Despite drama, it still fits the profile of a hit

Times Staff Writer

Someone IS getting blown up.

When “Criminal Minds" ends its turbulent third season Wednesday, one of the show's seven FBI profilers will explode. Of course, who and why is a big, cliffhanger secret to be revealed next season. But the upcoming big bang is a fitting conclusion to a season in which the behind-the-scenes drama rivaled that of the show's on-screen investigators as they chased 19 episodes' worth of serial killers.

"I think we're now in Season 3.3," said actor Thomas Gibson, who plays Aaron Hotchner, the head of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, echoing the sentiment of other actors and producers who feel the season's fits and starts have made it seem as if three TV seasons -- not 10 months -- have passed.

But despite the writers strike and the sudden loss of one of the show's main stars at the beginning of this season, the CBS crime series has performed well and is one of the Top 25-rated shows in broadcast television. The Wednesday-night program has consistently drawn over 12.5 million weekly viewers this season by managing to retain much of its audience despite facing the toughest competition on television: Fox's "American Idol," which is often referred to as "The Death Star" for its merciless ability to kill off opposing programming.

Today's stable situation seemed unthinkable last summer when Mandy Patinkin, who played the show’s top profiler, Jason Gideon, abruptly left the show. The tremors began in July when Patinkin failed to attend the first table read.

The writers, who had seven scripts in the works, were forced to start from scratch as they also dealt with the creative challenge of replacing a character that had served as "the mom" of the investigative team.

"We had no indication this was going to happen," show runner and executive producer Ed Bernero said. "He called an hour before the read-through and said, 'See you in an hour.' And that's the last time we've talked with him. We thought he was in an accident. We even called the police. The minute we knew he was OK, it was, like, 'Uh, we have a problem.' "

With the clock ticking toward the season premiere, the writers also faced the retooling of an episode about a college campus shooting, which had been held out of deference to the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. The plan to air it sometime in the middle of the third season was made impossible with Patinkin out of the picture.

Ultimately, the writers reworked it so that it could serve as the impetus for Gideon's departure. Patinkin resurfaced long enough to film a final scene in which his character drove off to an unknown destination, after leaving a goodbye note that said: "I'm sorry the explanation couldn't be better."

The actor could have written the letter himself. Patinkin, who left without speaking to Bernero or other producers, issued a statement citing "creative reasons" for his departure. He shot his last scene with a splinter unit while the main crew worked on another episode elsewhere.

But months earlier, Patinkin had told journalists that he was becoming increasingly distressed about the violence on the show.

"As crazy as it was, I look back at that time fondly," said co-executive producer Chris Mundy. "I don't look back on Mandy's leaving fondly, but I look back on how we dealt with it fondly. We had a real feeling that our cast was so strong and the characters were so strong that it wouldn't matter. But you never know until you see it."

Although Bernero knew he needed another seasoned investigator to help guide the team, he didn't feel pressured to fill Gideon's vacancy immediately. He waited five episodes before adding David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) to the mix.

"When Mandy left, nobody said anything, but everybody was, like, 'OK, is this the beginning of the end? Do we have to go get Jack Nicholson in order to save this thing?' " said Shemar Moore, who plays Derek Morgan. "But what was nice is that we had five episodes to trust in ourselves and step up. So the writers had to parcel out the words and story and character that they would normally give to Mandy and spread it amongst us, and it gave us a new sense of confidence."

Enter Mantegna, who has wanted to settle into a TV series for some time and felt his joining the show was serendipitous because most of the crew had worked on "Joan of Arcadia," his last job as a series regular. He also hit it off instantly with Bernero, who, like him, is an Italian American from Chicago.

Mantegna had a request: that his character be an Italian American named David Rossi, after the Los Angeles Police Department watch commander who was on duty when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered in 1994. The officer's classy demeanor on the stand as O.J. Simpson's lawyers grilled him had stuck with the actor. (The real Rossi has retired to Idaho and visited the set recently.)

Bernero agreed, and the fictional Rossi became a founding member of the profilers unit who had retired early to write and lecture but had been drawn back, in part, because of a 20-year-old unsolved case that was haunting him.

"Gideon was a mother hen kind of figure to the unit, and that was nice," Mantegna said. "When they brought me in, they didn't want another mother hen. They wanted a rooster that shakes up the hen house."

Stricken by the strike

But JUST as the cast settled into a groove, with story lines that included viewer favorite Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) getting shot during a blind date, the Writers Guild embarked on a three-month strike.

"That was so stressful," Bernero said. "When we returned, there was so much excitement, but then we came to the realization, 'Wow, I'm so exhausted.' It all really feels long ago. I can barely remember when Mandy was here. Joe is such a great part of the family."

Since the show returned, viewers have gained insight into Rossi's soft heart, Hotchner's divorce, Dr. Spencer Reid's (Matthew Gray Gubler) struggle with addiction, and the pregnancy of Jennifer Jareau (A.J. Cook, who returned from the strike in the same condition). The "24"-style season finale (it will even have split screens) required the building of a replica New York subway station because filming on a Los Angeles Metro line didn't cut it.

"That's how you know the difference between a hit show and one that's not," Mantegna said. "When you can build a subway station like that in one week."

The heart-thumping finale begins with a Son of Sam-style story that evolves into perhaps the most complex and dangerous probe the unit has encountered. When it began filming last month, virtually no one on-set knew which character would be in the blast.

"Someone is in grave danger," Mundy teased.

"It will be huge and costly," Bernero added.

"I'm hoping they're not taking out the new guy. That's all I gotta say," pleaded Mantegna, aware that the procedural drama had already lost two main characters. Lola Glaudini left after the first season, making room for Paget Brewster.

The team leader countered: "The new guy hasn't been around long enough to get kicked around enough," Gibson said. "We gotta kick him around a bit before we blow him up."

With no evidence in hand, the people who play profilers for a living were left to, well, profile.

"If they show the hand turning the ignition, then you could figure out woman, man, black, white," Vangsness said. "But they don't show you that. I don't want anyone I know to blow up."

Gubler joked (or did he?) that he had seen the crew passing out a black severed arm. "I think Shemar is black. But then again, I don't know -- maybe they were messing with me. Maybe they wanted me to see that so I would figure I was safe."

Moore's take on the mystery: "I don't know if it's for dramatic effect or if they're trying to keep us from renegotiating. We all bought new cars this year. Let's see who's going to be first to return to the dealer."

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maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com

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