With up to 24 episodes in a standard season in the US, series tend to develop a kind of two tier system. Most of the episodes are standardised, they follow a similar structure, mostly unremarkable plots and fairly minimal character development. Optimistically the episodes will have enough in them to reward fans and regular viewers, but won’t overly penalise casual viewers if they don’t watch every week. The second type of episode are the bigger ones, designed to draw in higher ratings and get people talking. They’ll usually be at the start and end of the season and during sweeps week where advertisers pay particular notice. They’ll have bigger budgets, bigger guest stars, bigger stories, bigger peril and generally speaking – just bigger.
My feeling with Criminal Minds is that it excels at the small.
Criminal Minds is one of the stronger procedural shows on air at the moment. It embraces the seriousness of the cases it deals with, the reality of the destruction that crime causes to victims, perpetrators, investigators and all their friends and families. I can easily see how some might find the brutality to be exploitative, even labelling it as torture porn, but I don’t personally find it objectionable. I think the series uses an interesting variety of points of view and even after nearly 200 cases, episodes still feel fresh and innovative.
That said, the arc storyline this season was a bit of a mess. The “Replicator” (the BSU don’t give names to serial killers unless they’re the ones being targeted?) wound his way through the season with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references bolted on to the end of episodes like some weird sponsorship deal. I never did quite work out how they all fit together and the eventual revelation of the unsub felt considerably less well thought out than most of the ‘villain of the week’ cases. It all came across too much like some kind of comic-book super villain, which just didn’t fit in with the rest of the series. It all felt hammy and over done.
On the other hand though, the writers completely under-played the arrival of a new team member. Criminal Minds seems to have a higher turnover than many series, by my estimate, over the past 8 seasons the team has seen 5 people leave and 5 people join, which sounds like a lot (compare to just 2 new people and 1 departure from the main team in 10 seasons of NCIS), but if you consider that JJ left and came back and Prentiss joined the team, left, returned and then left again, it becomes a little less remarkable. I think the writers made a mistake this season with the introduction of Blake. She arrived during the unseen summer months, so was pretty much integrated with the team by the time the audience met her and just blended in as if she’d always been there. The writers missed an opportunity to have a new take on the other characters, and a shift in the dynamics of the team.
Beyond that, I guess the biggest character storyline was Reid’s ridiculous relationship with a woman he had never met. It always frustrates me when characters’ private lives become tied up into cases and this was yet another example. I like learning more about characters and seeing them grow in the personal lives, but it just cheapens it somehow when it feels like that’s only done in order to drive sweeps week plots. Reid is a character at the very edges of reality at the best of times, there would have been more than enough fun to be had with him having a normal relationship, it didn’t need to be turned into a big drama. Mind you, he still gets a better deal than Rossi, who is revealed to have been in a relationship for a year just minutes before his partner is murdered.
My biggest frustration with Criminal Minds is that they get all the little things right and then mess up the big ones. The ‘filler’ episodes have some of the strongest and most interesting cases and the nicest and most satisfying little character moments. Several of the characters have perfectly normal relationships – they have their problems, but they’re all realistic considering at least half of each pairing has a very demanding job. Then at the end of each season I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth because they try to go big and it all feels forced and unlikely. It’s a shame that writers (or more likely network executives) don’t fully appreciate that less is more.