CBS’ “Criminal Minds” is a gory, creepy, serial-killer show. It’s dissed by critics as a stapled-together knockoff of the network’s many other crime dramas. Its mirth-free tone is epitomized by Jason Gideon, the grumpy, taciturn FBI profiler played by Mandy Patinkin. And it’s up against the ultimate water-cooler show on Wednesday nights, ABC’s mythologically complex “Lost.”
Yup, conventional wisdom would dictate that “Criminal Minds,” now in its second season, should be moldering on TV’s rubbish heap.
So why is the series growing into a bona-fide hit that last week delivered its most-watched episode ever, with 16.8 million total viewers, just a shade behind the still-formidable “Lost” (17.1 million), according to Nielsen Media Research?
That’s one of the top questions bedeviling TV veterans in the first weeks of this season, which has already proven a disorienting wasteland for network executives praying for a fresh batch of big hits. Viewers with near-infinite programming choices are supposed to be gravitating toward the creatively daring and the critically acclaimed, such as “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” or “The Nine.”
Instead, the masses are screaming for ... “Criminal Minds”?
Well, yes. Since “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” broke through two years ago, programmers, trainable creatures that they are, just figured the audience wanted more. So networks loaded up on serialized dramas that inspired -- and also required -- slavish devotion from fans. Forget to TiVo a couple episodes and you may be, well, lost.
This season brought fare such as ABC’s “The Nine,” which follows the interconnected lives of hostages who survived a bank robbery, and NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” designed as a rural Southern answer to “The O.C.” But neither series has clicked with viewers. Nor did other serialized shows such as NBC’s “Kidnapped” or ABC’s “Six Degrees.”
“This was the year of serialized dramas trying to recapture lightning in a bottle the way that ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘24' and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ did,” said John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations for Minneapolis-based ad firm Campbell-Mithun. “But almost all of them were rejected by the audience.”
The growth of “Criminal Minds” is maybe the most convincing proof that not everyone wants to be chained to a dense, character-packed drama that unspools like a Dickensian novel. And even those who do have their limits. There is a reason why formula sells, why genres become generic in the first place.
To the surprise of no one, executive producer Mark Gordon rejects the notion that “Criminal Minds” is as pedestrian as the critics would have it.
“It’s nothing like those other CBS procedural shows,” he said. That Gideon and his team are typically pursuing serial killers -- including an 8-year-old suspect in last week’s episode -- changes the plot dynamics. “It’s about people solving crimes as they’re happening rather than after they’ve happened.”
Writer-producer Ed Bernero, who oversees “Criminal Minds” day to day, contends that the show is a lot smarter than critics give it credit for. The writing staff views the series as based on Arthurian legends, he said, with the FBI assuming the role of King Arthur and Gideon the stand-in for Lancelot.
Two recent episodes featured a killer who called himself the Fisher King, a direct reference to Arthurian myth.
“People learn something from watching the show,” Bernero, a former Chicago cop, said during a break in shooting at a Valley location last week on this season’s ninth episode. (Critics who’ve noticed the show’s tendency to focus on bloodied female victims have suggested the show’s teachings may be mostly misogynistic. Bernero counters that many serial-killer victims in the real-life cases the writers draw upon happen to be women -- and that, by the way, “Minds” does particularly well among female viewers.)
But Bernero also sees clear differences between his show and the competition. The team on “Criminal Minds” cracks a mystery every week.
“Lost,” meanwhile, has been drubbed by many fans for leaving too many questions unresolved about its central characters, who survived a plane crash on a mysterious tropical island.
“I’m a fan of the show, and I don’t feel like they’re giving me solutions to anything,” Bernero said of “Lost.”
Of course, it may be simplistic to assume that frustrated viewers are fleeing “Lost” and hopping aboard “Criminal Minds” (coincidentally, Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone Television produces both). The series are among TV’s most-watched, suggesting that there’s room for both.
And while “Criminal Minds” has been steadily gaining on “Lost” in total viewers, the ABC series retains a huge advantage among young adults, the group advertisers covet most. The median age of “Lost” viewers this season is 42; for “Criminal Minds,” it’s 53.
But the producers of “Lost” realize they’re walking a fine line between mapping out the grand fictional world that sophisticated fans expect and delivering the single-episode payoff that will keep casual viewers satisfied.
Last season dwelled on what happened when some of the survivors went “down the hatch,” a mysterious hole that led to unexpected confrontations. This year will focus on the survivors’ face-off with “the others,” another group inhabiting the island.
“This season is a sequel as opposed to a show you can just drop into,” said “Lost” executive producer Damon Lindelof. “You have to go back and do your homework. That could make it less appealing to a broader audience.”
Added executive producer Carlton Cuse: “ ‘Lost’ makes no promises. It’s an exercise in delayed gratification.”
He’s not kidding about the delay. After the Nov. 8 episode -- this season’s sixth -- “Lost” will take a three-month hiatus before returning in February. But Cuse promises that some mysteries that intrigued and possibly annoyed fans will get resolved soon. For example, how did Locke, the resourceful maverick played by Terry O’Quinn, wind up in a wheelchair? “That’s going to get answered at some point this season,” Cuse said.
“Criminal Minds,” meanwhile, will be adjusting to a major cast change. Lola Glaudini, who played the morally ambiguous Agent Greenaway, has left the series to return to the East Coast. Bernero said Glaudini was unhappy living in Los Angeles. (Through a representative, Glaudini declined to comment). Paget Brewster, perhaps best known for a recurring part on “Friends,” has joined the cast as a new profiler.
Aside from the personnel shift, however, the producers expect “Criminal Minds” to keep chugging along and hopefully edge past “Lost” soon.
Bernero isn’t worried about running out of material.
“At any given time, there are 30 serial killers working in the United States,” he said.
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins’ television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland.
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