The somewhat inexplicable 14th (!) season of Criminal Minds starts tonight on TVNZ. To celebrate, super-fan Jean Sergent reveals the cult classic series hidden within the long-running procedural.
Three years ago I was in London doing a pretty great acting fellowship, but somehow I still found time to watch Criminal Minds on my laptop, which I perched on a stool while I lounged around in my North London terrace house bathtub. That’s how I relax: watching murders. If you’ve been looking for a crime procedural to replace all the Scandi-noir you’ve finished binging before realising you didn’t really like it, Criminal Minds has a backlog of 300 episodes for you to dive right into.
Criminal Minds, if you’ve somehow missed the phenomenon of the show that is not Law and Order: SVU but kind of is, is set inside the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit, or the BAU. The BAU is modelled on the criminal profiling techniques made famous by egghead psychologists and armchair detectives. The team has changed over the years (Mandy Patinkin used to be in this damn show! You’ve been snoozing on Mandy ‘Evita’ Patinkin!), but the core has remained the same: hardboiled old-timer (Uncle Mandy, then Joe Mantegna – a truly awful actor whose voice you’ll recognise from The Simpsons), brainiac autism spectrum wunderkind (Matthew Gray Gubler), sharp as knives powersuit Lady Coppers (A.J. Cook and Paget Brewster), and the kooky jokesmith tech whizz (Kirsten Vangsness, giving the goth one out of NCIS a run for her money).
In short: Criminal Minds is The X-Files but with paedos and serial killers instead of worm people and smokemen. I guess? I dunno, I’ve only watched the first two seasons of The X-Files, and I’m sick of pretending I’ve seen them all. X-files fans: keep reading, you nerds. I’ve got inside information on the CORRECT way to watch Criminal Minds to get the most frights and monsters.
There are lots of ways you can kind of choose your own adventure through Criminal Minds. You could dive in at the beginning and get the full benefit to The Mandy Years. If you started with season 14, episode one, you’d probably still enjoy it. It’s absolutely bingeable, because it’s a procedural and that is why they exist. But if you want some creepy miniature horror films, then I’ve got the secret cult TV series for you: The Matthew Gray Gubler Directed Episodes (TMGGDE, or Tuhmuhguhduh).
Matthew Gray Gubler is an actor/painter/model/filmmaker whose real life hobbies include being in some kind of costume or onesie every day of the year. He is adorable and sexy and looks like the love child of John Waters and Jane Fonda. Having debuted in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou as the main intern, he has been lurking around indie comedy for a while now while keeping up a steady income on my beloved Criminal Minds.
MGG has a great talent for the macabre, and his episodes are always a highlight of any new season. He has a very particular taste for horror stories, freaks, outrageously costumed monsters, and proper bone-chilling frights. While the episodes fit in to the show overall, they are also exciting genre-bending nuggets of gold.
Demanded by literally no one except Sam (TV editor’s note: Hi!), here is the Definitive Tuhmuhguhduh Power Rankings, as adjudicated by a serious panel of one: me.
10, aka the worst one: Season 11, Episode 18: ‘A Beautiful Disaster’
Skip this one. You have to really be invested in the whole team to give a shit about the gut-churning over-acting involved in wringing this story out. It doesn’t have much of the fright factor of most of the other episodes, and it’s part of the worst multiple episode story arc of the whole show. Shemar Moore has his shirt off a lot, but I dunno what else really recommends it. Basically it’s a love letter from The Goobs to co-star Shemar Moore for his last episode. See, you don’t care. Move on.
9: Season 6, Episode 18: ‘Lauren’
It’s not that this isn’t a great episode, because it is! But it doesn’t really count in the MGG ouevre, because it has to be watched in the context of all of season 6. It’s a very gripping 42 minutes of telly but it doesn’t stand alone, despite flashbacks in it that feel a little bit like the parts of The Godfather where Michael and his wife are in Italy.
