I think I finally get Criminal Minds.
At first I assumed the people who watched it with any regularity were just sick freaks. Because while at first glance it isn't a lot different from the other seven hundred crime procedurals on TV any given week, what sets the show apart from the likes of Cold Case or NCIS isn't the multicultural cast or ridiculously high-tech facilities that would be more at home on Microsoft's campus than a federal government installation, but the exceedingly morbid nature of the crimes the BAU ends up investigating.
Past episodes have featured heartwarming storylines like: a couple receives a DVD of their daughter getting raped and murdered...a cult abuses and kills children...and then the latest offering: a guy who kidnaps women, impregnates them, then murders them after they give birth (the dungeon holding the victims was more reminiscent of an old Scorpions video than the writers probably wanted), and -- as in every show -- the women's particular agonies were extensively and almost lovingly portrayed for the viewing audience.
I was all set to indignantly ask if this parade of the grotesque really counts as "entertainment," before realizing it was a wasted exercise. The show averages almost 15 million viewers a week and is one of CBS' highest-rated series. More importantly (and my feelings about the increasingly snuff-like nature of the program aside) I realized the show's creators have struck upon a novel way of capitalizing on two distinctly American personality traits.
First is the "sick freak" thing I mentioned earlier. More than just slowing down to look at the car wreck, we want to see the accident take place and even consider ourselves privy to the circumstances leading up to the collision. It's understandable, even a little healthy, for us to visit humanity's underbelly from time to time. It's when you do it every week that you get...weird. Or so I thought. See, I remember a show that tried to go all Det. Somerset from Se7en on us, telling us the world was a dark place where you may eke out a few pleasurable moments before eventually finding your wife's head in a box (oh, uh, *spoiler warning*). It was called Millennium, and it lasted a whopping three seasons before the "from the creator of The X-Files" cache wore off.
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Criminal Minds creator Jeff Davis realized a weekly dose of bleak was too much, unless it was tempered with that other noteworthy American attribute: the need for a happy ending. He can rub our noses in the worst mankind has to offer every week, so long as the bad guy gets the cuffs slapped on him (or -- preferably -- shot) by the end of the show's 48 minutes. Oh sure, the Dharma and Greg guy got stabbed last season, and Fat Tony is hiding a Dark Secret, but through it all we know justice will be served while the hot black agent dude flirts with the chubby blonde computer tech. It's a winning combination. Now, if only they'd inject some serial killers into Two and a Half Men.