IT strikes me as sad somehow that we are faced this season with two new shows as similarly titled and constituted as "Criminal Minds," which begins tonight (moving next week to Wednesdays) on CBS, and "Killer Instinct," which comes for you Friday on Fox. It's not just that the police procedural has reached such epidemic proportions that it may be time to get the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involved, but that even in trying to break the mold their producers demonstrate how very little there is left to say on this subject.
In "Criminal Minds," Mandy Patinkin ("Chicago Hope") plays a spectacularly intuitive FBI profiler specializing in psychologically disturbed lawbreakers who is brought back to active duty after a nervous breakdown occasioned by the death of a colleague. There is some question as to whether he is really ready to return. In "Killer Instinct," Johnny Messner ("The O.C.") is a highly intuitive police detective specializing in psychologically disturbed criminals, who returns to active duty after a nervous breakdown occasioned by the death of his partner. There is some question whether he is ready for it. In an unusual and surprising twist, the pilot episode of "Criminal Minds" involves not a single serial killer but, as the authorities slowly realize, a pair of them, one older and controlling and one younger and submissive. In an unusual and surprising twist, the pilot episode of "Killer Instinct" involves not a single serial killer, but as the authorities slowly realize, a pair of them, one older and controlling and one younger and submissive. In "Criminal Minds," Patinkin frees a girl from a cage, just in time to save her from being the killer's next victim. In "Killer Instinct," Messner frees a girl from a cage, just in time.... Well, you get the idea.
Their makers would doubtless protest that their shows are not the same at all -- the first girl in a cage has duct tape over her eyes, for example, while the second girl in a cage is covered in bugs. "Criminal Minds" will roam the country like the "X-Files," while "Killer Instinct" will exploit the hotbed of depravity that is San Francisco Babylon (read: Vancouver dressed with trolley cars). And it's true that a premise, although it is the hook upon which a series is sold, is in some ways the least distinctive thing a television show has to offer -- mood and character and the particular flavor of the dialogue being what will ultimately distinguish it from the competition. And though both shows adopt similar strategies in their attempts to invigorate the form -- making the perps crazier, and the cops crazier too -- each accessorizes, as it were, in its own way.
Both series are good at being what they are, though I am not sure they are "good" in any broader or more meaningful sense of the word. "Criminal Minds," which is executive-produced by Mark Gordon ("The Day After Tomorrow") is the more "realistic" of the two, in its not particularly realistic fashion. Patinkin, an actor who goes over the top just sitting quietly in the chair, leads a more restrained ensemble cast that includes Thomas Gibson, late of "Dharma & Greg," Shemar Moore ("The Young and the Restless"), Lola Glaudini ("The Handler"), Matthew Gray Gubler and post-pilot addition AJ Cook. They are all geniuses and full of facts and statistics: Their dialogue often has the flavor of a Mensa mixer.
"Charon -- that's the Greek mythological ferryman of the dead."
"It's also the name of Pluto's only moon."
From the first couple of episodes, I learned, among other things, that Moloch was the demon sun god of the Canaanites, that one in 7.4 drivers in Seattle drives an SUV, and that when you're flustered it's more difficult to control the articulatory musculature of the face. It makes you wonder what they're doing working for the FBI when they could be on "Jeopardy!" setting up their retirement funds. Patinkin's character, meanwhile, to show his depth quotes Emerson, Beckett, Faulkner, Conrad, Churchill and Nietzsche: "When you look long into the abyss, the abyss looks into you." Not sure what that means; perhaps he said "abbess."
"We're all evil," says Messner, meanwhile, over on "Killer Instincts." "Some of us choose to fight it." And he hints that he has personal reason to know. This series is actually the creation of a "CSI" executive producer, Josh Berman, suggesting that the wormy apple does not fall far from the tree. With its soundtrack full of metal and techno and its killers packing imported deadly spiders and home surgery kits, it aims for a Gothic moodiness not unrelated to the season's scary-monster shows: There is an inhuman something out there that means you no good.