Fri
Nov 28 2008 1:18pm

You gotta have game.

If you ever needed proof that the universe in which Criminal Minds is set, while arbitrary, brutal, and unfair, is at its heart a better place than our world, I offer the following sentence:

“I told my HMO I got abducted by a serial killer, so they gave me free dental x-rays.”

Being a review of Criminal Minds 4x09, which may either be titled “Pickup” or “52 Pickup,” written by Breen Frazier, directed by Bobby Roth.

In this episode of Criminal Minds, the team travels to Atlanta to seek out a serial killer who picks women up in bars and then forces them to clean up after their own (slow, lingering) murders. A pretty straightforward ep, except there’s a lot of character development and thematic discussion in the crevices that’s not necessarily evident on first exposure.

If “Masterpiece” lacked in subtlety, this episode makes up for it. There’s so much fan service (totally awesome fan service, from Hotch and Prentiss’ candid discussions to Morgan teaching Reid how to flirt with girls) that it’s easy to miss a lot of the thematic fun. The episode title itself, of course, is one of the classic unsettling CM pun titles. The UNSUB picks up his victims, and the investigation revolves around the unsavory world of pickup artists—but he also forces them to “pick up,” swabbing their own blood off the floor as they die.

Reid (with Morgan’s able assistance) and Todd and Prentiss solve the case, between them, with their ability to pick up a member of the opposite sex. It’s all about manipulation, and that’s reinforced when Todd steps over one of Hotch’s invisible lines, and uses a manipulation that Hotch does not approve of. But there are other circumstances where the same tactic could be perfectly acceptable: Hotch lies to UNSUBs, after all.

So we get to see how the same power—the power to manipulate and lie—can be used for good or evil.

With this case we return to three of CM’s overarching leitmotifs. Not just Lies, but the Game (in this case, the game is manipulating sexual attraction, but it’s clearly identified as a game—both by antagonists (“Viper”), and heroes (Morgan) and Magic. And the difference is how the game is played.

When the bad guys do it, it has shills. Prey objects.  People who are there to be fooled and manipulated.

When the good guys do it, it’s a give-and-take. Reid makes his play for Austin, and then she returns the serve with something equally clever and charming—and tailored to his interests. Todd and Prentiss flirt with each other as much as with the uncooperative witness, but when they’re doing it to each other, it’s in fun, and everybody knows what’s going on. Likewise, Hotch and Garcia—Garcia, after all, flirts as easily as most people breathe. The flirting itself is the point for her, which echoes Viper’s claim that all he cares about is the spark, but in Garcia’s case it’s closer to true.

Everything is a continuum.

Criminal Minds airs Wednesday nights on CBS at 9 pm.

12 comments
James Enge
1. JamesEnge
In our house, we have a quick-and-dirty plot analysis for police procedurals: "X is the Devil," where X is some pop-cultural phenomenon which somehow enables the brutal crime(s) of the week. It started with the "Law & Order" shows, where various internet things have often turned out to be the Devil, at least for 40 minutes or so of screentime. Their stock slogan is "Ripped from the Headlines!"; maybe this type of story could be described as "Ripped from the Features Section!" Except I guess there may not be enough newspaper readers around anymore to make that one viable.

My daughter almost immediately pegged this episode of CM as "The Pick-Up Artist is the Devil." It was pretty clear she was right, even before Currie Graham donned that dead-giveaway fuzzy/floppy hat.

One of the things I like about CM is how they let non-cops, even victims, display intelligence and initiative as, in this episode, when the bartender recognized the killer from his sketch and deftly rescued his intended victim (albeit at the price of taking her place).
nat ward
2. smonkey
Okay, I've been resisting the urge to ask but...

WTF is up with tor.com and "Criminal Minds"?

At best its a good tv show. At worst its a crap police procedural with that guy from Dharma and Greg.

It has nothing to do with Tor, or SciFi so what's it doing here?

I have no problem with people posting about Lost (which I despise, things written without even the vaguest pre-planned story arcs tend to suck). At least its sci-fi-ish. Its not about my personal dislike of the show. Its a question of wtf?
Jane Dark
3. Jane Dark
I can't be the only one who'll speak up on this, can I? Anyway, smonkey, to give you my own answer to this question, I think it really depends on how you define the sci-fi genre.

