Criminal Minds - Season 14
“Criminal Minds has never had a queer agent across its fourteen, very straight seasons.”
Title: Criminal Minds
Episodes Reviewed: Season 14
Creator: Jeff Davis 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Bruce Zimmerman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Christopher Barbour 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Breen Frazier 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Erik Stiller 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Erica Meredith 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), various
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Read the Season 13 review here.
“I knew it was a hell of a story.”
That’s one of the opening lines of Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. It’s the premise that underlies the entire true crime genre, from the floods of docuseries to innumerable podcasts. It’s what makes it all so compelling, and at the same time, so awful. In the drive to tell stories that draw viewers in, each tale must be more twisted than the last, more gruesome and perversely captivating. But in the fervor to do or tell something new, the focus shifts evermore from the victims. They become casualties of a concept, faceless and meaningless, unless they themselves can bring something sordid to the table.
Serialized dramas like Criminal Minds are hardly exempt, as they find themselves in a constant battle to retain viewers. Crimes that once compelled no longer shock, so plotlines must become more lurid, more eccentric, more numerous—and what little time was ever spent considering the victim has dwindled away to nothing. The loss of a life has become largely meaningless.
There are moments when Criminal Minds bucks the trend, but more often than not in its penultimate season, episodes have been weighed down by that desperation for drama. And, following another trend of its contemporaries, when the case of the week can’t raise the stakes, personal drama does. In its early seasons, some of its best episodes include personal trauma, but the repetitive nature—seriously, there’s a limit to how often federal agents can be kidnapped or have their significant others imperiled before it seems like a systemic problem—feels exploitative, not explorative.
The show’s draw has always been the way the team of profilers work together like a finely-tuned machine, but in expanding its cast to eight leads, Criminal Minds has made it impossible to differentiate its characters. It’s less a finely-tuned machine and more of a monolith with interchangeable parts, none of whom have the space to reflect on a crime or feel a genuine emotional reaction. It’s here that Criminal Minds makes its biggest miscalculation: Loyal viewers aren’t turning away because they’re desensitized to crime. They might simply be finding little reason to tune in each week when the characters we love get lost in an overcrowded field, and in a sea of gore.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES—in 9 out of 15 episodes
The show’s fourteenth season, which for awhile looked as though it might be the last, circled back to some of its earlier episodes in a slightly macabre “greatest hits” mixtape. Among them, a callback to the third season’s “In Name and Blood” sees Prentiss (Paget Brewster) rescuing a young boy used as bait by his father to lure female victims. Eleven years later, the boy is all grown up, and following in his father’s bloody footprints.
The episode emphasizes the initial bond Prentiss had with the boy, and how, due to circumstances beyond her control (faking her death chief among them), she was unable to maintain the relationship—something he still resents. The story leans heavily on her sense of personal responsibility for the boy, complete with an insinuation that she may have even tried to adopt him at one point. This backstory fits in neatly with the long-running trend on Criminal Minds that attributes killers’ actions to their mothers or mother figures. Over and over, the show’s profiling reveals a murderer shaped by his mother’s neglect, or promiscuity, or mental instability, driving home the message that mothers are either good or bad. Intermittent reminders of what “good” motherhood looks like come by way of JJ (A.J. Cook), who, despite the occasional struggle with balancing motherhood and jetting around the country to catch baddies, serves as the antithesis of all the bad moms whose boys become killers.
The obligatory, oversimplified lip service to working parenthood is actually an improvement on so much of how the show acknowledges gender. It offers a picture of four women working in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men, including a woman of color, but pays no mind to what it really means to be a woman working in law enforcement (or existing in general). While Criminal Minds has—commendably—gone from a male-dominated cast to a gender-balanced one, it has done so in a way that makes no actual acknowledgement of gender. This would be problematic in and of itself, but given that sexual harassment and gender discrimination is so widespread in the Bureau that male agents joke about how much money they might be sued for, it borders on propaganda to pretend that gender doesn’t matter.
Given recent revelations about the inner workings of CBS, the blind eye that Criminal Minds turns to sexism seems like the product of a larger culture. The network’s longtime CEO, Les Moonves, was forced out amidst sexual harassment and abuse allegations last September. Ronan Farrow’s exposé describes a culture of harassment and abuse at CBS, where gender discrimination was rife and abusers routinely promoted. Sexual harassment and discrimination allegations on both NCIS: New Orleans and Bull went ignored, and an investigation revealed a deeply flawed reporting system within the company. Criminal Minds, which is co-produced by CBS and ABC Studios, has its own history of sexist dealings with CBS, though it was ABC that allowed director of photography Greg St. Johns to remain on the show after numerous harassment complaints. And like CBS, ABC Studios has a history of ignoring misconduct claims.
On a network that tolerates sexism, produced by a studio that doesn’t take it seriously, with a behind-the-scenes culture that seems willing to accommodate toxic behavior, it hardly seems like an oversight that workplace sexism never comes up on the show.
As with its treatment of gender, Criminal Minds offers an inclusive cast—three of its eight leads are people of color—but never actually acknowledges race. And, as with gender, the real-life FBI has a serious internal problem in terms of racial representation and flat-out racism.
