[5 October 2005]
After more than 15 years and countless imitations, the novels Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs continue to influence crime fiction. Thomas Harris’ books not only made the antics of Dr. Hannibal Lecter famous, but they also popularized the psychological profiling of the FBI’s renowned Behavioral Science Unit (BSU). Criminal Minds, the latest of the Harris clones, portrays a group of BSU agents as they pursue brutal socio- and psychopaths. Unfortunately, Criminal Minds confuses critical thinking with supernatural abilities.
The series’ many shortcomings were apparent in the premiere episode, when we met the members of a BSU tactical team, all conforming to stereotypes. The leader is Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin), a brilliant FBI profiler who is still recuperating from the nervous breakdown he suffered after confronting a particularly difficult and ghastly case. His personal struggles are thus immediately part of the show’s “criminal” fabrications. Not so original.
Just so, in the series premiere, a sadistic killer was kidnapping, torturing, and killing girls in the Seattle area. Gideon and his unit were sent to investigate. Morgan (Shemar Moore), the team’s wise, charming African American, quickly realized that the killer lures his victims by advertising a sporty Datsun-Z series for an attractively low price. Gideon further deduced that the murderer was using an auto dealers’ psychological trick, to gain the trust of their clients, claiming the low price is a “personal favor.” The unsuspecting victim feels compelled to reciprocate the seller’s act of good will, and buys the vehicle. Even though dealing with a used car salesman is a worst nightmare for many of us, the modus operandi of this villain was too droll to be ironic.
Despite this tidbit from Psych 101, Criminal Minds quickly fell into the trap of depicting profiling as supernatural gift rather than scientific endeavor. As he elaborated on the identity of the murderer, Gideon’s image is superimposed into the background of the crime scene, as if he were able to transcend time and space to actually see the perpetrator commit the offense. Scant minutes later Gideon provided a detailed profile, as well as his theory that the police had already interviewed the offender. Naturally, this info led to the arrest of the killer. The series failed to give any logical explanation of Gideon’s reasoning, because it’s simply beyond ordinary human comprehension.
It is ironic, then, that Criminal Minds also attempted to imbue Gideon with academic respectability. Gideon quotes Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, and Winston Churchill. Or maybe the show is trying to imply that, in the eyes of the uninitiated, advanced academic education is just as perplexing and unreachable as supernatural abilities. In any event, these references to classical philosophy and literature felt forced, like almost everything else in the show. But then again, Criminal Minds appeared at times to be self-conscious of its silly premise and devices. Toward the end of the episode, Dr. Raid (Mathew Gray Gubler), the team’s genius/geek, quoted one of the most prominent figures in modern popular culture: Yoda.
Still, Criminal Minds’ premiere was beautifully shot. Most of the scenes used bright primary colors contrasted against deep dark shadows. The home of one of the killer’s accomplices, for instance, had cheerful green and red walls, but poor illumination obscured large sections of the rooms. One could argue that this visual style was a metaphorical representation of the criminal’s mind: apparently joyful and benign, but beneath the surface, it is engulfed by terrifying darkness.