If you require it to have some sort of fantastic or obviously non-realistic component, then I can see why having reviews of it at Tor.com seems strange to you. But on the other hand, if (like me) you see Criminal Minds as a show driven by science (specifically, profiling, and to a slightly lesser degree, the specific fields of biology and chemistry used in criminal investigation), and continually engaging with the questions of how much we can rely on hard scientific procedure vs. intuition and emotion -- and also, focusing on the moments where hard science and emotion conflict -- then classifying it as a type of sci-fi might be more understandable.

Plenty of shows deal with criminology, etc. -- but I don't see them as focusing on the above issues with the intensity that I see Criminal Minds focusing on them.

Also, Tor.com isn't just a sci-fi site, it's a sci-fi writers site. And for me, at least, anything that makes sci-fi writers want to talk about plot and character development -- or rather, that they can use to talk about those things in a public forum for all of us -- is worthwhile to me.
nat ward
4. smonkey
okay, in an effort to be not a troll I watched on of them there episodes online and to your credit Jane I totally see where you're coming from. As far as such shows go I see how you are categorizing it.

The few episodes I've caught over the past year or so tended to be all about some serial killer (the guy who made rib windchimes for his beloved) and the personal vendettas that arose from this hunt.

And these I saw as your average police procedural (btw I'm a law and order junkie, I watch it while I bartend before it gets crowded thanks to its cable dominance) with a little more cheesy over the top drama added.

But I think your last point is your best. When viewed as a site about the craft of fiction I can totally get behind someone interested talking about that which interests them.
Jennifer A.
5. Jenett
I got hooked on Criminal Minds (despite not being a TV person in general), because of Bear's fan-focused commentaries in her LiveJournal.

But what got me (after watching a bunch of back episodes in close succession) is that, yes, taken as any individual episode, it's a profiling procedural.

But yet, in those episodes, there are tiny little character details - a sentence here, a short exchange there - that mean you're not just working from either stereotypes nor are you relying on overt interpersonal drama. (Not that stuff doesn't happen to people, but rather, the focus is on "How do we keep doing this important stuff we're doing" rather than the dwama.)

Likewise, the show's made a deliberate point of subverting the expected narrative (including having well known stars as unsub-of-the-week, and .. well, as Bear's said herself, the person on the show who we know is a sexual abuse survivor is male.)

There's also something in the show's use of imagery that is incredibly powerful. I'm not a visually dominant person (give me sound, every time), but looking at how images in the show affect me have made me more aware of it in other works. There's something about how they combine context along with very simple objects that is immensely powerful. (Shoes. I will never get that image out of my head.)

Figuring out how they do that? Absolutely fascinating, and has been informing my reading of fiction, non-fiction, and communication ever since I started watching.

(Also, on a more SF focus, I find looking at the counterpoints and parallels between Criminal Minds and the Shadow Unit project (which is explicitly an SF universe)
Elizabeth Bear
6. matociquala
Smonkey, if you check the site header, you may assume that "Media" comes under "The Universe. And Related Subjects."

It's right up there at the top of the page.

Also, you know, posts on this, Dexter, and other not-strictly-sfnal subjects are conveniently cut-tagged for your skippage.
Elizabeth Bear
7. matociquala
Jenett, yeah, the shoes. Also, the wedding rings. Amazing, that one wordless shot.

Also, it's pretty obviously a show by geeks for geeks, and if the endless Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac Asimov jokes weren't enough (never mind quoting Cory Doctorow and Harlan Ellison and basing an entire episode around a book that's PLAYER PIANO crossed with DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP), the episode entitled "True Knight" alone and the commentary on superhero comics there contained would
qualify it for discussion on an SF site.
Tex Anne
8. TexAnne
::facepalm::

_Player Piano_. I knew that, really I did.
Elizabeth Bear
9. matociquala
Of course you did!

Reid is doing the plot synopsis, and I'm going... I've read this book! I've read both of these books! I laughed and laughed and laughed.
Jane Dark
10. Kayjayoh
Ok, I'm just catching up to the middle of season 4 (I've been watching CM in fits and starts when the DVDs become available at the library). Because of the way I've been watching the show, some things stick out in my memory and other get buried. Can someone remind me what episodes had:

1. the shoes/wedding rings shot

2. the Player Piano/Android nook

Thanks
Katherine Olson
11. kayjayoh
Oh wait...is the book Empty Planet, from the episode of the same title? That memory is coming back to me now.

Still trying to figure out the shoes/wedding rings thing.
Katherine Olson
12. kayjayoh
Oh! Oh! Oh!

Maybe I'm getting it wrong by thinking it is shoes and wedding rings together. The rings are from "The Fox." The shoes are from "Legacy".

I think.

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