Rather than seeing our heroes reacting cooly to disaster, we see them shattered, panicking, shocky, on the verge of tears—and doing the job anyway, because the job has got to be done.

I’m afraid this episode, for this show, is a little thematically thin. Which means it’s got about four times as much going on as most network dramas. It’s also only forty-one minutes long, including a several-minute “previously on Criminal Minds” segment, which makes me wonder what exactly is on the cutting room floor.

CM season finales and openers also tend to be a little contrived, and this one is no exception. The bad guys rely on a complex nested plot of the sort that in the real world would never survive contact with the enemy, and it’s evident to the viewer from the instant they come on screen who the bad guys are.

However, in this case, I’m willing to forgive. In part because it’s a caper plot, and contrivance is one of the conventions of caper plots. (I’m a big Mission: Impossible (the original TV show) fan, and it revolves around just the same kind of manipulations—the difference here being that the good guys are the victims of the caper.) But also in part because after leading us through the caper by the nose, the show offers us some absolutely beautiful and prickly character moments with no easy resolution.

There’s the beautiful scene in which Morgan tells Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) that she’s his god-given solace, for example, in a scene which may seem transparently romantic to a first-time viewer, but to the long-term fan is a nuanced and painful confession from a man whose ability to form emotional bonds is (possibly irrevocably) broken to a woman who is dealing with her own issues of the heart. There’s Morgan and Hotch’s final argument, where Hotch accuses Morgan of precisely his own failing—a sharp and lucid projection of Hotch’s own issues onto another.

And there’s the understated setup of what I suspect will be one of the ongoing plotlines of the season—Hotch holding himself up by sheer will until he literally collapses. How long is that acoustic trauma going to persist? This show is a show that believes in lasting damage, after all.

I predict that for Hotch, the pain is not over.

Criminal Minds airs on CBS, Wednesday nights at 9. You can see the complete first episode at CBS's website.

Jennifer A.
1. Jenett
Hotch holding himself up by sheer will until he literally collapses

There's the part of me that thinks you might be right about this being the primary arc for this season.

And then there's the part of me that wonders if this is just them playing the audience and planning to go in an unanticipated direction, and if that imagery isn't a tiny bit too obvious.

(Which is to say, I *love* watching a show that can make me think this and be utterly unsure which way it's going to go. Poor Hotch, either way, though.)
Elizabeth Bear
2. matociquala
The question with Eddie B. and his team is always--is this foreshadowing, deconstruction, or a misdirect?

And sometimes, like that Reid and Gideon conversation over smokey jazz in the New Orleans episode... it's all three.
3. carbonel
I saw the last 15 minutes of this episode on my TiFaux yesterday -- came in about the time the one guy saw the bomb in the van. It was supposed to be CSI:NY, but the show before had run long, I think because of a presidential speech -- and by the time I realized that I wasn't watching CSI, I was hooked.

I've already got Criminal Minds on my NetFlix list; now I may put it ahead of La Femme Nikita, which I also never saw in its original run.

(It doesn't hurt that one of the FBI agents is OMG-level cute by my standards.)
Elizabeth Bear
4. matociquala
Only one?

Um yah. The hot boy/girl quotient is (high).
5. Jordan Summers
I love Criminal Minds. Been watching it since the beginning. Even liked the show that preceded it, which in my mind was even better.

My question is: Did you think the episode was a bit of a cheat after the season finale?

I mean that was a heck of a boom. I expected someone else to die.
Elizabeth Bear
6. matociquala
Well, the producer said that nobody died. *g* And considering that they've had to replace two cast members in three years, it would suck to have to bring in another when everything is working so well in terms of character chemistry.

So I didn't expect a main-cast death.

What he did say was that somebody would wind up "impaired," which has me keeping a very careful eye on Hotch.
Emma Bull
7. emmabull
Thank you for this! I take television storytelling seriously, and so do the Criminal Minds writers. Your always-smart analysis of this show is a great addition to
8. burger_eater
Watching the season premiere now.

What a modern world we live in.
Tikitu de Jager
9. tikitu
She (Bear) could have added an advertisement for Shadow Unit. It's like a tv crime show, only you don't have to watch tv. (She's one of the writers, modesty and restraint and all that, but don't let that stop you checking it out. Good stuff.)
10. ShouldBeStephane
I stopped watching the show around the time Patinkin left. I just couldn't believe in (most of) the characters anymore.
Out of curiosity, I watched this episode and the "solace" scene did work for me, but that's about it. It still lacks a great story, driven by the characters.

I long for more episodes of The Inside.
eric orchard
11. orchard
My wife and I are addicted. I actually thought the metaphysical arguments that would creep into the show were some kind of mistake. Seems these investigative crime shows are pushing aside reality shows.I wish I had a smart, anthropological explanation for this. hopefully it means people want stories again.
Scott Raun
12. sraun
Admitting my ignorance or lack of English Lit analytical skills (all the way through junior & senior high - symbolism? there's symbolism in that book?) - why is it an Arthurian romance?
Elizabeth Bear
13. matociquala

Well, they come right out and say it at a couple of points: Reid is Parsifal (Which makes Morgan and Hotch Galahad and Bors, the other two grail knights), they seek a holy grail, they meet around a round table... there are characters named Spencer, Morgan, and Jennifer...

Jennifer (Gwenevere) is the one who sets the knights their quests...

Ed Bernero (the show's executive producer) mentioned once in interview that Gideon was Lancelot, the flawed knight. This was before Patinkin's abrupt departure from the show. And makes me wonder how much Bernero was expecting Mandy to do a runner, since it's not like he doesn't have a history of that.
14. Bev Vincent
How did Garcia stay on the phone with Morgan when they were jamming the cell phone signal? Do they have some sort of high-tech com system that works outside of the cell network?

Also, did they assume that since this plot was foiled and the ringleader dead that there was no point in trying to ferret out the rest of the conspirators, or did they just leave that to NYPD to handle?
Elizabeth Bear
15. matociquala
Bev @14: Pure handwavium, of course.

I suspect, the CM world being what it is, the rest of the cell vanished into the mists, and may or may not be back later.

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