Many people have said that I have a criminal mind. So it seemed only natural that I might watch a show like Criminal Minds. And I did. The first few seasons were entertaining, occasionally even riveting psychological drama. It helped that they had capable writers and a good cast. The likable team of misfits that made up the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit was a great juxtaposition to the horrible deeds of the serial killers they’d catch each week.
The problem is that there are only so many ways to show the FBI catching serial killers. And there are only so many kinds of serial killers. So after having them catch young serial killers, old serial killers, partner serial killers, father & son serial killers, femme fatale serial killers, cop serial killers, and a bunch of others I’ve left out, what is left? The detail. That’s it. Exactly how they get caught. Exactly who they kill. And exactly what they do to them. The show used to be catching the man (or woman or child or Eskimo stilt walker) responsible for dropping the bodies. Now it’s become about exactly what they do to those bodies. They no longer just find bodies on some logging road. Now we are treated to a few minutes of the killer taunting or cutting or raping or whatever else they can come up with. It’s gone from psychological drama to torture porn.
This isn’t the first show to lose my interest after falling into this trap. It happened with Oz. It happened with 24. It’s not that I can’t stomach to watch these gruesome scenes. I typed up police reports for two years and have a vivid imagination and the things I’ve read (and thus imagined in my head) in the Child Protective Services reports are worse than anything I’ve ever seen on the big or small screen. I have no problem with the gore, but the gore has to have a point.
If the scene is not furthering the plot or furthering the character, then it’s just there to titillate and as a storyteller, I tend to be offended at that sort of thing. The Shawshank Redemption has scenes where our main character gets raped by a group of inmates. That scene is less than a minute long and there isn’t one shot of throbbing penises penetrating him. Why? Because it’s entirely unnecessary.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are times when the sex, the violence, the torture, or the wonder have to be front and center and we need to experience it to really get the movie, but this only happens in the presence of good storytellers. I recently watched an Australian movie called The Square. The story is about a man who commits one sin, then a slightly worse one, then worse, as slowly he’s entirely compromised as a human being. It’s an incredibly well done film and there are no unnecessary scenes in it even though there are a few very unpleasant ones.
At the same time, master storytellers tend to be able to tell a story without overly graphic scenes. The best sex scene in any movie I’ve ever seen is in Robert Altman’s movie The Player and it has no nudity in that scene. A master storyteller understands that given the right fuel, the scene will light up in our heads better than anything they could film. It’s why Silence of the Lambs is a better thriller than any of the sequels. If you know how to tell a story, you don’t have to go there. The audience will go there on their own and they won’t feel too dirty afterword.
I get that not everyone is like me. Some people like to watch pretty explosions or special effects or graphic sex or violence. I do too, from time to time, but I prefer all of those things to be accompanied by a story. Otherwise it’s all just porn: There to get you off in only the most base way and better when you don’t think about it at all. That’s not what I want from my entertainment.
There was a great comic book series in the 90’s called The Maxx. It ran 35 issues and was still fairly popular when the creators stopped making it. When asked why they stopped, they said they didn’t have any more story to tell. This is what has happened on Criminal Minds. They have no more stories. All they have left are some decent characters who week in week out share the screen with some other characters who are doing horrible things to people. If you’re a long time watcher of the show, you’ll also notice that the newer episodes have more killers who take their victims hostage for days. This isn’t something most serial killers do, but it’s hard to torture dead people and that’s all they have left to show us it seems. Unfortunately they have no more story to tell, but they all still want paychecks and people are still tuning in so Criminal Minds will continue. I just won’t be watching them.