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Saturday, August 29, 2009


The faces on the DVD cover won't mean much to first-time viewers, but it doesn't take long for us to get to know each member of this FBI profiling team (or "behavior analysis unit" as they're called) very well.

CRIMINAL MINDS: THE FOURTH SEASON hits the ground running with one of the most riveting and lightning-paced hours of television that I've ever seen. "Mayhem" is the conclusion of last season's cliffhanger, and it begins with unit chief Aaron 'Hotch' Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) and a female associate about to get into their vehicle when it explodes. Both survive, but since they've been investigating terrorists who explode one bomb and then set off a second one to kill any police and paramedics who arrive on the scene soon after, no one will move in to render aid to the dying female agent. When Hotch finally does get her to the nearest emergency room, he finds that he may have unwittingly played right into the terrorists' scheme to blow up the hospital.

This episode nicely fulfills the show's potential and demonstrates how exciting and suspenseful it can be, with sharp direction, camerawork, and editing and solid performances. Hotch, deftly played by Gibson, quickly emerges as my favorite character--he's stiff, serious, dry, almost humorless. He doesn't wisecrack. But he's intensely professional, with an innate compassion that drives him to hunt down killers. This devotion to his job has cost him his marriage, and in his most affecting moments Hotch can be seen in his office, wistfully viewing video of his young son on his computer.

"Masterpiece", directed by Paul Michael Glaser ("Starsky and Hutch") is another outstanding episode, this time showcasing Joe Mantegna's "David Rossi" character. Rossi is a veteran profiler who has become a celebrity via his best-selling books and lectures on the subject. Here, he goes one on one in the interrogation room with a narcissistic mastermind, played by Jason Alexander, who has kidnapped a daycare worker and four children and placed them in a death trap that will kill them all in a few hours. Not only does this give both Mantegna and Alexander a chance to show their stuff, but it also demonstrates how good the writing on this show can be, with a surprise turnaround in the final minutes that is stunning.

Although there's a resemblance here to CSI and similar shows, CRIMINAL MINDS concentrates less on forensics and more on the BAU's explorations into the inner workings of the perpetrators minds. Often this forces them to confront their own darkest thoughts and fears. In "The Instincts" and its follow-up "Memoriam", the team's geeky resident genius Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) encounters a child abduction case in his hometown that dredges up suppressed memories of bloody murder from his own childhood that may even involve his own father. Jane Lynch (A MIGHTY WIND, BEST IN SHOW) is great as Reid's schizophrenic mother, who stops taking her meds so that she can achieve a brief window of mental clarity that will help her recall forgotten details of the past.

Each of the other cast members gets the spotlight in various episodes, and they're all up to the task. Shemar Moore's ex-cop Derek Morgan is the show's action guy but there's a lot of substance to his character as well. In "Brothers In Arms", Morgan takes it personally when a serial shooter starts gunning down cops in the performance of their duty. A.J. Cook is Jennifer "J.J." Jareau, the team's liason with the public and other agencies, who gives birth early in the season and gains a different perspective on her job. In the excellent bio-terror thriller "Amplification", a deranged scientist unleashes a deadly new strain of anthrax on the public and J.J. struggles with the urge to break secrecy protocol and warn her husband to flee the city with their child.

Bringing some light into the dark mood of the series is Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia, happily basking in her computer world as she serves as the nerve center for the team. In episodes such as "House on Fire", the tale of a mass-murdering arsonist, and "To Hell...and Back", the gut-wrenching season finale, Garcia is forced to venture out into the field with the rest of the team and is horrified by what she sees.

When this show gets cranked up to full-blast, it goes like gangbusters. "Catching Out", directed by actor Charles Haid, contains a climactic fight sequence atop a moving freight train. "Normal" guest-stars Mitch Pileggi of "The X-Files" as a harried family man whose mounting frustrations transform him into a highway killer known as "The Road Warrior." This episode features a breathtaking crash stunt early on and ends with a high-speed chase.

In addition to the show's kinetic qualities, much of the drama is psychological in nature and we're frequently subjected to some pretty bizarre images and ideas. Jason Alexander returns to direct "Transformation", in which young men on spring break are being raped and murdered by an assailant whose gender is mysteriously undetermined. "Cold Comfort" deals with necrophilia complete with live embalmings, and features a great guest cast including Cybill Shepherd, Michael Biehn, Lolita Davidovitch, and Vondie Curtis Hall.

I particularly enjoyed seeing none other than Wil Wheaton (ST:TNG's "Ensign Crusher") as a total loon who owns a secluded motel and lures couples to their doom in deviously-designed death traps. This episode begins with one of the show's most awesome stunts--an 18-wheeler jack-knifing into a parked car. "Omnivore", guest-starring C. Thomas Howell, has one of the series' most evil serial killers who, among other atrocities, massacres the passengers of a city bus.

Of course, the series has its occasional clunker--for example, "Demonology", a turgid tale of a priest who performs lethal exorcisms, is tiresome and overwrought. It does, however, feature a welcome guest appearance by Bruce Davison (sporting some great hair) and offers series regular Paget Brewster a chance to shine as agent Emily Prentiss.

The DVD set contains seven discs in four slim-line cases with a cardboard sleeve. The 16 x 9 image and English 5.1 and stereo sound are good. Both the episodes and bonus features are closed-captioned. Extras include eleven brief behind-the-scenes featurettes called "Working the Scene", deleted scenes, profiles of each character, and a gag reel.

CRIMINAL MINDS is an interesting blend of modern and more traditional TV storytelling techniques. It's got all the flash and pizzazz that's expected of today's shows, but much of the melodrama and pathos beneath the veneer are pure old-school. As far as the subject matter goes, however, the show doesn't pull any punches and is often about as shocking and horrific as a show like this can get. With a top-notch cast, fine production values, and intriguing stories, CRIMINAL MINDS: THE FOURTH SEASON is well worth spending some quality time with.

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