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Criminal Minds was my show and it was never supposed to end

An ode to a crime show that has been on television for 62% of my life 

the cast of criminal minds moodily staring with some splashy red overlay Image: CBS
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

After 15 years on air, Criminal Minds is ending.

I am not caught up with Criminal Minds. I’m not even sure what’s about to go down in the final episode, or what’s even happened in the past season — I’m only in the middle of season 6. I’m in no rush to finish. But the fact that the procedural will end, that there will one day be a finite amount of Criminal Minds episodes for me to watch, is a blow to my personal happiness.

[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for episodes of Criminal Minds that came out 10 years ago.]

Criminal Minds is the show I turn on when I’ve had a bad day. In high school and college, I’d watch random episodes while folding laundry. Nowadays, I watch for six straight hours when I can’t bring myself to do anything else. It’s the show I put on in the background when I’m home alone and need some filler noise, the show I throw on when I’m cleaning my tiny kitchen and don’t need to pay attention. The suave, smooth FBI unit talks about the disturbing beheadings happening in a small Texas town. The team finds a head on the gate outside a sheriff’s house. I scrub my microwave. I watch Criminal Minds for six hours at a time and then forget about it for six months, but it’s always there for me. The show is my constant in the entertainment world. But now my endless slush pile of perfectly hyperbolic TV is coming to an end.

The CBS crime series premiered in 2005, and blossomed in the heyday of NCIS, Bones, Cold Case, and other procedurals-with-a-grim-twist. On Criminal Minds, the kind of freaky serial killers that typically appeared in Very Special Episodes of normal crime procedurals became the standard bad guys. Each week, the Behavioral Analysis Unit (or BAU), a special division of the FBI, hunts down the Unknown Subject (or UnSub) by diving into the human mind and using psychology to anticipate the killer’s next move. I was late to the show, but found myself lured in by my big, fat crush on Matthew Gray Gubler, whom I knew from eight minutes of 500 Days of Summer; he played the team’s youngest recruit, the messy-haired brainiac Dr. Spencer Reid.

Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), a brown-haired, clean-shaven main in a gray dress shirt and skinny black tie, on Criminal Minds
I had a Matthew Gray Gubler collage as my phone background for a long time.
Image: CBS

Spencer Reid is not the only beautiful member of the Criminal Minds team. Every main cast member is impossibly beautiful, from dreamy Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) to perfect, blond-haired Jennifer Jareau (A.J. Cook). They throw around jargon like “unsub” and “geographical profile” while wearing sunglasses and stomping around crime scenes. They all have backstories of the utmost tragique variety, though they aren’t always explored with much depth. My boy Spencer’s fear of inheriting his mother’s schizophrenia plays a prominent role in his entire arc, but at one point in the first season, stern agent Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) says something dramatic about how boys with abusive fathers don’t always grow up to be serial killers — sometimes, they grow up to catch serial killers. His past never comes up again.

Though the show never dives into Hotch’s backstory, it does show his ex-wife being brutally murdered by a serial killer who has sworn personal vengeance on him. Actually, almost every single man on the show has an important woman in his life brutally murdered, either on screen or via backstory. They cry about it. The team consoles them. It’s a bad trope beaten into the ground at this point, but the magic of Criminal Minds lies in how it embraces the tropey stuff.

Criminal Minds is pulpy and schlocky and full of crime-solving that teeters on being magical. Tech analyst Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) browses every single corner of the internet merely by furiously typing on her keyboard for a few seconds. Just by glancing at a photograph, a bunch of junk in a storage unit, or the hidden viewable-only-via-ultraviolet-light tattoo on a dead body, the team is able to pinpoint a criminal’s exact motive. The serial killers themselves often employ ostentatious methods that seem fitting of horror movies where the in-universe explanation is that they’re aided by demons or some magic shit, but no, that’s just how the serial killers in Criminal Minds work.

In season 4, Jason Alexander played an egomaniac with long flowing white hair who kidnapped a teacher and her students, and tossed them in a death-trap mansion modeled after the golden ratio. A few episodes before that, Wil Wheaton owned a motel where individual cabins could trap unsuspecting couples. Once, a psychiatrist lured victims to a fake office and then killed them by exposing them to their greatest fears. A crossover episode with a spinoff show, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, featured a man who kidnapped father-daughter pairs and forced the dads to battle homeless men to the death in abandoned pools. The show is just bonkers enough that I’ve never worried that a wig-wearing Jason Alexander would kidnap and murder me (though I do have nightmares about the wig itself).

Jason Alexander in a horrible white wig in an interrogation room on Criminal Minds, with David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) sitting at a table behind him
Literally, what the hell?
Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS

As sensational as the show can be, the detectives’ motivations and the deeper criminal psychology are genuinely compelling. Some of the best episodes of Criminal Minds are the least violent ones, and subvert the more simplistic get-the-bad-guy plot. An early episode found the BAU trying to prove the innocence of an inmate on death row — and confronting her insistence to meet her fate in order to protect her child. One particularly gripping hour ended with the revelation that a young boy had been killed by his 9-year-old brother, not by the apprehended serial killer. No, the psychological episodes were no less hyperbolic, but that sheer exaggeration was part of Criminal Minds’ allure.

There’s comfort in watching beautiful people hunt down bad guys using not just their guns and manpower, but their minds. Though the violence is terrible and described in gruesome specificity, the acts are rarely depicted in detail on screen, which means I can watch and not cover my eyes. The series’ longevity is a testament to how creator Jeff Davis understood the audience: A TV show has to be a specific type of mindless-yet-interesting to be capable of being both background noise and binge-worthy. Criminal Minds achieved that by following a repetitive format — bad guy setup, briefing, plane trip, simultaneous sleuthing and murdering, final stakes, rinse and repeat — but punctuating each moment with as much drama as possible.

Criminal Minds’ basic sensationalism isn’t the only reason I’ll miss the series. I’ve grown to know these characters. They’ve grown to know one another. I see them interact together, in pairs, in various subgroups. I know their rhythms. A favorite opening bit of mine sees the female agents at a bar together, where a guy claiming to be an FBI agent hits on them and they humor him for a second before pulling out their badges. They share coffee on their super-cool private jet. They play poker between flights. Agent Prentiss (Paget Brewster) and Dr. Reid watch Russian cinema together. Morgan and Garcia share a special, flirty-but-not-really relationship. It’s these moments of friendship and found family that ground the otherwise hyperreal show into something tangible. Maybe the real criminal minds were the friends we made along the way!

The 324th and final episode of Criminal Minds airs on Feb. 19. I still have nine seasons to go before I even get to that point, but the fact that I will one day meet the end of this cozy, comfortable show about murder makes me sad. Even when I eventually finish it, though, I will be comforted by the fact that after 15 seasons spread over however long it takes me to watch them, I’ll still be able to enjoy old episodes full of hyper-exaggerated heroes and bad guys. I might run out of episodes, but Criminal Minds’ legacy of mind-numbing escapism blended with just the right amount of heart and excitement will live on forever.

Every Criminal Minds episode begins and ends with a quote loosely befitting its plot line — except in the very few instances that the crimes were so heinous that nothing was fitting. In this particular metatextual case, searching for a quote to sum up the end of Criminal Minds feels like a task too momentous. Instead, I’ll paraphrase Agent Hotchner in the season 4 finale, in which the team discovered 89 murders at a pig farm wherein all the bodies were fed to the pigs: “Sometimes there are no words, no clever quotes.” Sometimes, a show just ends.

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