Of all the phrases I’ve said most often to my wife in the last 15 years, “is he the unsub?” has to be high on the list. It’s long been a joke that when she’s watching Criminal Minds, I’ll point at the first person I see on screen and ask that question.
The CBS crime drama series, created all the way back in 2005 by Jeff Davis, is based on the work of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), the FBI agents who profile serial killers and other one-off killers. The “unsub,” short for “unidentified subject,” is what each episode’s bad guy is described as. The series signed off for good last Wednesday, with its final two episodes.
The show’s formula, across fifteen seasons and over 300 episodes, is such that we always know what to expect: We see the bad guy threatening women and/or children, the BAU figures out who he is at roughly the 45-minute mark, and then the heroic agents charge into the unsub’s lair, just in the nick of time.
Like the multiple Law & Order series, I suspect the comfort and predictability of that formula – even as it has dealt with such uncomfortable subjects as murder, rape, child abduction, and more – is what’s contributed to Criminal Minds‘ unusual longevity. It also inspired a pair of spinoffs (neither of which lasted) as well as international remakes.
Like the multiple Law & Order series, I suspect the comfort and predictability of that formula…is what’s contributed to Criminal Minds‘ unusual longevity.
The late Netflix series Mindhunters, also based on the BAU, was like a more prestigious, highbrow answer to Criminal Minds, although Criminal Minds nevertheless began and ended each episode with a topical literary quote.
The cast has had a great deal of turnover over the years, with the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Thomas Gibson, and Shemar Moore starring in earlier seasons, and Joe Mantegna, Paget Brewster, and Aisha Tyler joining up later on, and Jeanne Tripplehorn and Jennifer Love Hewitt also having brief runs on the show. Matthew Gray Gubler, A. J. Cook, and Kirsten Vangsness have been part of the series all along.
The Case Against ‘Minds’
There are many standard critiques of Criminal Minds with which I agree. Yes, it’s formulaic. Yes, it’s ridiculous that the same 5 or 6 FBI agents solve, essentially, all of the violent crime in the United States. If you’re familiar with the term “copaganda,” Criminal Minds absolutely is that. And the show has absolutely contributed to some of the stupider understandings Americans have about the subject of sex trafficking.
When actor Thomas Gibson was fired from the show in 2016 after an on-set physical confrontation with a member of the writing staff, I joked that I understood, since every time I’d watched Criminal Minds, I’d wanted to kick the writer too.
Matt Zoller Seitz said it best in Salon, back in 2011, of CBS’ entire lineup of crime shows, describing the network as “a factory cranking out shrink-wrapped tales of savage human monsters and the righteous public servants guarding us against them… They’re pages in a lurid catalog of kidnapping, rape, random assault, child molestation, passion killing, drug dealing, organ theft, sexual enslavement, and of course, serial murder.”
TV’s Murder Bloc
Indeed, for much of its run, Criminal Minds has aired on the same night (though on a different network) as Law & Order: SVU. Those two shows, followed by the late local news, have combined to deliver an unbroken two-and-a-half hour block of rape, perversion and murder, which is clearly something Americans can’t ever get enough of.
For all of its faults, Criminal Minds lasted an uncommonly long time, kept a lot of talented actors in business for over a decade, and it gave the people what they wanted. And what they wanted, was unsubs.