Note: The following contains spoilers for all three seasons of Hannibal and the first six-ish seasons of Criminal Minds.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Stan Lee speak at an ALA Conference in Las Vegas. He was there as a featured speaker and after a short, lively talk about his career in comics, someone had the idea to sit Lee down and do a Q&A style interview with him. This might have been fine except that as a man in his nineties, Lee didn’t have the best hearing, which made answering the interviewer’s questions a bit difficult, especially on such a large stage.
Despite these difficulties, Lee kept up his good humor. At one point, when the interviewer asked him a question (I don’t remember now about what), Lee responded by saying something like,
“I didn’t hear what you just said, but let me tell you why Superman sucks.”
He then launched into a rundown of why the superheroes he had helped create were objectively better than Superman. The crowd loved it.
I bring this up because I’ve been a little dry on blog post ideas related to my research and professional stuff lately so this post is a bit of a non sequitur, not really related to anything I usually write about.
So let me tell you why Criminal Minds sucks.
Okay, not really. Criminal Minds doesn’t suck, exactly. It’s just a show I can’t seem to stop watching for reasons I’m having trouble explaining to myself. I guess like a lot of other procedurals, the rhythms of the show make it easy to watch but because it’s darker than a lot of other similar shows about crime-solving, it also comes with a bit of a horror movie vibe. This show can do scary.
It can’t do scary as well as Hannibal did. The ratio of horror to procedural in Hannibal is roughly the reverse of what it is in Criminal Minds. And when it comes to horror, Criminal Minds is pretty clumsy. Sometimes the extremes it goes to are too extreme and it misses as much as it hits. Hannibal almost never misses.
That said, after watching nearly six seasons of Criminal Minds, I’ve come to believe that Hannibal and Criminal Minds are secretly the same show.
Or maybe not so secretly. In its first season, Hannibal is basically a procedural that happens to star some familiar characters (including a serial killer cannibal). The horror elements on the show are much more extreme than in the average procedural (even Criminal Minds) but it still follows a case-of-the-week type format where the main characters are chasing improbably creative serial killers who seem to have no concerns about budget or time. It’s only later in the series that it casts off its person suit and becomes something much more weird and nightmarish.
Criminal Minds is also a case-of-the-week procedural in which a group of behavioral analysts hunt improbably creative serial killers. As far as I know from what I’ve seen so far, none of the characters is secretly a cannibal or serial killer who is secretly manipulating the rest of the team but other than that, the premise is similar.
There’s also some similarity at the character level. Basically, I’m pretty sure Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds is the discount version of Will Graham from Hannibal. The main difference between them is that Reid is basically a fairly friendly person while Will is…not. They are both geniuses on the autism spectrum(1) with poor social skills who use their talents to catch serial killers to detrimental effect on their own psyches.
Criminal Minds is kind of a dumb show but it’s smart enough, at least in some of its earlier seasons, to ask some interesting questions about what the ability to understand the mind of a serial killer does to someone. While I wouldn’t call it a consistent aspect of Reid’s character (because there are no real consistent aspects of any characters on this show), he does from time to time show concern about his own potential for evil. There’s one episode in particular that clumsily rehashes some of the myths around Columbine where Reid wonders why, as someone who was bullied as a kid, he didn’t end up become a school shooter himself.
The thing is, Criminal Minds occasionally entertains these questions but, at least from what I’ve seen so far, never really “goes there.” In the end, the characters are never in any real danger of becoming like the people they hunt.
Hannibal not only goes there, it’s arguably the central question of the series. At its heart, Hannibal is a “Beauty and the Beast” story where, instead of Beauty saving the beast, the beast utterly and gleefully corrupts Beauty. Hannibal uses Will’s talent for understanding the minds of serial killers like him to basically turn him into his protégé. Watching Will alternately give into and resist his own darkness is one of the show’s main draws. As a viewer, you’re constantly waiting to see if he’ll fall off that cliff.(2)
That beauty and the beast thing actually gets at the main difference between Criminal Minds and Hannibal: both shows are fairy tales, but only Hannibal understands that this is the case.
