Viewers who feel they may have been C.S.I.'d, S.V.U.'d, or NCIS'd to death, should really keep an open mind concerning Criminal Minds, because this compelling procedural crime series brings fascinating new facets to this crowded genre. The always galvanizing Mandy Patinkin Chicago Hope makes a welcome return to the small screen as Jason Gideon, head of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, and sage mentor to his elite team of profilers, including compassionate Aaron Hotchner Thomas Gibson, of Dharma & Greg, Lola Gladini as sex-crimes expert Elle Greenway since departed from the series, live-wire hunk Derek Morgan Shemar Moore, and genius-geek Spencer Reid Matthew Gray Gubler, who actually looks creepier than many of the perpetrators that the team races against time to apprehend. Before they can do that, they must establish psychological profiles of the criminals and think as they do. Given they have handles such as the "Seattle Strangler" and the "Keystone Killer," this can be psychologically taxing in one episode, Spencer confides to Derek that the job is giving him nightmares. While cliffhangers frame this inaugural season, each episode except the season finale wraps up its cases in the allotted hour.
In addition to serial killers, the series unleashes a gallery of twisted and depraved specimens. "Trust me," Derek comments early on, "we cover the whole spectrum of psychos." This includes arsonists, rapists, child abductors, and even a cannibalistic killer. Anchoring the proceedings is Patinkin, who exudes authoritative gravitas, and who is always good for scenery feasting. He really comes to life when killers have Gideon at gunpoint and he taunts them into losing their already unsteady grip. Most episodes feature the voiceover of a team member reciting a pertinent quote from such varied sources as W.H. Auden "Evil is always human" to actor Peter Ustinov, a literary conceit that could stand to be retired. Stylistic flourishes in the editing and camerawork are likewise more of a distraction when the cases themselves are so gripping, given that the victims are primarily women and children. "There's nothing I would rather do than put the bastards away," Greenway states at one point. And there's nothing we'd rather do than watch them do it, which has made Criminal Minds, initially Lost opposite that ratings juggernaut, one of television's solid hits. --Donald Liebenson
"It's been a hard year for us," Aaron Hotchner Thomas Gibson, leader of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, tells his mentor, profiler extraordinaire Jason Gideon Mandy Patinkin in the season finale. No kidding! Just when you think Criminal Minds has shown you the worst that humanity has to offer, the show unleashes an Emmy-worthy episode like "No Way Out," featuring Keith Carradine in a chilling performance as Frank, who just may be the most prolific serial killer in history, and whose capture in a desert diner is only the beginning of a battle of wits between himself and Gideon. From serial killers and a mad bomber to sadistic kidnappers and rapists, these are truly the cases that try men's and women's souls. In this second season, the writers have taken great care to flesh out the BAU team. In "The Aftermath," Elle Greenaway Lola Glaudini, who still has not fully come to grips with being shot, steps over the line in stopping a serial rapist. In "Revelations," we see flashbacks to resident genius Reid's Matthew Gray Gubler painful childhood after a religious zealot a scarily convincing James "Dawson" Van Der Beek, kidnaps, tortures, and drugs him a later episode deals with Reid's addiction. In "Profiler, Profiled," devastating secrets about Derek Morgan Shemar Moore are revealed after he is arrested during a visit home on suspicion of being a serial killer.
New to the team this season following Glaudini's departure from the series is Paget Brewster perhaps best known as Chandler's short-lived girlfriend Kathy on Friends as Emily Prentiss, an ambassador's daughter. "Welcome to our nightmares," she is greeted. Her addition allows viewers to see familiar characters fresh through her eyes. Criminal Minds is potent stuff. "It gets to you," a character states at one point. Which might explain the gag reel clip in which Patinkin playfully breaks character during a scene in a playground by insisting on taking a spin on a merry go round and leaping on a teeter-totter Patinkin would announce during the summer hiatus that he would not be returning to the show for season 3. Another fun extra, in addition to four illuminating episode commentaries and behind-the-scenes segments, is a profile of Kristen Vangsness, who portrays Criminal Minds' liveliest and most colorful character, "tech kitten" Garcia. Perhaps the only thing a newcomer to the series needs to know is that the term "unsub" means "unknown suspect." Its frequent use in each epsiode has the makings of a drinking game. --Donald Liebenson
"Find the fetish, find the fiend." This is the queasily compelling Criminal Minds' version of "Save the cheerleader, save the world," and it drives each dark and disturbing episode. Before this pivotal season can really get down to cases, it must deal with some unfinished business. Mandy Patinkin, who announced he would be leaving the series, was given a graceful exit, but not before his character, ace FBI profiler Gideon begins to doubt his abilities and sanity in the aftermath of the murder of his girlfriend at the end of last season. Meanwhile, his protégé, Hotch Thomas Gibson is under pressure from Section Chief Erin Strauss Jayne Atkinson to resign the Behavioral Analysis Unit BAU, and Prentiss Paget Brewster submits her resignation rather than get dirt on him for Erin. All it takes to keep the team intact is for Strauss to join them at work on a particularly disturbing case involving a man using his son to lure unsuspecting women "He's going to kill you, you know". And speaking of unfinished business, enter Gideon's replacement, David Rossi Joe Mantegna, an inspired choice, a BAU legend who returns to the unit he helped found. He claims he just wants to help with the BAU "an agent down," but his true motivation will become clear as the season unfolds Suffice to say it involves an extremely cold case that continues to haunt him. Rossi's introduction is the accessible entry for viewers new to the series, as they, along with Rossi, get to meet the other team members, including hunky Derek Shemar Moore, bookish genius Reid Matthew Gray Gubler, and colorful computer whiz Penelope Garcia Kristen Vangsness. This season, the team is confronted with nightmarish cases, involving all manner of killers including one cannibal. Working together to catch these "unsubs" before they can claim another victim offers further opportunities for what Rossi calls "personal growth." In a two-part episode, Shemar must confront his crisis of faith. In another episode, Reid attends a support group for his addiction another development from last season. Two cases hit particularly close to home. In one, a team member is shot, and in the explosive season finale, another is targeted by terrorists. Considering Criminal Minds's intensity level, even the bonus gag reel, comprised of pratfalls, tension-breaking clowning, and even a birthday cake break for Mantegna, can be unsettling! There is something to be said for having a week to unwind between new episodes. A Criminal Minds marathon can seriously creep you out. And we mean that in a good way. --Donald Liebenson