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Criminal Minds and CSI still follow a tried and true formula

November 17, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Wednesday's episode of "Criminal Minds" was even more noxious than usual, with a plot that cannibalized from all of the horrible child abduction stories that have been in the news lately.

The episode "Hope" started out with computer guru Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) leading a support group for people who have lost loved ones. One of the group members is Monica, a woman in her late 30s whose daughter, Hope, was abducted seven years before. The crying Monica is ambushed outside the meeting by another group member who claims he is the one who abducted her daughter and will take Monica to her.

Monica gets in the car and the creep proceeds to take her through the steps of Hope's abduction -- the gas station where he saw the little girl and decided he had to have her, the neighborhood where the girl was abducted while playing hide and seek with her friend. Then, finally, they arrive at the house where the girl has been held captive in a basement room all these years. The abductor shows Monica pictures of her daughter he has taken and video footage of her from her prison room, but doesn't produce the girl. Eventually the horrified Monica sees Hope's mummified corpse on the bed. It turns out that 15-year-old Hope killed herself months before after her captor impregnated her. Then the captor, still obsessed with his victim, rapes the mother so he can impregnate her and recreate Hope.

At this point our crack investigative unit comes to the victim's rescue and Penelope talks down the captor. Just as he puts down the gun, Monica grabs it and shoots him. It's a clear case of murder, probably pleaded down to manslaughter with no jail time, but Monica is still free at the end of the episode, releasing butterflies in honor of her dead daughter. Whether Monica is pregnant is left to the imagination of the viewers.

Lots of people watched this horror story: according to the ratings, "Criminal Minds" enjoyed a 9 percent increase in its ratings in the 18 to 49 year old demographic over last week's episode.

Why did I watch it? Maybe because I'm part of the target audience for this show. Most viewers of CBS's crime procedurals are 30 and 40-something women. As one Criminal Minds producer has said, why wouldn't women watch a show that is about women like them in jeopardy who are saved every week by the tormented heroes of the elite profiling unit? It's likely no accident that so many of the victims on Criminal Minds are 30-something women like Monica. It's just another example of CBS's expert marketing strategy for its crime procedurals.

CBS has a boatload of similar shows on the air, from the three CSIs, to the two NCIS dramas, to "The Mentalist" to "Blue Bloods" and a few others I am probably forgetting.

The formula is usually the same: a cast of characters who function more like a family. Much of the time there's a strong male lead who takes on the role of father or older brother or, less often, a strong older female who takes on the role of mother and authoritarian figure. The younger agents/cops/forensic scientists act like brothers and sisters and cousins. Usually they have troubled relationships with their blood family members so the work family takes on an even more important role. It's a formula that is supposed to appeal especially to the largely female audience and it probably does.

A return to this formula also seems to have helped stabilize "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," which aired following "Criminal Minds." Ted Danson is the new older male lead, replacing Laurence Fishburne. Somewhat insultingly, though predictably for the success of the formula, strong female lead Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenburger) was demoted from head of the unit due to her mismanagement and Danson's affable, effortlessly in charge D.B. Russell took over.

From the little of the show I've seen this season, Danson's character's primary function is to heal the disfunctional relationships between the other team members. The gruesome crime plots on CSI are not noticeably different from any other CBS procedural, but it's the group dynamics that people tend to be more interested in.

"Criminal Minds" airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on CBS and "CSI" airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on CBS.


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