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Television Good riddance to Criminal Minds and female-subjugation porn

Joe Mantegna as FBI Special Agent David Rossi in Criminal Minds.

CBS

Generally speaking, it ill behooves anyone to take great pleasure in the ending of a long-running TV series. But in the case of Criminal Minds on CBS, it’s perfectly legit.

The network announced the other day that the upcoming 15th season of the series will last only 10 episodes and be the last. The crime procedural about an elite team of FBI profilers has been a hit since it began, and although ratings have dropped in recent years, it is much syndicated and almost inescapable on the TV landscape.

It’s time for it to stop production because, increasingly, its fetishization of the kidnap, subjugation and torture of female characters looks out of touch, out of date and perverse. It carries the whiff of another age; an age when it was more acceptable to invite the audience to drool over scenes of a frightened woman in the clutches of a deviant male, and then cheer or shrug when the FBI turned up at the last minute to rescue her.

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From the get-go, I loathed it. When it made its debut in 2005, it was one of a batch of new crime dramas that relied heavily on women in jeopardy for a plot device. Criminal Minds was just more overwrought and overwritten than most, and from the first episode, it featured the gruesome treatment of women to titillate the audience.

My review of the opening episode included this: “The show is unoriginal, graphic and deeply committed to presenting FBI guys as outstanding male authority figures. They flit about the United States, bark orders at the local cops and stare manfully at crime scenes and disgusting photos of the murder victims. Then they crack the case by understanding some pervert’s so-called mind.”

What was particularly irritating was the pretension. The original main character, special agent Jason Gideon (played by Mandy Patinkin), was presented as the FBI’s top behavioural analyst and liked to use quotations from Samuel Beckett, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Faulkner and Winston Churchill, like an irritating graduate student who spends a lot of time in the campus library because books are his only friends.

In the first episode, a woman was kidnapped, caged, chained and tortured. Viewers were treated to some disturbing scenes. The gist of the plot was an allegedly salutary lesson – the woman had foolishly agreed to meet a guy from whom she was buying a car, and thus landed herself in the hands of a weirdo.

Mind you, the victim was eventually pushed to one side; the meat of the drama was in the work of the fiercely dedicated team, mostly men, desperately trying to analyze the mind of the kidnapper and capture him before the victim was killed. At the end, viewers saw the traumatized, terrified woman released to stumble around in chains, while the really dramatic business – you know, the gunplay and macho argument with the pervert – unfolded.

Criminal Minds didn’t change much over the years, even as some key cast members left, and its longevity suggests it answered some need in the psyche of the American popular culture – the need to see middle-aged men as authority figures and comely young women as bait for perverts and weirdos.

Like many emanations of the popular culture, it’s perfectly possible to regard the series as mere formulaic escapism, a hokey and humourless crime drama with a bit of female subjugation for a garnish. But now, the series looks like the motherlode of accidentally meaningful television content. The matter of female subjugation isn’t just a garnish to the main plot if it’s used over and over again across 14 seasons; it becomes the underlying point of the show.

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In 2007, Criminal Minds had the post-Super Bowl time slot, the most coveted of all TV time slots. The 90 million viewers who watched the game were invited to then watch an episode in which the crime was summarized as this: “Dot-com millionaire Dennis Kyle and his wife, Lacy, are bloodily slaughtered in their suburban Atlanta home, just like animals in the countryside.” What happened had something to do with an adulterous wife being viewed as a “biblical Jezebel” and much horror unrolling before the FBI’s elite team solved the puzzle.

Not every episode has featured a woman in jeopardy or a woman being punished for being alone and independent. Often, Criminal Minds has been about telling viewers to be afraid – afraid of strangers, the young, the different and the foreign.

In 2016, CBS launched a spinoff, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. In the year Donald Trump was successfully stoking paranoia about immigrants, it looked like a stroke of genius – while everything outside the viewer’s house might be scary, what’s even more frightening is what’s outside the United States.

I can recall executive producer and co-creator Erica Messer explaining the show's origins to TV critics. “There's a great big world out there, where Americans are travelling more than ever before, and when we did the research and found that 68 million Americans leave the United States every year, our brains just started ticking. There's crime that happens to those Americans, and wouldn't it be amazing if there was a team of FBI heroes that could come save you?"

The spinoff last 13 episodes. The opening one was about two young women from the United States who visit Thailand and are kidnapped, terrorized and then hunted for sport. Frankly, it’s surprising CBS left it at 13.

But perhaps even two years ago, there was growing fatigue with using the terrorizing of women as a source of titillation. It’s a brutally damaging and corrupt form of fantasy entertainment. Good riddance to Criminal Minds and all it represents.

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