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Social-Distancing Diaries: 32 Reasons I Can’t Stop Watching ‘Criminal Minds,’ a Show I Don’t Even Like

Seven seasons into his binge of the CBS show, one writer digs into a procedural that can be both gruesome in its portrayal of serial killers and comforting in these uncertain times

CBS/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the past few months, even dating back to pre-pandemic times, I’ve watched seven seasons and change of the CBS procedural Criminal Minds. The show ended its remarkable 323-episode run just last month, and I’ve never come close to watching a single episode at or near its original air date. After absorbing some 130 episodes of cops chasing serial killers into my eyeballs, I’ve come to the conclusion that Criminal Minds is not a very good TV show—but I have no plans to stop watching it. This is a binge in the medical sense.

Here are 32 thoughts and observations that should explain why I can no more praise Criminal Minds than I can put it to bed.

1. Watching TV I like is hard work. I’m currently juggling half a dozen shows that I’ve fallen behind on because I don’t want to sit down and concentrate. Blink during The New Pope and you’ll miss the whole plot (such as it is). Occupied has subtitles, and until I learn to speak Norwegian I can’t multitask. Great TV shows are like reading a book, but sometimes you don’t want to read a book. Sometimes you want background noise that you can pay partial attention to while you play a computer game or do the dishes or dick around on the internet. Part of me resents Peak TV for turning what’s supposed to be a mind-dulling vice into AP English Literature. I’m too old and tired to try to impress people anymore.

2. I share a fairly small apartment with my wife, who is suddenly home 24 hours a day. While our individual tastes in TV shows and movies overlap substantially, they do not overlap entirely, and marriage is about compromise. So whatever background noise goes on the TV has to work for both of us.

3. You know what’s even worse than paying attention to TV? Making decisions. I’ve spent all day thinking about work, worrying about problems both inside my control and out, planning what I’m going to cook for dinner. If I roll through the TV listings and four streaming services trying to find the perfect thing to capture not only my mood but my wife’s, the garlic butter chicken and brussels sprouts I’d just spent an hour making would be ice cold by the time we circled back around to watching Star Wars for the 10,000th time. Decision paralysis is real. Unless someone has a better idea, Criminal Minds just goes on the TV. We don’t even use the full title anymore. It’s just called “The Minds.”

4. I think this is why CBS is the most-watched network on TV, by the way. It’s nothing but mindless procedurals with anodyne dialogue that repeat the same plot 24 episodes a year for 12 years and sell their syndication rights for the GDP of Slovenia. Give me the same thing, over and over, until I actually go blind.

5. I used to joke about how I’d watch literally anything about a cop trying to understand a serial killer. This is no longer a joke. It’s true.

6. I think it’s kind of fun that Unit Chief Aaron Hotchner (I’m still not to the point where Thomas Gibson kicked a crew member and got fired, so no spoilers please) never smiles. He does an important, brutal job. He’s raising a young child alone after his wife (1) left him because he was never home, and then (2) got murdered by a serial killer who was trying to torture “Hotch.” This is serious business. It’d be weird if he smiled.

7. The Behavioral Analysis Unit flies across the country on a private jet. There are so many active serial killers that the federal government, which holds open bids when buying office supplies, has a private jet on standby to whisk this team of supercops across the country at all times. In fact, we’re led to believe that Hotch and his merry men are not the only BAU team at the FBI. Do they all get private jets too? Is this why we can’t afford universal health care and high-speed rail?

8. Even so, Hotch was worried that the team would go over budget when it bought half a dozen tablets.

9. My favorite thing about the plane is that they show B-roll of a Gulfstream jet as the team travels to and from its cases, but it’s never the same jet. It’s almost always a Gulfstream, but one of about half a dozen different models that vary in size and configuration, to say nothing of each plane having its model number stenciled somewhere on it. (One time they switched things up and showed a Dassault Falcon taking off, which was as shocking as any of the show’s thousands of murders.) Sometimes the team will take one plane out to a case and fly home on an obviously different plane. It rules.

10. There’s very little character development on Criminal Minds, and by and large the BAU crew are pretty standard G-man (or G-woman) types with one or two distinctive characteristics so you can tell them apart. There are two exceptions.

11. The first is Boy Genius Spencer Reid, whose distinguishing characteristics are that he’s very young, very skinny, and changes his haircut from time to time. Also he’s very smart—like most high-achieving network drama characters, he has a preposterous number of postgraduate degrees and it’s implied that he is somewhere on the autism spectrum. But only in the facile, somewhat offensive mid-2000s way that brought us The Big Bang Theory and the card-counting scene from The Hangover.

