TV Review: Criminal Minds

I feel ashamed to admit this, but when I was travelling my biggest discovery wasn't a foodstuff, or a place. It wasn't even local. It was a TV programme called Criminal Minds. Hey, let's be honest here - you're in a strange country, you mightn't speak the language that well, it's only natural you're going to head back to your hostel and trawl the TV for something you can understand and that lets your brain switch off for an hour or so. And in most cases, that was some kind of crime drama, and in a lot of cases it was Criminal Minds, Castle or a CSI. (Another thing I learnt whilst travelling: there are a lot of US crime dramas that start with a C.)

If you haven't seen it - and, as it's tucked away on Sky Living, I'm willing to bet you may not have - it's a police procedural drama following the profilers at the FBI's Behavioural Analysis Unit as they hunt down America's scariest criminals. So far, so typical. But what makes it different is that it's so unpredictable; whereas a lot of these shows signpost 'this is the murderer!' before the title sequence, often with Criminal Minds you will have no idea who the killer is until the episode's almost over. The early series also use lots of whizzy effects, like greenscreening characters into an unsub's life (for the unintiated, unsub - or unknown subject - is the FBI term for a criminal they haven't yet identified) and having evidence jump out from the board as the team piece the clues together, which is pretty groundbreaking for something in this genre.

The characters are also absolutely fantastic - really well written and, for once with this type of programme, not entirely cardboard cutouts. Normally with these shows I can pick a favourite character like that - usually the lead, because they're the ones who seem to get the most character development - but with Criminal Minds I have three favourites: team leader and dad figure Aaron 'Hotch' Hotchner, geeky genius Dr Spencer Reid (if you've got a thing about nerds I defy you not to fall a little bit in love with him), and tech analyst Penelope Garcia for her wonderfully flirtatious banter with Agent Morgan and her amazingly bright outfits. I'd only seen it in dribs and drabs so two of the characters in the first series weren't in many of the episodes I watched whilst I was away, and I've had mixed reactions to them - I love Mandy Patinkin as lead profiler Jason Gideon, but am not a huge fan of Elle Greenaway who just strikes me as a bit whiny and annoying. For me, the series definitely improves following the appearances of Prentiss in season two and Rossi (Joe Mantegna, best known as the voice of Fat Tony on The Simpsons) in season three. Plus they get the most amazing guest stars - Jane Lynch (aka Glee's Sue Sylvester) as Reid's schizophrenic mother, Nicholas Brendon (Xander from Buffy) as Garcia's boyfriend - as well as several 'before they were famous' moments for the likes of Elle Fanning and lots of 'is that [insert name of famous actor]?!', usually as a brilliantly creepy unsub (side note: Criminal Minds also seems to be where True Blood did a lot of their casting). I won't name names but there are certain characters you will never look at in the same way again.

A word of warning however: it is very, very dark and there is a lot of stuff that is very much pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable to show on TV (which is probably why it's no longer on terrestrial - I think when it first started Channel 5 squirrelled it away in a late-night slot but dropped it quite early on), so if you're not someone who's OK with blood and gore then it's probably not for you. I've probably watched that many of these kind of programmes by now that I'm kind of immune to it on some level, but even I find parts of Criminal Mins seriously disturbing and definitely wouldn't watch it on my own late at night. I think that's partly why I'm a Garcia fan - she's that ray of sunshine and light relief that a show like this needs. But it is utterly brilliant, surprisingly intelligent and full of heart; you genuinely feel sympathy for these characters doing an incredibly difficult job, and by and large they're actually people you'd want to hang out with. I utterly love it and am alreay trying to eke out my box set, because I don't know what I'll do when it's all over!

The box set of Criminal Minds seasons 1 to 7 is currently available on Amazon.co.uk for around £50 - previous seasons have come out in late November in the past so if you watch it over the summer and like it you can put season 8 on your Christmas list. I know I will be. You can also get all seven series on Lovefilm Instant at the moment but they're only up there until the end of July, so I'd recommend buying the box set as a backup. Or alternatively if you do have Sky Living season 8 is currently being broadcast on Tuesday nights at 9 PM (with previous episodes on Sky Go for two weeks afterwards) - they're up to episode 18 I think so it may be a little late to come to it, but from what I hear there's a pretty spectacular ending to this season...

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