You see, the procedural side of Hannibal never tries to make any of the crimes it portrays seem at all plausible. Including Hannibal’s crimes. Especially Hannibal’s crimes. There is simply no way a serial killer working alone would have the time, motivation, tools, or creativity to do what the killers in this show do. Not to mention the upper body strength. When Hannibal turns someone into a tree and leaves their body (with the tree) in the middle of a parking lot, you have to suspend your disbelief pretty hard, otherwise you’re going to start wondering too much about how in the hell he could have done that by himself with no one seeing him. The plausibility of the crime is not the point. Because this is a fairy tale.
Criminal Minds features similarly implausible crimes. Including one where a disturbed young woman kidnaps other women and, using a drug to paralyze them, dresses them up as living dolls so she can have tea parties with them.
The problem is, Criminal Minds doesn’t know it’s a fairy tale. It seems to think it has actual, important things to say about who commits crime and why they do it, including the Columbine-inspired episode (completely with a black duster for the killer) that bases its entire premise on a myth that the Columbine shooters did what they did because they were bullied at school.(3) Some of this can be excused by the show’s datedness—early episodes are fifteen years old at this point and there are some important differences between what we thought we knew about crime back then and what we think we know now.
But some of it is really frustrating. Especially when some of the worst crimes on Criminal Minds are committed by people with severe mental illness.(4) In reality, statistics suggest that people with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than commit them.
And don’t get me started on how in every episode that features Black victims, the killer always turns out to be Black even though in real life Black serial killers are, as far anybody knows, not really a thing. (Neither are female serial killers, which the show also portrays, but I guess a series would get boring if the killer was always the white guy.)
Now, I know (or have heard) that there’s a series on Paramount+ that goes into some of the real stories that Criminal Minds cases are supposed to be based on, so it could be there’s more accuracy to some of this than I know. There’s also the reality that this is a show that had to feature a new killer in every episode, 22 episodes a season, for fifteen seasons. That’s a lot of serial killers. (Probably more than have actually existed in the entire history of the United States.) Straying into fairy tale territory is inevitable.
But the problem isn’t that the crimes are implausible, it’s that Criminal Minds never quite owns up to its own fairy tale tendencies. For a show with as big of an audience as Criminal Minds had (and still has), that matters because it affects the way people think about crime and what types of crime or criminals (or vicims) “matter.”
I will say, though, that if there is one area that Criminal Minds does better than Hannibal, it’s in the fact that the characters work in a team. Like most shows these days, Hannibal makes it seem like Will is the One True Genius, that only he has the insight and talent to catch these killers. In some ways, that’s necessary to Hannibal’s plot since part of Will’s psychological deterioration is caused by the FBI’s overreliance on his abilities. Having the characters in Criminal Minds working as part of a collaborative team feels a bit more realistic. A bit.
Anyway. Like I said, this doesn’t have anything to do with the stuff I usually write about but it’s been in my head and it’s too long for a “What I’m reading” post. To be clear: I understand that Criminal Minds and Hannibal are two very different shows with different goals. But I think there are parallels that enhance my interest in both.
- As far as I know, it’s never explicitly stated in Criminal Minds that Reid is on the spectrum, but Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays Reid, has said that he assumed this was the case as part of his performance. Meanwhile, Will Graham declares that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s in the first episode of Hannibal, though this is rarely brought up again in the series.
- And then he does fall of a cliff. Literally. Unfortunately, that’s where the show ends.
- The book Columbine by Dave Cullen is a difficult read but uses evidence left behind by the shooters themselves to suggest that one was legitimately psychotic and the other was his brainwashed follower. Which, ironically, is a setup Criminal Minds relies on quite often, just not in its Columbine episode.
- They use the “Dissociative Identity Disorder” trope where one personality is the killer and the other personality doesn’t know it (or knows but is unable to stop any of the crimes) at least twice.