Why are so many of us obsessed with old-school police procedurals?
How formulaic shows like Criminal Minds are finding new audiences in times of turmoil.
An audio version of this post is available below:
In 2014, I was asked to do a guest talk at Birmingham University on procrastination. The first four books in my mental-health series had just been published and procrastination featured in several of them, so off I swanned to deliver a lecture on how best to get on with shit…
Except, I’d basically spent the past two months doing nothing but solidly watching Criminal Minds.
I’d fallen so deep into a procrastination hole that I lived and breathed a TV drama about a group of FBI criminal profilers. Some days I’d watch eight episodes back-to-back, pausing only to wipe the drool from my chin. Being asked to do a talk about procrastination at that moment in time, therefore, was pretty ironic – but it forced me to face up to my obsession and what it meant. And, in doing so, I discovered that I very much wasn’t alone. And now it seems that people’s love for CM and shows like it is only growing.
Why? Well, weirdly, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Why are we all watching 17-year-old crime dramas?
Premiering on CBS in 2005, Criminal Minds follows a crew of profilers from the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit (BAU) as they use psychological, sociological and behavioural insight to catch very bad folk. The American drama ran for 15 years, the final series airing in 2020, and was consistently one of the network’s most-watched shows, spawning several spin-offs (the most recent, Criminal Minds: Evolution, is out now) and even a mobile game.
I stumbled across an episode while channel hopping. I can still remember the scene: a gurney with a rusty wheel (serial killers never oil their gurneys) chuntering down a nightmarish-looking hallway. You know the type: flickering caged lights, wet walls, distant screams, and thick steel doors bolted shut. There was a body on the gurney – standard – but then the camera panned up to reveal the person pushing it and holy-mother-of-all-things-horrendous… I will never forget that face. Or, more accurately: that mask made of human skin.
“Is this allowed to be on TV in the middle of the day?” I gasped to no one.
Yes it was. And by God – the stuff shown on CM would make your eyes water. I have genuinely never been so frightened, so disgusted and yet so completely engrossed in my life. It was the beginning of a love affair that is alive and well to this day.
But it wasn’t, by any means, the horror aspect of Criminal Minds that kept me hooked. There are enough dreadful shows out there about all things gross that I wouldn’t touch with a rusty gurney, thanks. It was the chemistry of the team, the trusted formula of each episode, the high-stakes scenarios and the fact that the BAU deep-dived into the psychology of the UnSubs (unidentified subjects). This was intelligent stuff! There was even a hacker on staff!
You trusted this lot to get the job done – and you cared if they didn’t.
“Even though the storylines are horrific, CM is like a warm hug,” Amie-Jo Locke tells me. We discovered our mutual admiration of the show during lockdown while posting about watching the final series. “You know and love the characters. The human relationships at the centre counteract the unspeakable horrors they’re investigating. It’s the weirdest juxtaposition. Their connections are incredibly heightened because of the backdrop. And CM follows a very familiar structure. You always know where the show is heading, so weirdly, it’s very comforting TV. Which makes me sound deranged, I know.”
Not deranged by any means, AJ, because guess what? Criminal Minds was the most-streamed show in the US in 2021 across all platforms. Yes, that’s right – it beat Squid Game. And last year it came in seventh, while NCIS, another long-running procedural, came second (beaten only by Stranger Things).
So why are we all watching re-runs of crime dramas that first aired decades ago?
Watching 300 episodes of nice people catching serial killers is comforting
One key factor in the longevity of shows like this – and I’m including CSI and Law & Order here too – is that there are literally hundreds of episodes to get through. Criminal Minds has 328 episodes, while if NCIS is your bag, you can binge 356 of the buggers. Knowing you can stream one episode after another… and another… is weirdly comforting. In a world where nothing seems certain (not even Match of the Day), these shows offer a reliable cultural touchpoint. You know what you’re getting, who you’re getting, and how long you’re getting them for. It’s a goddamn relief, to be honest.
They also don’t demand too much of you. As John Koblin writes in the New York Times: “Part of the appeal is that the procedurals have a low barrier to entry. They are, to a fault, uncomplicated — if viewers zone out or scroll through their phones, they won’t be missing much; nor is there a need for an online recap or podcast to help decode intricate plot points.”
In fact, in December 2022, a TikTok went viral affectionately mocking the repetitiveness of a lot of CM’s storylines and character arcs. However, the fact the video received over 500,000 likes – and that the tag ‘Criminal Minds’ has 10.1 billion views on the platform – proves the show has found a new audience amongst Gen Z creators. And part of that popularity is undoubtedly down to that very thing: the show’s predictability.
(To be fair, it also has a lot to do with Matthew Gray Gubler’s character Dr Spencer Reid being the hottest nerd to ever solve murders in the history of people killing each other. Side note: I saw him once in Woodstock, USA, and ran away.)
The self-aware ridiculousness is reassuring
In times of turmoil, millions of us clearly find comfort in watching a group of smart people stop murderous arseholes in a clearly defined timescale and in a manner that doesn’t involve a lot of thought from us. It makes total sense that Criminal Minds was the most streamed show in 2021, when we were all navigating a global pandemic. The show’s internal world was clear: this is good, this is bad, and this is how you should feel about it. That things have only become more unstable IRL since then (including people’s feelings towards law enforcement – please see this previous post) goes some way to explaining CM’s continued success.
“I love it because all the episodes are different – it’s a different type of killer every time so the profiles are always new and exciting,” Carise Roberts, who’s only recently started watching CM, tells me. “I also love the cheesy American-ness of it – that typical American hero vibe that comes with the ‘FBI’. I just don’t think that would work if the show was British, for example.”
These shows are indeed comforting in their self-aware American ridiculousness. Where CM is concerned, it’s earnest quotes at the start of each episode, the constant hugging it out, the fact they’re all gorgeous and groomed – it couldn’t be less British. (Lol to the thought of the Happy Valley crew hugging it out.) That glossiness makes the content safer somehow. When IRL has gone to shit, it’s reassuring to watch someone pull down their sunglasses and snarl, “Let’s bring this madman to justice” in all seriousness. “What bollocks,” we snort and roll our eyes, while simultaneously punching the air.
Just one more thing…
Back in 2014, I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone in finding comfort in the uncomfortable, but I did realise that Criminal Minds offered me an escape from what I now recognise was a severe case of burnout. The fact that I could rely on every story being resolved in a satisfying way was a welcome break from the uncertainty of real life. Acknowledging that was a big deal and I thought would hopefully strike a chord for a lot of the people at my talk at Birmingham University.
I ended up hooking my whole talk around my experience with Criminal Minds – and the tools I used to snap myself out of it – and most people related to the feeling of false safety in distraction. In knowing that it’s even if it’s only putting off the inevitable, sinking into a familiar show is sometimes much needed and is therefore something we often turn to when anxious. I was very happy to find that in the feedback notes at the end, nearly everyone had made a crack about going home to watch Criminal Minds.
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