Serial killers as entertainment? Criminal Minds returns, and it’s even more disturbing.

Fifteen years ago, a few weeks into the first season of Criminal Minds, I stopped watching. The show was too dark for me. Too violent. Too disturbing.

And the entertainment value of the serial killer of the week format eluded me.

I watched episodes occasionally, but not nearly weekly. And as it turns out, I wasn’t alone in my feelings about the show. Original series star Mandy Patinkin – a kind of first of equals in an ensemble cast – suddenly left the show after two seasons. He later told New York magazine, “The biggest public mistake I ever made was choosing Criminal Minds from the start. I thought it was something completely different. I never thought they would kill and rape all of these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and personality.”

Not that his departure slowed down the series. It ran for 15 seasons and 324 episodes, and was eventually signed off in February 2020. Although, as it turned out, that wasn’t the end. The series was revived for Paramount+.

The title is slightly different: “Criminal Minds: Evolution”. Not all of the cast are back, although Joe Mantegna, AJ Cook, Kirsten Vangsness, Aisha Tyler, Adam Rodriguez, and Paget Brewster are returning. The 10 episodes follow the search for a lone serial killer (played by Zach Gilford from “Friday Night Lights”) who has been murdering people since 2005.

And since “Criminal Minds” is no longer constrained by television standards, it’s even more disturbing than it was when it aired on CBS.

“If you think you’ve been disturbed before, maybe we’ll take it to another level,” said Joe Mantegna, who returns as Joe Rossi.

He wasn’t exaggerating.

(Michael Yarish | Paramount+) Aisha Tyler as Dr. Tara Lewis in Criminal Minds: Evolution.

And Aisha Tyler, who returns as Tara Lewis, said her husband had a strong reaction after watching the first few episodes of Evolution with her: “My husband said, ‘I think I’m going to have nightmares.'”

He wasn’t exaggerating either.

Again, I’m not sure why so many viewers find serial killer stories so entertaining, but the formula worked for Criminal Minds for 15 years. “We shot 324 episodes, and I would say 333 of them disturbed me,” joked Kirstin Vangness, who has played FBI analyst Penelope Garcia since the series began.

To be fair, Criminal Minds isn’t the only TV show featuring serial killers. They appear in just about every other cop drama on TV, and some of them take center stage.

And to be fair, I watch some of these other shows. And I’ve praised a few of them — including the Netflix series Mindhunter, which was about how the FBI started hunting serial killers before “serial killers” was a common term.

(Monty Brinton | Paramount+) Zach Gilford as Elias Jasper Voit in Criminal Minds: Evolution.

But “Criminal Minds” almost almost seemed to revel in violence. Especially when it comes to violence against women.

However, Mantegna defends “Criminal Minds” as a “realistic” portrayal of the FBI’s men and women who pursue serial killers. And he reminds us that the TV series isn’t real life.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said, “because when they say ‘Cut,’ the guy with the ax in his head shows up and goes to the craft shop and gets a sandwich. The ones I worry about are the real men and women of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies around the world who really need to do this for a living.”

He’s right, but let’s not pretend that fiction can’t be disturbing. And disgusting.

The first few minutes of Criminal Minds: Evolution are incredibly disturbing. And a bit bloody. Fewer than R-rated films, but that’s a low hurdle.

“I never wanted us to start with full R-rated extra violence or anything that suddenly felt like a whole different series,” said Erica Messer, who is returning as executive producer. “While I don’t think you’ll be shocked if the graphics are worse or anything, there is language that I think is very appropriate, even if some may find it inappropriate.”

In other words, characters can swear a lot more on Paramount+ than on CBS.

If you like that sort of thing, Evolution is surprisingly well done. Committed, in a terrible way.

(Paramount+) Adam Rodriguez as Luke Alvez and Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds: Evolution.

But there are things I wish I couldn’t see in the first few episodes. And the fact that Paramount+ is premiering these two episodes on Thanksgiving confuses me.

(The remaining eight episodes will premiere back-to-back on consecutive Thursdays.)

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