12. The normal G-men carry normal G-man semiautomatic handguns. But Spencer, who wears cardigans and purple scarves and is played by an actor who was literally in 500 Days of Summer, has a tiny hipster-ass revolver that he carries in a tiny hipster-ass holster. If I’ve learned nothing else from Criminal Minds, I now know that it’s possible for a gun to be twee.

13. The other nonconformist is the team’s technical analyst, Penelope Garcia, who is just … a lot. This is by design, as her character was created to contrast with her dour, conservative teammates. The field agents tend to dress in business attire or tactical gear, while Garcia favors brightly-colored eyeglass frames and loud, printed dresses. Hotch never smiles, but Garcia is constantly cracking jokes, and while the other agents never flinch around gore, Garcia can’t bear to look at photos of victims. She serves an obvious purpose, but the character’s written in a very broad, obvious fashion. One of my pet peeves in TV and film is when someone tries to do a Southern accent but gets lazy about it and only picks up the most outrageous, exaggerated highlights. (More on this later.) That’s kind of what happened with Garcia, except instead of having a Southern accent she’s a weird nerd.

14. Garcia’s professional function is to use her multiscreen computer setup to run outlandishly complicated searches. These searches include professional, legal, medical, and personal information, all of which she apparently has access to for every person in the United States. I hope the actual FBI doesn’t know how many times I’ve been to the dentist in my life, but in this post–Patriot Act world, I know better than to assume that’s actually the case.

15. It’s OK, though, because one of the tenets of Criminal Minds is that the cops are always right, even when they’re basing their conclusions on guesswork.

16. Garcia’s work husband is the team’s resident hunk, Special Agent Derek Morgan. Their conversations are defined by a joking flirtation riddled with over-the-top innuendo that often gets played for laughs. More than once, Garcia says something raunchy to Morgan because she doesn’t know he has her on speakerphone. In another episode, she gets into a fight with her boyfriend, then drunk dials Morgan, who comes over to keep her company and sleeps on her couch—but when she wakes up the next morning she thinks they’ve slept together.

Let me just say … this all seems wildly unprofessional, particularly in a life-or-death job for two people whose boss’s distinguishing characteristic is that he never smiles. More than that, it doesn’t seem healthy for either of them. Garcia uses the joke to camouflage her real crush on Morgan, who doesn’t seem to know or care that he’s leading her on. I don’t like it. I would not tolerate this behavior in my unit.

17. Morgan, according to the show, was a star quarterback at Northwestern until an injury ended his career. Now, the character was born in 1973. Let’s say he redshirted and his first college season was 1992. Northwestern went 3-8 that year, 2-9 the following year, and 3-7-1 in 1994. Morgan suffers his career-ending injury in 1995, after which Northwestern goes 10-2 and wins the Big Ten for the first time since 1936. Does that mean, in Criminal Minds canon, that Northwestern’s only Rose Bowl appearance since World War II wouldn’t have happened if Morgan hadn’t gotten hurt and been replaced by a better quarterback?

18. That also means Morgan played with Pat Fitzgerald, right? No wonder he gets along with Hotch, The Boss Who Never Smiles.

19. The biggest star of the show for the first two seasons was Mandy Patinkin, who played profiler Jason Gideon. Gideon is what a G-man would look like if he wore cargo pants and knew what Buddhism was. “Jason Gideon” is also a mind-bendingly cool name for an esoteric TV cop. That might be the greatest triumph of Criminal Minds.

20. Criminal Minds is formulaic and mediocre, but every so often you run into a really awesome episode. One example: Season 2’s “North Mammon,” in which the team investigates the abduction of three teenage soccer players in a Pennsyltucky town not unlike the one that Agent Jennifer “J.J.” Jareau grew up in, bringing back painful memories of her own childhood.

21. Or “Ashes and Dust,” in which the team investigates an arsonist who, in the episode’s teaser, sets a house on fire and locks the inhabitants inside so he can watch them burn to death. The whole thing is set to Enya’s “Boadicea.”

This scene’s scary as shit. I had nightmares about it after watching the episode for the first time and can’t listen to Enya anymore. It rules.

22. J.J. is married to Will LaMontagne, a former New Orleans police detective who liaised with the team on a case early on in the series. He popped in and out of the show in the early seasons, always carrying the burden of a heartbreaking loss—first his father, then his partner, then another partner in the same episode in which he’s strapped to a bomb by terrorists who hold his son hostage. Plus, he has just the most outrageous accent you’ve ever heard. He makes Benoit Blanc sound like FDR. Anyway, he’s very handsome, and extremely sad, and I’m very happy for the only functioning romantic relationship in the first seven seasons of Criminal Minds.

