I have recently become snared by Criminal Minds. In spite of my love for mystery, I tend to avoid procedural crime dramas. It takes an excellent hook to grab me. I have been watching Bones since the beginning. In the first episode, the main character reassembles a shattered skull to find cause of death. She just worked on it all night like a puzzle. I was fascinated. And, I admit, I watch Rizzoli and Isles, but that is because one must love Jane and Maura.
But I have never seen an episode of CSI (any of them), or NCIS, and I have only seen Law & Order when my mom is watching. So I was late to the party for Criminal Minds–ten seasons late, to be precise. I find that often happens, as I don’t follow the crowd when it comes to movies, books or tv.
How did Criminal Minds ensnare me? The brilliantly portrayed criminals. The show is about a FBI unit that specializes in profiling criminals: murderers, psychotics, serial killers. They use the profile to figure out who they are, what they are likely to do next, how they pick their victims. Then, generally, they catch them. And why is that different from other procedural crime dramas?
To explain that, I must reference a few episodes. The first one that really caught my interest was a man whose doctor took him off his medications in order to help him remember his younger years. He had been found around age 7 or 8 and had no memory of his earlier life, and he had mental issues all his life. After going off the medication, he did indeed start having flashbacks. Which unfortunately led him to murder several people as he followed the breadcrumbs back to his father–who was a serial killer and used his son to help care for and then bury the boys he killed.
They did a marvelous job writing about this character. I was completely sympathetic to him, the horror he had gone through was so clearly the root of his criminal behavior. In the end, he was of course caught and remanded to a psychiatric institute. Where they would put him back on his medicine and he would have to live with what he had done. He had never wanted to hurt anyone, and had only killed when he felt attacked during a flashback. To him, the person touching him was his father. What a horrible thing to live with. In living color thanks to the rationality of the drugs they give him.
The paraplegic psycho who used his mentally challenged brother to kill for him was masterful–and so easy to hate as they explored his mind. The brother was tragic. Still child-like, he did what his brother says, no matter what. Together they had a body count of over one hundred. Sadly, they were both killed, the challenged brother by police and the mastermind by a relative of one of the girls murdered. Another aspect of the show: justice being done, but not always in the expected ways.
Obviously, not all these criminals are sympathic. But they do a wonderful job with the villains we love to hate. The nicks and cracks of human nature is explored in-depth as they provide us with new criminals each week. The horrors that we can inflict on one another, the tragedies that shape people are all deeply thought out and provocatively presented. I have yet to see a two-dimensional character on the show. They are tortured, tormented characters enmeshed in their own psychosis.
And isn’t that what we all want to write? To present a fully realized, poignant character that evokes emotion from the reader?
Plot is important, of course. I, of all people, love plot; I rarely read a book that isn’t going anywhere. And when I do, I find myself wondering “is this going anywhere??” But it is always the characters that make it for me. Plot fails without people we care about. Much as we hate to admit it, within genres, there tend to be basic plots followed*. Thus my not watching crime dramas. It is the people that populate these worlds that bring us in and make us believe the world is real. Those are the characters to live for.
*I don’t want to infer that plot is not integral to the writing. A cleverly written story, with intricate twists and turns, is a joy to read as one tries to anticipate where the author is heading. But it is also a truth that superior characters can bring life to a downtrodden plot.