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Despite drama, it still fits the profile of a hit

Yes, Mandy Patinkin left 'Criminal Minds' in the lurch. But it's rebounded quite nicely, thank you.

May 18, 2008|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Someone IS getting blown up.

When “Criminal Minds" ends its turbulent third season Wednesday, one of the show's seven FBI profilers will explode. Of course, who and why is a big, cliffhanger secret to be revealed next season. But the upcoming big bang is a fitting conclusion to a season in which the behind-the-scenes drama rivaled that of the show's on-screen investigators as they chased 19 episodes' worth of serial killers.

"I think we're now in Season 3.3," said actor Thomas Gibson, who plays Aaron Hotchner, the head of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, echoing the sentiment of other actors and producers who feel the season's fits and starts have made it seem as if three TV seasons -- not 10 months -- have passed.

But despite the writers strike and the sudden loss of one of the show's main stars at the beginning of this season, the CBS crime series has performed well and is one of the Top 25-rated shows in broadcast television. The Wednesday-night program has consistently drawn over 12.5 million weekly viewers this season by managing to retain much of its audience despite facing the toughest competition on television: Fox's "American Idol," which is often referred to as "The Death Star" for its merciless ability to kill off opposing programming.

Today's stable situation seemed unthinkable last summer when Mandy Patinkin, who played the show’s top profiler, Jason Gideon, abruptly left the show. The tremors began in July when Patinkin failed to attend the first table read.

The writers, who had seven scripts in the works, were forced to start from scratch as they also dealt with the creative challenge of replacing a character that had served as "the mom" of the investigative team.

"We had no indication this was going to happen," show runner and executive producer Ed Bernero said. "He called an hour before the read-through and said, 'See you in an hour.' And that's the last time we've talked with him. We thought he was in an accident. We even called the police. The minute we knew he was OK, it was, like, 'Uh, we have a problem.' "

With the clock ticking toward the season premiere, the writers also faced the retooling of an episode about a college campus shooting, which had been held out of deference to the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. The plan to air it sometime in the middle of the third season was made impossible with Patinkin out of the picture.

Ultimately, the writers reworked it so that it could serve as the impetus for Gideon's departure. Patinkin resurfaced long enough to film a final scene in which his character drove off to an unknown destination, after leaving a goodbye note that said: "I'm sorry the explanation couldn't be better."

The actor could have written the letter himself. Patinkin, who left without speaking to Bernero or other producers, issued a statement citing "creative reasons" for his departure. He shot his last scene with a splinter unit while the main crew worked on another episode elsewhere.

But months earlier, Patinkin had told journalists that he was becoming increasingly distressed about the violence on the show.

"As crazy as it was, I look back at that time fondly," said co-executive producer Chris Mundy. "I don't look back on Mandy's leaving fondly, but I look back on how we dealt with it fondly. We had a real feeling that our cast was so strong and the characters were so strong that it wouldn't matter. But you never know until you see it."

Although Bernero knew he needed another seasoned investigator to help guide the team, he didn't feel pressured to fill Gideon's vacancy immediately. He waited five episodes before adding David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) to the mix.

"When Mandy left, nobody said anything, but everybody was, like, 'OK, is this the beginning of the end? Do we have to go get Jack Nicholson in order to save this thing?' " said Shemar Moore, who plays Derek Morgan. "But what was nice is that we had five episodes to trust in ourselves and step up. So the writers had to parcel out the words and story and character that they would normally give to Mandy and spread it amongst us, and it gave us a new sense of confidence."

Enter Mantegna, who has wanted to settle into a TV series for some time and felt his joining the show was serendipitous because most of the crew had worked on "Joan of Arcadia," his last job as a series regular. He also hit it off instantly with Bernero, who, like him, is an Italian American from Chicago.

Mantegna had a request: that his character be an Italian American named David Rossi, after the Los Angeles Police Department watch commander who was on duty when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered in 1994. The officer's classy demeanor on the stand as O.J. Simpson's lawyers grilled him had stuck with the actor. (The real Rossi has retired to Idaho and visited the set recently.)

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