Fifteen years ago, a few weeks into the first season of “Criminal Minds,” I stopped watching. For me, the show was too dark. Too violent. Too disturbing.
And the entertainment value of the serial killer-of-the-week format escaped me.
I watched episodes on occasion, but not on anything approaching a weekly basis. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my feelings about the show. Original series star Mandy Patinkin — sort of a first among equals in an ensemble cast — suddenly quit the series after two seasons. He later told New York magazine, “The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do ‘Criminal Minds’ in the first place. I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality.”
Not that his departure slowed the series down. It ran 15 seasons and 324 episodes, finally signing off in February 2020. Although, as it turns out, that wasn’t the end. The series has been revived for Paramount+.
The title is slightly different: “Criminal Minds: Evolution.” Not all the cast members are back, although Joe Mantegna, A.J. Cook, Kirsten Vangsness, Aisha Tyler, Adam Rodriguez and Paget Brewster do return. The 10 episodes feature the search for a single serial killer (played by Zach Gilford from “Friday Night Lights”) who’s been murdering people since 2005.
And, no longer constrained by broadcast TV standards, “Criminal Minds” is even more disturbing than it was when it was on CBS.
“If you think you were disturbed before, we may be taking it to another level,” said Joe Mantegna, who returns as Joe Rossi.
He wasn’t exaggerating.
And Aisha Tyler, who returns as Tara Lewis, said her husband had a strong reaction after watching the first to episodes of “Evolution” with her: “My husband was like, ‘I think I’m going to have nightmares.’”
He wasn’t exaggerating, either.
Again, I’m uncertain why so many viewers find tales of serial killers so entertaining, but the formula worked for “Criminal Minds” for 15 years. “We’ve done 324 episodes, and I would say 333 of them have disturbed me,” joked Kirstin Vangness, who has played FBI analyst Penelope Garcia since the series began.
To be fair, “Criminal Minds” isn’t the only TV series to feature serial killers. They pop up on virtually every other cop drama on TV, and they are the primary focus of some.
And, to be fair, I watch some of those other shows. And I’ve praised some of them — including the Netflix series “Mindhunter,” which was about how the FBI began hunting serial killers before “serial killer” was a common term.
But “Criminal Minds” almost seemed to almost revel in the violence. Particularly in the violence against women.
Mantegna, however, defends “Criminal Minds” as a “realistic” portrayal of the men and women of the FBI who pursue serials killers. And, he reminds us, the TV series is not real life.
“It doesn’t disturb me at all,” he said, “because when they say ‘cut,’ that person lying there with the ax in his head pops up and goes over to craft services and gets a sandwich. The ones I worry about are the real men and women of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies around the world who have to really do this for a living.”
He has a point, but let’s not pretend that fiction can’t be disturbing. And nauseating.
The first few minutes of “Criminal Minds: Evolution” are incredibly upsetting. And somewhat bloody. Less so than R-rated movies, but that’s a low bar to hurdle.
“I never wanted us to go into full, like, rated-R, extra violence or anything that would suddenly feel like a very different series,” said Erica Messer, who returns as executive producer. “So while I don’t think you’re going to be shocked at the graphics being worse or anything like that, there is some language that I feel is very appropriate even though some might consider it inappropriate.”
In other words, characters can swear a lot more on Paramount+ than they could on CBS.
If you like this sort of thing, “Evolution” is surprisingly well done. Engaging, in a horrific sort of way.
But there are things I wish I could unsee in the first couple of episodes. And the fact that Paramount+ is premiering those two episodes on Thanksgiving boggles my mind.
(The remaining eight episodes will premiere one at a time on successive Thursdays.)
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