8: Season 9, Episode 7: ‘Gatekeeper’
Even though this is definitely a good episode, it has a very dumb subplot about a bar closing, and they all do karaoke at the end, which should absolutely never be part of the plot of a television show. The main story – the horror, the terror – is about a trophy-collecting killer, which is always a good one to hang an episode on. There’s lots of creepy photos taken through windows. The main guest actor in this episode is an actor who has the terrific name of Jack Plotnick. He’s someone you’ll look at and go “I recognise that guy”, and that is because he has been on one episode of a lot of shows you’ve watched against your better judgment.
7: Season 10, Episode 21: ‘Mr Scratch’
A bit like the series 6 episode ‘Lauren’, ‘Mr Scratch’ needs to be contextualised, given that the eponymous character is one of the key villains of the whole damn show. This episode is the first introduction to the character that the team will spend the next two seasons trying to defeat. He’s, like, I guess, a boss level monster? This episode tips our Gray Gubes into some full blown psychological horror thriller territory, and he excels in it. Scratch is a wiley, twisted, talented murderer who provides the BAU with a lot of head-scratching terrors. If you’ve survived ten seasons of Criminal Minds thus far, you’re in for a treat with this harrowing story arc.
6: Season 8, Episode 20: ‘Alchemy’
The Goobz’s second episode in season 8. Matthew Grambitious Gubler! At this point in series 8 MGG’s character Spencer Reid has just gone through a spoilertrauma. Seriously, season 8 will break your heart to bits. This episode is notable for containing some classic horror elements: a creepy hotel, a psychotic woman, and supporting characters who look like they were drawn by Edward Gorey. It’s kind of a Psycho meets Misery vibe.
5: Season 7, Episode 19: ‘Heathridge Manor’
Shit man this one is so creepy! Emotional incest! Stockholm syndrome! Sibling control! An abandoned asylum! The young actress from Californication who is not very good at acting but is really creepy! A classic of the Gubler Tapes.
4: Season 12, Episode 6: Elliot’s Pond
This one is deep in the gothic horror genre, with a real Stephen King vibe. A spooky old asylum! A 30-year-old case! Three boys on a bike ride! Definite family violence! There’s a wee bit of faffing around with the team’s feelings in this one because long time BAU leader, Greg-off-of-Dharma–and–Greg suddenly is gone. Hardcore fans like myself did a lot of googling after that bombshell. Apparently he maybe yelled at someone on set? I dunno, give him a break, he’s not Christian Bale.
3: Season 8, Episode 10: The Lesson
This is some Saw shit mates! Guest starring Brad Dourif of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Lord of the Rings fame! This one will tick a lot of creepy gory boxes, while also weirdly featuring quite a sweet love story in the subplot. Matthew Gray Gubler proves himself once again to be Matthew Great At Casting as Brad “Literally the voice of Chucky from Child’s Play” and Mark Povinelli tear it up as soft-brained psychos.
2: Series 13, Episode 17: The Capilanos
If you’re scared of clowns, you’re gonna wanna give this one a hard pass. This episode absolutely slams from beginning to end, with real genuine scares. It’s low on gore but high on thrills, and there’s a real tearjerker of an ending. This episode has a seasoned slickness to it that you’d expect from Gublertron after so many episodes in the director’s seat. It’s not necessarily my taste, but it’s technically a superb episode. Bonus detail is that it features one of my favourite tropes of Criminal Minds: Matthew Gray Gubler talking gently to a traumatised child.
1, aka hands-down the best: Season 5, Episode 16: Mosley Lane
What a creepy name! If this episode was the first feature film by a new talent in horror, people would be stoked and it would win prizes. This is a creepy child abduction story, and the main villains are a demented duo played by absolute legends Bud Cort (Harold and Maud, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and Beth Grant (literally everything from The Golden Girls to Pearl Harbor to No Country For Old Men to The Office). I guess it’s a matter of taste, but I really enjoy abduction stories, and guest star Beth Grant was in the greatest/worst made-for-TV abduction story of all time, I Know My First Name is Steven. Also, Bud Cort.
The 14th season of Criminal Minds premieres at 10pm tonight on TVNZ. You can watch the 13th season right here on TVNZ on Demand.