A show that blends cops and grave robbers can give even a jaded critic a mind to get with the criminal, writes
THOMAS Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs has a lot to answer for: his wit and literary stylishness made Hannibal Lecter the most admired killer in history, but his success created a trail of imitators trafficking in sadism and unprecedented gore. The master of gothic crime did not invent the form, but he cleverly combined the detective procedural and the psycho profile to create the serial killer genre with its distinctive repertory of plots, characters and settings. He was able to almost lasciviously indulge his readers’ fascination with the killer and simultaneously allow them to recant the enthralment. Or keep it under control by identifying with a policing protagonist or organisation.
The latest entertainment in what has become almost a generic game is CBS’s Criminal Minds and its moody team of mind- hunting profilers from the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit, which returns to Seven this week. Thankfully, we are getting the two- parter The Fisher King , one of the best in the series, in one whack.
I missed the series the first time around, exhausted by all the virtuous government lawmen on cop TV briskly making everything right at the last minute.
I prefer the more jaundiced portrayals of police corruption and inefficiency such as the long- running LAPD drama The Shield .
It was my loss. Now I’m hooked on Criminal Minds , which in the US has grown from an unsung hero to the most- watched scripted program of the past season, with more than 13 million viewers each week.
Cerebral and occasionally confronting, the show features the requisite craggy cop tortured by a past case, Mandy Patinkin’s Jason Gideon. And Patinkin, the gifted, neurotic star of Chicago Hope , is great here, a man living in the shadows, exuding so much empathy he looks like he’ll burst. There’s also introspective heir apparent Aaron Hotchner ( Dharma & Greg ’ s Thomas Gibson), flawed genius Spencer Reid ( Matthew Gray Gubler), hotshot toughie Elle Greenaway ( Lola Glaudini), and Shemar Moore ( Derek Morgan), an expert in obsessional crimes who likes to kick down doors.
Yes, I know they are all somewhat stereotypical, but that’s what we love about generic entertainment, its theoretical stampede of formulaic patterns and variations of the formulas.
As much suspense thriller as police procedural, Criminal Minds traffics in gruesome and grisly stuff, which has included murdernecrophilia, a child serial killer and a cannibalistic killer who drinks blood to get closer to God.
American critics leapt on it when it began, attacking the way it seemed to take savagery against female victims to new heights and for being overrun with cop cliches, but audiences, fascinated by its reconstructions of the criminal sensibility and lapped it up.
Why does an obsessive- compulsive arsonist like to attack her victims in threes? Why does a serial killer drown women in hotel baths? Why would a murderer hold a family hostage and assume the father’s role before taking their lives? The almost sexy dialectic between indulgence and disapproval is possibly behind the huge success of the genre in fiction as well as on TV. And this creepy generic duality might be the reason for the success of Criminal Minds .
As Patinkin said recently, ‘‘ If I had to guess what it is about horror that is appealing to such a mass audience, it’s how it’s just a hair away from their own thinking.’’
There’s plenty of lovely dreadfulness in the twisting labyrinth of The Fisher King .
While on their separate vacations, each member of the BAU receives a clue, including a severed head, a 1963 baseball card and a trail of
Moody team: From far left, Criminal Minds stars Matthew Gray Gubler, Thomas Gibson, Lola Glaudini, Mandy Patinkin and Shemar Moore blood along a hotel hallway, from a medievalist psychopathic killer challenging them to save his next victim. As they attempt to do so, they find themselves as vulnerable as any victims they’ve met, the shock of their defencelessness undoing each of them.
This is a show for viewers who love clues, codes, ciphers, puzzles, allusions and riddles, and the references are almost endless: Gilbert and Sullivan, Chaucer, Schubert’s The Trout Quintet , Terry Gilliam, Stephen King’s The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s movie of it, Indiana Jones , and even medieval writer Margery Kempe, who also wrote about pilgrimages and persecutions. The Fisher King of the title, possibly our killer, is a character from Arthurian legend, usually a protector of the Holy Grail, an abstract and enigmatic symbol among many. He is always wounded in the legs or groin, a king in perpetual torment.
On the way to deducing this, our detectives discover a murder victim almost dissected by an Excalibur- type sword, a message written in blood on the wall above: ‘‘ Here thy quest doth truly begin.’’ Greenaway isn’t impressed. ‘‘ So we’re looking for Shakespeare,’’ she drawls.
The show is fond of softly spoken literary quotes that usually open each episode, wistfully delivered in voice- over by a character, a source of total irritation to some critics but of pleasure to this jaded TV crime addict.
It’s not until part two of The Fisher King that French philosopher Michel Foucault is in Gideon’s head with some post- structuralist advice on how to catch killers.
‘‘ The defects and defaults of the mind are like wounds in the body,’’ a quiet voice murmurs as the profiler slumps at his desk. ‘‘ After all imaginable care has been taken to heal them up, there will still be a scar left behind.’’
The literary flourishes are fun, but what I enjoy about this show is the high- energy, fastpaced, old- fashioned thriller kind of storytelling and its exploration of the psychological motivation of terrible things.
The writing is crisp and tight and, despite so much narrative to cover, surprisingly seamless and, the way good crime writing must, it turns on an almost abstract emphasis on the twists and turns of mystification.
As Dorothy Sayers wrote in her Omnibus of Crime way back in 1929, it may be that in mystery stories the reader, or viewer, finds some brief catharsis or purging of their own selfquestionings. ‘‘ These mysteries made only to be solved, these horrors which he knows to be mere figments of the creative brain, comfort him by subtly persuading that life is a mystery which death will solve, and whose horrors will pass away as a tale that is told.’’