CBS’ Criminal Minds opens each episode with a quote, wistfully read in voice-over by one of the show’s actors. They are eclectic in source — Gandhi, Robespierre, L. Ron Hubbard — and they have only a vague connection to whatever dastardly case is being featured. These nuggets of wisdom, hope, and encouragement seem, in fact, to be yanked from some dial-a-Bartlett’s machine: Lend the aura of intelligence and class to your subpar TV series with a quote from Millard Fillmore! They are the epitome of what’s wrong with Criminal Minds — a drama that, in its second season, is making mystifying strides in the ratings. Following a grim FBI team that profiles serial killers/bombers/kidnappers, Minds is not as gripping as any of CBS’ CSI series. Nor is it as smart as NBC’s Law & Order franchise: This season, both Minds and SVU featured — in the same week — a story about a serial rapist who was trying to impregnate his victims. SVU’s take was far more intelligent and complicated — and it didn’t even have a Helen Keller quote!
Like every procedural crime series of late, Minds is stocked with weary, overworked detective types. But here they also seem bored, bitter, and unengaged. Even pleasantly average NCIS has more chemistry among its actors (the two CBS series each boast female computer geeks of the safely ”punk” variety). Minds’ profilers are led by Mandy Patinkin — so uncharacteristically subdued and detached it’s like watching a tranquilized circus bear dreaming of his happy forest days. Joining him on gray plane rides to ”cities” that all look suspiciously interchangeable is a team that includes Dharma & Greg’s blank-faced Thomas Gibson and the likable Matthew Gray Gubler, who, as the group’s young mastermind, sports a cold, fashion-free look. The goal is Brilliant Nerd Chic, but he looks more like a serial killer than the serial killers. (All he’s missing is one of those sinister beige cotton Windbreakers.) Like those silly quotes, Gubler’s psychiatrist Spencer Reid supplies a veneer of thoughtfulness: He makes scientific-sounding yet incredibly obvious observations such as ”The gun gives him power yet lets him maintain distance.” (Yes, that’s the definition of a firearm, genius.) Paget Brewster (Huff) joined the cast on Nov. 15, replacing Lola Glaudini’s hastily written-off Elle Greenaway. Brewster’s a snappy actress who may temporarily add some zip before succumbing to the inevitable air of malaise her castmates exude, trapped as they are amid plotline rip-offs of Red Dragon and Saw, reduced to muttering sanctimonies and feigning concern over women-in-jeopardy-in-skimpy-clothes. Yes, Criminal Minds tries mightily to distract, but in the end… oh, what’s that quote about lipstick on a pig?