Few actors look as good filmed in black and white as Thomas Gibson. He’s all angular cheekbones and aquiline nose, pale skin and dark, dark hair. There’s something decidedly old-Hollywood, even Cary Grant-ish about him.
The fourth season premiere of Criminal Minds showcases this appeal, opening on Gibson’s Special Agent Aaron Hotchner stumbling dazedly around a street in lower Manhattan, having nearly been blown to smithereens by a car bomb set underneath his shiny black FBI SUV. When a passerby (Michael Steger) stops to help, the disoriented Hotchner flashes back to a conversation he had with fellow agent Kate Joyner (Sienna Guillory)—also victim of the explosion—in order to retrieve his identity.
While the crisply black-and-white memory insinuates his enduring strength of mind despite his concussion (he’s a super-star FBI criminal profiler, after all, which means he’d better have some mental chops), Hotchner may also be seeking solace in the certainties of a past that looks quite unlike the messy confusions of his present. Those confusions center around a terrorist attack on New York City. Hotchner and crew have been profiling and chasing down an emergent terrorist cell in New York that hits multiple targets simultaneously. Clearly the team was getting too close, and the cell targeted Hotchner and Joyner, leaving them in their broken and battered state.
Criminal Minds’ version of this attack on Manhattan (which is already becoming a TV-cop-series cliché) reduces the terrorists and their plot to the most simplistic terms. Even the Bush administration, since 2005, has stopped referring to “the global war on terror” and now uses various forms of “a global struggle against violent extremism.” The change in terminology suggests several things, not the least of which is the complexity of what causes acts of terrorism, as well as soft-pedals the administration’s previous absolutes. Criminal Minds sees no such complexities. The episode trots out run-of-the-mill platitudes and pieties. Hotchner tells underling Derek (Shemar Moore), “We’re at war, things change,” after which any number of subordinates chime in along these lines, referring to procedural and organizational differences in the New York field offices since 9/11, a variation of the “9/11 changed everything” mantra.
Most troublesome is Criminal Minds’ manipulation of racial assumptions and liberal guilt, most visibly in its use of a variety of vaguely Arabic-looking extras. In this, the show seems to challenge a knee-jerk alignment of Arab-Muslim-terrorist, especially as several of these secondary characters appear out of the chaos to help, as a good Samaritan and an EMT. But here, first impressions based in xenophobic judgment are always correct. If someone “looks like” a terrorist, he is indeed a terrorist.
This superficial identification of the Islamic terrorist is supported by further linking Islam to a so-called “culture of death” (as opposed to the “culture of life” seemingly celebrated by the Christian West, the ironies and contradictions of which are too numerous to even begin to point out here). When he catches up with one of the terrorists in the subway tunnels, Agent Morgan is lectured by him: “You will lose in the end. Do you know why? Because you fear what we embrace.” Having delivered his jeremiad, the terrorist promptly steps on the “third rail” and fries himself.
It’s unfortunate that even when the architects of the “global war on terror” have changed their phrasing and perhaps their presumptions, Criminal Minds steps back in with such absolutism.