In 1993, the Bureau settled with a group of Black agents who had sued for alleged systemic racism. They won the suit, but the Bureau failed to deliver the reforms it promised, leading to a second suit, which was settled in 2001. In the years since, the percentage of Black agents has actually fallen—from 5.3% in 1995 to 4.4% in 2018. Latinx agents have faced a similar statistical backslide, dropping from just over 7% in 1998 to 6.5% last year. And while the percentage of Asian American agents has risen in the past two decades, the jump from 2.8% in 1998 to 4.5% in 2018 still doesn’t match up with population demographics. Across the board, the higher up the career ladder, the lower the percentage of agents of color.
As exciting as it is to see Black, Asian American, and Latinx agents onscreen, and as much as it means in terms of inspiring young people of color to pursue similar careers, failing to recognize the rarity of non-white agents willfully ignores a systemic problem. This self-imposed ignorance extends to the stories the show tells, nowhere more apparent than in the season’s seventh episode, “27 Minutes.”
It’s a classic ticking-clock setup, and the episode itself is well-crafted, following Agent Prentiss as she spearheads the effort to find and stop the unsub (or “unknown subject”) who’s killing someone every twenty-seven minutes. At first glance, it’s a stellar episode and addresses some key social issues—they soon realize they’re actually chasing a pair of Black siblings who are using their spree to draw attention to inequality by demonstrating that emergency services are faster to arrive when victims are dropped off in affluent neighborhoods.
The problem is, despite explicitly pointing out the connections to privilege, class, gentrification, and an unfair system, not once does the subject of color come up. In any discussion of economic inequality, it would feel like a glaring omission, but setting the scene in one of the most segregated cities in the country makes it utterly galling. When agents attempt to predict the next targeted Washington D.C. neighborhood, they point to Columbia Heights, saying that residents have been upset over recent efforts to gentrify. As one of the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in America, with an influx of white newcomers pushing out Black and Latinx residents, Columbia Heights does fit the unsub’s criteria to a tee. But it also makes it impossible for anyone—especially resident genius Agent Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), who always knows everything—to miss the connection between race and economic inequality.
Once a thriving commercial hub for Black residents of D.C., the 14th Street Corridor running through Columbia Heights was burned to the ground in the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the decades that followed, the neighborhood was left for dead by those who could afford to ignore it, until the arrival of mostly white residents in the early aughts spurred “urban renewal” and “revitalization” projects. Meanwhile, calls for basic social services that would support the existing population went largely ignored—a problem the unsubs tried to spotlight.
None of this is to say that the episode ought to have veered off into a history lesson, or that the focus should have shifted from the normal fare of solving crime to a parable on the subject of racism. It’s simply to point out how much writers paper over any mentions of race. And once more, it’s not hard to find at least one reason why it’s so easy for the show to turn a blind eye to race: Its writers and executive producers are almost exclusively white.
Criminal Minds has never had a queer agent across its fourteen very straight seasons, and now it seems it never will. Given the heavy reliance on romance for levity, it’s not simply that no characters are out—it’s that viewers exclusively see heteronormative love lives. The season finale alone includes a wedding, a declaration of love, a pregnancy announcement, and inquiries of multiple unseen significant others—and in each and every case, it’s a straight pairing. It adds up to a show that’s not only fails to be inclusive, but so thoroughly quashes any possibility of queerness that it’s actually exclusive.
It’s something of an insult on top of an injury given that, early in the series’ run, then-showrunner Ed Bernero had pitched the idea of Emily Prentiss as a lesbian, which was reportedly rejected by CBS. While it follows a pattern among long-running procedurals of excluding queer characters, contemporaries like Law and Order: SVU and NCIS have at least introduced recurring queer characters. Criminal Minds has made no such inroads, even as its stars have voiced their support and the showrunner, Jeff Davis, is openly gay himself.
Media that features law enforcement has a unique opportunity to effect change for the LGBTQ community. The historically warranted lack of trust in the system continues to prevent queer victims from reporting crimes. While a few queer agents can’t change a legacy of injustice, in the context of law enforcement, there is value in having an onscreen champion.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.13/5
Representation means more than just box-ticking diversity. It requires the acknowledgement of identity: Going beyond the simple existence of a character to explore what it means to be a person of color, a queer person, a disabled person, a woman, or any other deviation from the white cishet male experience.
Criminal Minds has a roster of extremely talented actors, but in denying their characters an identity grounded in truth—the truth of what it is to be a woman or a minority in 2019—it devalues them and it devalues the viewers who feel invested in them. The show’s specialty is exploring what makes people tick: Unsubs are profiled and untangled, as agents work out what makes them who they are. But such critical analysis is never fully applied to the profilers themselves. We’re given glimpses into their past and present traumas, but not enough to hold any meaningful discourse around them.
If the final season owes viewers anything, it’s the acknowledgement that identity matters. Whether it’s seeing a victim as more than a nameless, faceless detail, or seeing the long-running characters who anchor the show as individuals who exist in the real world, we deserve more than to be deemed the lowest common denominator.
We aren’t just in it for perverse pleasures or melodramatic cliffhangers. We—I—love Criminal Minds for so much more. But we deserve for it to love us back.