Television

'Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior' Series Premiere

It's neither a new nor a startling insight, that missing children of color, or from places like East Cleveland, don't usually get task forces assigned to them. But it's helpful to hear it again.

Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior

Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Janeane Garofalo, Matt Ryan, Michael Kelly, Beau Garrett, Kirsten Vangsness
Creators: Edward Allen Bernero, Chris Mundy
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: CBS
Air date: 2011-02-16
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It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with his own.

--Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker)

A cute little white girl's gone missing from her suburban Cleveland neighborhood. The cops have scoured the block and can't find a clue. When FBI Special Agent Sam Cooper (Forest Whitaker) asks for an update, the lead detective (Christopher Michael) is frustrated: "She just disappeared!" Actually, no, Sam explains patiently. "Somebody took her. What my team does is we fill in the blanks, flesh out all the details one by one, until we can paint a picture of who that is."

You might be thankful that Sam has explained his job, with so many un-blocked metaphors, if you've never seen a show like Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior before. But because you've seen too many shows like this and too many teams like his, you're unimpressed. You're already too many steps ahead.

It helps that Sam is played by Whitaker, who brings nuance and also some useful baggage. The details of that baggage are slightly surprising, in that Sam is less like the high profile roles of Bird or Idi Amin or even the fanatical Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh in The Shield than Ghost Dog. Asked why he practices martial arts, he elucidates: “It's not just about self-defense, it’s about keeping body, mind and spirit in balance.” (Shades of: "Even if one's head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.") It's not that Sam is otherworldly or especially cool (though his outfits suggest he's careful about his self-styling). It's more like he has an actual thought process -- one you might hope becomes clearer once the series gets past its wholly unnecessary introductions.

It helps a little more that Sam's team includes Special Agent Beth Griffith (Janeane Garofalo). She spars with him on occasion, mostly good-naturedly, concerning his obsessive work habits and his willingness to empathize with unsubs. Yes, she understands that it's his job, as a profiler extraordinaire, to think like the person who's taken that little girl. And yes, she understands that Sam's experience helps prepare the team do its work, even when that work is unpleasant (he sends a pair of agents to scope the area for sinkholes and crawlspaces because, while "Everybody's looking for Samantha alive, we have to consider the other alternatives as well").

What Beth worries about is Sam's apparent lack of outrage, not at the criminals whose minds are their focus, but at the system. This is the added-value commentary in the premiere episode of Criminal Minds: Suspect behavior (which title, you might note, doesn’t specify a new location or even a new focus in relation to the original, which also contemplates behaviors as a way into minds).

On one level, that system is the very familiar one. The culture shapes criminals even as it rejects them, and so the investigators seek to decipher the unsub's particular grievance, assuming the why leads to the who. On another level, for Beth, that system is also specifically aggravating: during the search for the missing white girl, she's approached by Jeanette (Adina Porter), a black woman whose daughter Aisha went missing nine days before and whose case apparently went cold before anyone called the FBI. The episode underlines this overdetermined shoddy process, the lack of funds applied to underclass crimes, the families' pain over their losses and frustration when they see white kids' faces all over TV. The episode goes so far as to have Sam pretend to explain the oversight in this case: "It's pretty rare for an offender to cross racial lines."

Beth's advocating for Aisha suggests she and Sam share a livelier dynamic than you'd assume, given the show's otherwise utterly standard set-up. Though Sam makes him only the second black lead on current cop shows (the other being the ever cool Larry Fishburne on CSI), his team is faux-diverse, full of white oddities (one Brit, one blond, and one ex-vigilante, Prophet [Michael Kelly], who served time for murdering a child molester), plus the tech, Criminal Minds' Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness), set off in her very own domain with headset and puns.

All this generic busyness does make Beth and Sam stand out. As he focuses intently on one case at a time (we seek victims, he reminds Prophet, not vengeance), she outlines a larger picture. The white girl's case made the search for the black girl possible, Beth observes, "And the implications of that are so distressing." When he sighs, "That's one way to look at it," Beth won't let it go: "I feel like it's the way to look at it."

It's neither a new nor a startling insight, that missing children of color, or from places like East Cleveland, don't usually get task forces assigned to them or wall-to-wall media coverage. But it's not typical that a TV series whose title and pedigree and similarity to other shows pretty much guarantee it a first night's audience decides to use that showcase time to make a political charge against its own system of investigation rather than only noting -- again -- that deviant individuals make trouble.

The second episode, airing 2 March, suggests this sort of charge is a one-off. It leaves it to the unsub to make more usual pontifications against perceived systemic failures in order to justify sensational serial murders. The team sorts through the carefully arranged evidence and posed bodies, makes a couple of wrong guesses, and then captures the villain so that Sam can make an a-ha lecture. The system is intact.

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