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One Good Thing: Nothing in Criminal Minds makes sense and it’s perfect

The crimes on Criminal Minds are wild, as are the ways the FBI solves them.

An actress standing in front of a screen showing photos of crime suspects.
On Criminal Minds, Penelope Garcia (played by Kirsten Vangsness), pictured above wearing cat ears, solves most of the crimes.
Cliff Lipson/Walt Disney Television Studios via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

On Criminal Minds, the criminal is usually a white man in his late 20s to early 30s. Except for that one time when it was a white woman who believes she is Cinderella. She kills men who don’t live up to her Prince Charming fantasies, leaving a phone in their mouths with an alarm set to midnight (you see the fairy tale reference here). She usually stabs them with garden shears, but she also gets them once each with a high-heeled shoe (again). Before killing one man, she rubs soot on her face (and again). One of the FBI agents pursuing her catches her by presenting her with a glass slipper and kissing her hand. They walk off arm in arm together — and eventually to her offscreen arrest, one would hope.

If it sounds incredibly bizarre, it’s because it is.

For those not familiar, Criminal Minds is a procedural drama that ran on CBS for 15 seasons, from 2005 to 2020. (There’s been chatter of a reboot on Paramount+, but it seems unlikely.) It centers on the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI, which, as the name suggests, tries to solve crimes by analyzing behavior. On the show, that translates to characters catching unknown subjects — or, as they say, unsubs — by delivering a profile, where they basically guess what the criminal (almost always a killer) is like.

It feels a little dissonant to call a show that’s about horrific crimes delightful, but there is, indeed, something delightful about the extent to which reality is suspended. So many of the crimes make absolutely no sense. Much of this would never happen in real life.

One lady drugs her victims to turn them into real-life dolls because her abusive father took away her doll set. One guy drowns people in their pools because, when he was a kid, he and a friend used to play pirates. Another guy kills young men and throws them into tornadoes because he’s trying to reassemble his dead brother. There’s a cult that freezes people. A lady who kills men to use them as fertilizer. A gambler who starts murdering for good luck.

If I’m spoiling some things for you here, I’m sorry. In my defense, the show usually spoils itself halfway through and tells you who the unsub is anyway. We’ve got to learn about that criminal mind, after all.

Beyond how unfathomable many of the crimes are, there’s another equally unbelievable layer: It’s genuinely confounding how the crimes are solved, too. The agents magically come up with random theories about someone’s life and personality, tell them to a technical analyst back at the headquarters — a colorfully dressed woman named Penelope Garcia (played by Kirsten Vangsness) — and she types those theories into a magical database. And poof! Suspect identified! The characters will be like, “Okay, look up a man in his early- to mid-20s who has a mean mom and a tattoo and lives in Ohio,” and what do you know, there’s just one guy who matches. (I’ve run into a conspiracy theory that Garcia is actually the only killer and goes around the country framing random men for crimes, which, honestly, could check out.)

Take the Cinderella killer as an example. Initially, the team thinks the killer’s a man — because the killers are almost always men — and finally decide it’s a woman. They put together the midnight, soot, and shoe thing somehow and decide the suspect is fairy tale-inspired. One agent figures out the shoe thing because she says she decided to browse a Jimmy Choo catalog and saw a stiletto heel. Another agent spills on her dress and puts together that the suspect could work for a dry cleaner after remembering someone who saw the killer said her dress had a tag on it.

The team comes up with a profile. They speculate that maybe the suspect is a stepchild or was in foster care. They also speculate that, in that scenario, her foster parents or stepparents favored their biological children. This would have upset her. The team tells this to Penelope, and among other items, she types this into her computer. I am by no means an expert on FBI databases, but I am a bit dubious that a database of “sad about foster care because parents liked biological children better than me” is actually a thing. Or maybe it is and I finally know what Palantir does. Whatever the case, this miracle database really streamlines things and speeds up the plot.

To be sure, Criminal Minds can strike a more serious tone, and some of what it deals in is quite disturbing and tragic. One of the main characters deals openly with being sexually abused as a child; another, with her sister’s suicide.

The show can be problematic in its treatment of women. There’s a lot of violence against women, so much so that one of the show’s early stars, Mandy Patinkin, exited after saying he realized “they were going to kill and rape all these women every night.” At one point, two of the show’s female leads — AJ Cook and Paget Brewster — were fired, only to relatively quickly be brought back after fans complained and the people over at CBS realized maybe this wasn’t a good look.

Criminal Minds got a little better on the lady front over the years. Cook’s character, Jennifer “JJ” Jareau, got to go from being a comms person to carrying a gun. The writers stopped killing off so many of the supporting female characters — who, as my colleague and fellow Criminal Minds fan Sara Morrison notes, were often portrayed as overbearing, incompetent bosses and nags. (Really, nothing gets you killed horribly faster as a woman on Criminal Minds than slightly getting in a male lead’s way.) Still, the misogyny in the show is reflective of the misogyny of real life: Violence against women is a pervasive problem in real life, not only on fictional crime TV.

Criminal Minds is not the perfect show, but in the realm of crime dramas, its slightly campy, often implausible, sometimes comical tone hits the spot. Like, I do want to watch Derek Morgan (played by the perfectly beautiful Shemar Moore) exchange over-the-top sexually charged jokes with Penelope the computer lady, who he refers to as “baby girl,” when he calls upon her to look up criminals in her magical database. I find the episode where Brewster’s Emily Prentiss shows up at a teammate’s house to drink wine by herself in a corner as everyone else helps assemble a crib to be relatable. Why is the FBI team assembling a fellow agent’s crib instead of, you know, the agent’s friends or family? Questions better left unasked.

There are a lot of scary things going on in the world, and maybe a little counterintuitively, Criminal Minds makes me feel a little less scared. My attention span is shot. Sometimes, all I want is to watch a 45-ish-minute show that solves a crime in that time frame, and to vaguely follow the plot, to the extent there is one.

I wrote this story with Criminal Minds on in the background (for inspiration), and at one point I looked up to see which episode it was. It’s one where a guy kidnaps women and kind of tries to turn them into birds. A fantastically improbable scenario, but worth the watch.

Criminal Minds streams on Paramount+. Seasons one through 12 stream on Netflix, and seasons 13-15 are available on Amazon Prime.