My relationship with the CBS hit series Criminal Minds is long and sordid. I’ve been watching it since I was fourteen, setting aside homework time to kick back for an hour of mayhem and murder and leaving A&E day-long rerun marathons on while I cleaned my room. The day it finally came to OnDemand, there was much rejoicing.
I love Criminal Minds because I’m fascinated by the psychology and analysis that goes into the episodes. But more than anything, I watch it for the cast, an ensemble-style family that has wormed its way into my heart over the many years. The Criminal Minds cast has gone through a lot, both plot-wise and cast-wise, and as the years wore on, there were missteps. Mainly, there has been an increasing trend for the writers to rely too much on their male ensemble characters, letting the female characters fall by the wayside and treating them like background or type characters that are easily replaceable.
The original cast was made up of seven characters: Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin), Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson), Jennifer Jareau, or J.J (A.J. Cook.), Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), Penelope Garcia (Kristen Vangsness), Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore), and Elle Greenaway (Lola Gaudini). The combination was solid, but because the show was just getting off the ground, there were some ensemble bugs to work out. Elle Greenaway never really resonated with me as a character. She was barely given a backstory, for one thing; she was born to an unnamed mother and a police officer father who died in the line of fire. The only twist in her personal arc occurred at the end of the first season, when a murder suspect for the case broke into her home, shot her, and wrote in her blood on her wall. After the incident she was understandably traumatized, exhibited behavioral changes, and she shot a suspected serial rapist while wearing her badge. She left the BAU shortly after.
I feel bad for not liking Greenaway, because she wasn’t a bad character. The show just didn’t give her enough of a personality or enough screen time for me to resonate with her. I loved quirky and sunny tech extraordinaire Penelope Garcia, who was hired at the BAU because she easily hacked into their system to erase her own petty theft rap sheet, and I understood gentle, charming J.J., the media liaison who treated young Spencer Reid like a sibling and joked about sports with senior profiler Jason Gideon. It was clear that the show knew how to write women; Elle just got lost somewhere along the way. I wonder if I would have liked her more had she been given more to do, or if the writers didn’t force a traumatic experience on her character just to set her apart.
Paget Brewster’s character, Emily Prentiss, soon came in to replace Greenaway. Prentiss, it seemed, was as thoroughly thought-out as the rest of the cast. She was sharp and smart and perceptive, and her resume boasted time with the FBI (and, it’s later discovered, Interpol), and her mother was also fleshed out as an equally strong character, a US ambassador with whom Emily traveled during her childhood. Prentiss quickly developed into a nurturing, protective character who took her work as a profiler seriously. Her entire story arc, which I won’t spoil, was deeply integrated into who she was and how she behaved as a person and a profiler, including how little she talked about her personal life, her disregard for workplace politics, and the responsibility she took for her team and their safety. She was a dynamic character with a complex and interesting backstory, just like J.J. and Garcia, and finally, Criminal Minds had a fully fleshed-out ensemble cast that made for a fantastic show.
But the perfection didn’t last. At the end of season six, A.J. Cook and Paget Brewster were released from their contracts due to budget cuts (J.J. was sent to work at the Pentagon and Prentiss was killed off), which led to fandom uproar and Internet petitions to get them back on the show. Ashley Seaver, played by Rachel Nichols, replaced them both.
I hated cadet and field agent Ashley Seaver. She was hands-down my least favorite character in all of Criminal Minds history (including all the murderers). In fact, I hated her so much during her short time on the show that I didn’t even bother committing her name to memory; I had to look it up for this piece. In my mind, Seaver was clearly pulled in as a replacement, a bottle blonde “younger model” of our beloved J.J who got cast aside because of television politics and budget cuts. I was resentful, sure, but maybe I wouldn’t have been if Seaver had been a decent character. Alas, she was not.
Seaver’s connection to the world of profiling was even less substantial than any of the other cast members, and her backstory read like a YA novel or soap opera. Her father was a serial killer, and she joins the FBI because she believes is her way of making up for her father’s horrors and tracking down men like him. Sure, that’s an interesting basis for a character, but backstories by themselves don’t make interesting characters. In Seaver’s case, apparently, they do. Her personality never developed beyond jaded little girl with a chip on her shoulder, and I thought she was whiny, childish, helpless, and stupid. It was just sloppy writing. Like Greenaway, Seaver was left to wallow in the back of the ensemble, given few lines and even less development. Thankfully, Seaver’s time on the show was short; she only lasted a season before either ratings or disgruntled fan grumblings told CBS to get the old characters back. A.J. Cook returned to reprise her role as J.J. at the end of season six after a few guest performances, and Paget Brewster returned for season seven, which removed Nichol’s Seaver from the picture. Unfortunately, Brewster left again at the end of season seven to pursue other career opportunities.
Once it was determined that Paget Brewster was not coming back, I’m convinced the Criminal Minds casting directors all either hit their heads incredibly hard or took a two-season vacation and left their jobs in the hands of sloths, repeating the atrocious phoning-it-in that they pulled in season six. Why? Because this is the section of the show’s life that I like to call “The Revolving Door of Brunettes.”
Like Seaver, whose personality was loosely strung together around her traumatic past, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Alex Blake, a linguistic specialist, and Jennifer Love-Hewitt’s Kate Callahan, an FBI agent with specialties as an undercover agent, never had the chance to grow. (Do I sound like a broken record yet?) Callahan’s main character trait was that she was an aunt, with a few sassy one-liners thrown in. Neither she nor Blake resonated with me, and I chalk it up to the Greenaway/Seaver problem: these women weren’t given much to do or a chance to become fully realized individuals, and their backstories and traumatic experiences were supplied as replacements for their characterization. Blake’s reason for leaving the show boils down to trauma she can’t shake after saving a little boy who reminds her of her deceased son. Callahan left the show because her niece was taken by human traffickers and she decided to take a year off to spend time with her family.
Are you starting to see a pattern here? It was as if the writers were at a loss after having such a solid ensemble cast for so long, that they didn’t know how to write good female characters anymore, or they thought there wasn’t a point because the rest of the ensemble was still strong. Getting Cook back was a start, but it wasn’t enough.
FINALLY, things are starting to turn back around in the eleventh season. After Hewitt and Cook, Aisha Tyler was introduced as the business-minded, badass forensic psychologist, Dr. Tara Lewis (the first person with a PhD on the show after Spencer Reid). Now that Cook is back again, and that Lewis is still around, the ensemble feels like it’s coming back together. Lewis is a new original character, refreshing and dynamic, and has integrated into the cast almost seamlessly, even though she was brought in as a temporary fill-in for Hewitt and Cook. While not much is known about her backstory, she is established immediately as a knowledgeable asset to the team; her professional background is in forensic psychology, and her specialty is studying, interviewing, and understanding psychopaths to determine if they are fit to stand trial. This is a new facet of the show, and the FBI’s work with the justice system, that we haven’t seen before, and it’s great.
Trauma alone cannot be used as a plot point or as a replacement for characterization. t’s not like the other staple women of the show didn’t undergo traumatic experiences. J.J. was kidnapped for information, Garcia was shot in her home and hunted by a group of assassins, and Prentiss was stalked and almost killed by an old nemesis. You know what happened when Lewis had a knife held to her throat and deciding to leave her fiancé because he was being a selfish prick? She dealt with it, moved on, and got back to work. These women suffered traumatic experiences. But they’re also complex. And that’s what makes them likable, personable, and worth connecting with.
Featured image via CBS.