23. The one Criminal Minds character I love unreservedly is Emily Prentiss, the polyglot daughter of a diplomat and former Interpol undercover agent. Along with Morgan, she’s one of the team’s two ass-kickers, specializing in breaking down doors and telling bad guys to drop their weapons and put their hands in the air. More than that, every other member of the team has some personal commitment that seems to run counter to the idea that they work 100-hour weeks and could be called off at a moment’s notice. Hotch is a single dad who runs triathlons and coaches his son’s soccer team. Morgan apparently flips houses on the side. Dr. Alex Blake, the late-arriving forensic linguist, teaches at a university. (Is this why there are no tenure-track jobs left?) But Prentiss doesn’t have any hobbies or outside-of-work interests. She’s constantly lonely and slightly frazzled and lives with her cat. Also she keeps fake passports in a safe in her apartment, which came in handy when she had to fake her own death to hide from her vengeful ex-lover, a former IRA terrorist who escaped from a North Korean prison.

24. When Will gets strapped to a bomb, it’s Prentiss who finds him and disarms it. During this process she cuts what she thinks is the primary fuse, only to find another trigger that’s about to go off in seconds. And her reaction is just incredible. Like, obviously she’s scared and thinks she’s going to die, but she’s also … irritated? What seems to bother her most is not that she and her friend are about to get blown up, but that she’s got one more thing to check off her to-do list. It’s the face you make when you lock your keys in the car. I hope that if and when I ever stare death in the face, I am just as peeved.

25. Prentiss, it bears mentioning, is played by Paget Brewster, about whom I used to say—in jest—that I would watch her in anything. After 100-odd episodes of Criminal Minds, plus the thing about serial killers, I should know better than to joke by now. She left the show for the second time at the start of Season 8. I might have given up on it altogether if I didn’t know she comes back later.

26. Last week, I watched an episode where Prentiss interrogates a woman who abducted and tortured a man who’d raped her years before. This woman was played by Dina Meyer, who, like Paget Brewster, had a brief guest run on Friends. Both of them played actresses who worked with (and eventually dated and/or slept with) Joey. I wonder whether they talked about that between takes.

27. The internet tells me that in the coming seasons Aisha Tyler will join the cast. She also had a guest run on Friends as Joey’s girlfriend.

28. Any network drama that goes on for 15 seasons is going to turn into a fire hose of character actors in one-episode roles as cops or bad guys. A Criminal Minds binge must be undertaken with IMDb open so you can figure out who that detective played on The West Wing or Law & Order. Which is not to say that this show can’t pull in the occasional big name. The local sheriff in the Pennsyltucky soccer teens episode is Jason Beghe. James Van Der Beek abducts Spencer in a post–Super Bowl episode, and the serial killer who murders Hotch’s ex-wife is played by C. Thomas Howell. (This is also one of the best arcs of the show.)

29. Hotch eventually tracks down C. Thomas Howell’s Boston Reaper and beats him to death with his bare hands. While the BAU usually takes the killer alive, or watches the killer take his or her own life, once every few episodes one of the agents—usually Hotch or Morgan—has to kill the suspect. And with very few exceptions, this never gets talked about again. According to the show, the Boston Reaper killed 36 people, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Hotch kill at least that many over seven seasons without even flinching. Good thing the cops are always right in this show, because otherwise the FBI would be spending so much money defending wrongful death lawsuits they’d have to sell off the BAU’s fleet of private jets.

30. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say “suspects,” I should say “unsubs.” That’s governmentspeak for “unknown subjects” and the catch-all term for bad guys on Criminal Minds. This is not the only show to use that word—Mindhunter threw it around a few times—but no show I’m aware of uses it as liberally. You know you’ve become fully immersed in Criminal Minds when “unsub” stops sounding weird.

31. Speaking of Mindhunter. When Gideon leaves the show, he’s replaced by Joe Mantegna’s Dave Rossi. In the Criminal Minds universe, Rossi was one of the very first criminal profilers and a bestselling author. With Gideon out of the picture, Rossi comes out of retirement for One Last Case and ends up staying 12 years. My question is this: Since Mindhunter is about the precursor unit to the BAU, depicting the very dawn of profiling, does that mean Rossi knew Holden and Tench? If so, how much did he hate Holden?

32. I’ve watched seven-plus seasons of this show, and by all indications it will be months at the very least before sports come back or I have the apartment to myself for any substantial period of time. Netflix has only 12 of the 15 Criminal Minds seasons in its vault. How pot-committed am I? Will I go out of my way to find the last three seasons on some other streaming service, or even pay to download and watch them? I really thought this would be the perfect opportunity to catch up on the movies and shows that had been in my queue for years. But how can I watch Short Term 12 or The Master at a time like this? There are serial killers on the loose, and Hotch and his team are the only ones who can stop them.