The monster is your kid brother

(Being a review for Criminal Minds 4×04, “Paradise” written by Debra J. Fisher and Erica Messenger, directed by John Gallagher.)

 

In this episode of Criminal Minds, our doughty band of investigators travels to Sherwood, Nevada (do you suppose that deep in the heart of CM’s chrome and gunmetal production tower, there is one lone researcher whose entire job is generating lists of wackily-named American small towns?) where they confront a serial killer who likes to lock up his victims—always heterosexual couples—in a cabin, disorient and torture them, and then fake an accident with an unsuspecting eighteen-wheeler as a means of concealing his crime.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. The killer is Wil Wheaton.

…now, if you are a regular viewer of the show, that comes as no surprise. In fact, as soon as the news came down that Wheaton had been cast, you were probably pretty sure he’d be playing a bad guy. Criminal Minds loves to cast well-beloved, familiar faces in unlikely roles (as previously discussed here in this review column, as a matter of fact).

What’s interesting to me is the effect this has on the viewer. As it’s a regular feature of the show, it’s also one of the ways they play their demystify-the-serial-killer card. On TV, there’s no way to make the monster be the guy next door, the guy down the street, the one you never thought much of. But the casting director can play some meta games to approximate that effect. One technique is to cast unassuming-looking actors, or unhandsome ones.

Another is to cast actors who we all recognize and hold fond, because we’ve known them—in a television way—since they were kids or at least young men. (CM also has been known to undermine its own trope here, bringing in Nicholas Brendon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame as a love interest for Garcia in Season three.)

It’s a great trick. And it works. And I really need to add a line to the Criminal Minds drinking game about it.

Anyway. A lot of the… charm is really the wrong word, isn’t it? A lot of the impact of this episode comes from watching Wheaton, portraying Norman Bates’ rather nastier cousin Floyd Hansen, interacting with the Corbins,  Ian (a rather nice fellow played completely against type by inveterate heavy William Mapother) and Abby (played by Robyn Lively—you may recall her as Lana Milford on Twin Peaks). Wheaton’s an absolute joy as the murderous motel owner—smarmy and ingratiating when presented with an authority figure, but a picture of sociopathic rage and mockery when a bystander or a victim falls into his orbit.

Sadly, the greatest weakness of the episode is that we don’t get nearly enough of those interactions, of the team’s problem-solving and character development, or of the inner life of the UNSUB. Instead, the focus is on the decaying relationship of the couple trapped in a hell of Floyd Hansen’s devising. And while I appreciated a significant number of the slasher-flick shoutouts coded in the narrative (another time-honored Criminal Minds tradition is the horror-movie deconstruction, and while this one didn’t rise to the level of actually building us a real-world version of Psycho, it tried. I also want to mention homages to Saw, Vacancy (right down to the shot of the hotel sign), The Silence of the Lambs, The Hitcher, and Breakdown—and those were only the ones I caught), unfortunately, I do feel like the pacing suffered as a result of too much focus on what proved the story’s weakest link.

On the other hand, there were aspects that I adored. I’ve already raved about Wheaton’s performance, and I felt that Mapother and Lively were likewise excellent. The fault was when they were forced to carry too much of the narrative weight. In addition, Jack Laufer, playing the family member of a victim, was absolutely heartbreaking. One thing I love about this show is the way it presents the survivors of violent crime, and Laufer’s performance was subtle and painful.

And while the development of the series regulars was somewhat understated—in a lot of ways, for me, this felt like a Season 1 episode, including the very detailed profile and exposition and the lack of character development for the protagonists and the villain—there were some interesting pieces of metatext. The scene in which pregnant JJ is protecting her unborn child—being a good mother—is beautifully counterpointed by the scene, later, in which Reid and Prentiss (survivors of questionable parenting both) detail the performance of a monstrous mother. That element holds up well, as does the continued erosion of team leader Hotch’s illusion of perfection.

Overall, I have to say this was an erratic episode. Not a weak one—”Honor Among Thieves” still remains the “Spock’s Brain” or “My Friend The Gorilla” of this series—but a potentially strong narrative marred by issues of pacing more than anything else.

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