Bells and whistles changed. An unsub is still an unsub. I know how to deal with an unsub.
— David Rossi (Joe Mantegna)
David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) only looks happily retired. Shooting at ducks and shouting encouragement to his dog Mugsy, he’s also been waiting 10 years for a chance to get back to what he terms “unfinished business.” So when he gets the call, in tonight’s episode of Criminal Minds, to return to work at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, he’s good to go.
Or rather, he’s good as soon as he goes through the ceremony of arming himself, a neat and predictable bit of business related in a series of close-ups, in which he dons jeans and jacket, lavender paisley tie, a massive man-ring and gun. He also brings along a memento, a charm bracelet indicating his personal investment in his profession, bearing the names of three children (Connie, George, and Alicia, details that will no doubt become monumentally important as the season progresses).
Described in the series’ promotional lit as “old school,” Rossi harks back to the jurassic days of profiling, when the term “serial killer” was coined (courtesy of Robert Ressler during the mid-’70s) and when sexual predators were not on Nancy Grace every night. He’s a character you’ve seen before, a tough guy with a soft heart, his fondness for Mugsy shaped by the fact that he is a work dog, not a house pet. Rossi has particular memories and inclinations concerning his own work: he knows what went wrong before and also what went right. Certainly, over the course of his first day back, he’s reminded repeatedly of how much “things have changed,” that the FBI now keeps all its files on computer, that profiling criminals is now a career option, and that too many TV shows now focus on just that. His once-brandy-new expertise, which he was essentially making up as he want along, is now a cliché.
Director Erin Strauss (Jayne Atkinson, returned to the FBI after her grueling stint as at Homeland Security on 24) wonders aloud at Rossi’s decision to give up the speaking engagements and book tours, the “big pay days,” to return to the field. He assures her he has his reasons and you know that he knows that she knows a little something about his “unfinished business.” Still, he presses on, arriving at the Unit office where he’s not “in charge” and not even treated with much awe (the kids working there know him from books, see him as “historical”). Granted, they’re probably still reeling from the quick exit of their very passionate and sometimes erratic pack leader Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin, whose abrupt departure from the series remains unexplained). And Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) wastes no time quietly underlining his own top-dogness and suggesting that Rossi watch and learn during the first case.
This would be a most standard case for the BAU, a gimmicky serial killer whose first murder establishes MO: he kidnaps pretty ladies and eventually cuts their faces off, leaving behind a blank white mask with a number on it. He also initiates the ordeal by leaving flyers at the victim’s home, featuring her photos and a caption, “Have You Seen Me?” that allows them an unnerving glimpse of the search that will ensue once they disappear. The flyer (and the face-removing, a tediously gruesome touch) shows an appreciation of the media and police process in such cases, the tabloidy sensationalism, the cops’ assertion of “method,” the profiling industry. And the BAU team does exactly what you expect, according to formula. They fly down to Carrollton, Texas (“You have a jet?” asks Rossi, impressed), meet with local law (here, reliable Michael O’Neill as Detective Yarbough, feeling guilty because he told the first victim the flyer was probably meaningless), and proceed to “share” their thoughts on the killer’s particulars.
As always, the camera circles the group to catch each thoughtful expression and each completely obvious observation: the first pass at the crime has Prentiss (Paget Brewster) calling him a” textbook sadist”; when they “go over victimology,” pretty boy Morgan (Shemar Moore) notes that she was “pretty” and Dr. Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) adds, “Masks often represent a state of mind: this one’s blank, expressionless,” and so, he surmises, not indicating “anger.” The team’s formula is as uninspired as the show’s. This makes Rossi’s refusal to take part in the ritual more than welcome. He sits quietly, jotting notes in his ancient notebook and mumbling to himself, “Interesting.” Hotch hates this. “Anything to add?” he asks Rossi, who demurs. Hotch turns up the volume on his frowny face.
The case itself is decidedly dull, as the team puts pieces together and the killer is found out. But Rossi is potentially something else. Though he’s saddled with some conventional tics (he’s a profiler who talks to victims, he imagines himself able to handle the killer via confrontational phone calls, he’s interviewed some 45 offenders himself), Rossi is also built on intriguing details. Mantegna has always done much with little, his small gestures and glances bearing all kinds of character weight that’s not on a script page. He brings to Rossi a singular mournfulness and lingering rage that are not turned inward and angsty (this was, after all, Gideon’s province), but instead bent outward, into a mien that looks cocky but is also ready for what’s unknown.
Rossi is also possessed of a few intriguing contradictions. A crack shot (indicated by the opening hunting scene), he’s still unsettled by shooting at people. Arrogant and resentful, he’s also open to adjustment: he’s never had to work with a press liaison before, but okay, he’ll work with JJ (AJ Cook). And when ace researcher Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) answers his phone call with “Speak and be recognized by your empress, mortal,” he’s game rather than officious.
Rossi might be able to shake up the formula at Criminal Minds, a show in dire need of such shaking (despite or maybe because of its popularity). While it has long offered a central generational tension, between individual character and what Rossi describes as “groupthink,” Criminal Minds tends not to venture too far into any potential rupture. It needs signs of effort, gritty character work rather than shorthand “traits” ripped off from other shows (how many times have you seen the enticing oddball researcher or the socially inept genius?) It’s tempting to think Patinkin was tired of the same-old. Rossi’s traditional earnestness and self-reliance, his recklessness and self-doubt, might juice this too-slick series into a semblance of originality, even relevance.