''We can dunk her, right?''
Standing on the bank of a man-made river in suburban Los Angeles, Criminal Minds' executive producer Ed Bernero is trying to position a rubber dummy so it'll look like a real murder victim. This morning's scene calls for FBI profiler Jason Gideon (Chicago Hope's Mandy Patinkin) and his brainy colleague Dr. Spencer Reid (The Life Aquatic's Matthew Gray Gubler) to make the grisly discovery at the water's edge, but the lightweight dummy is not exactly entering on cue.
''Don't let her float away!'' shouts one assistant, though it doesn't really matter where she ends up. When shooting starts, the 53-year-old Patinkin approaches the water, and with just a slight frown he manages to convey a look of utter despair without ever setting eyes on the muddy doll. ''That's just a Hollywood body,'' he explains later. ''The literalness is nowhere near as horrifying as the empty space where the body was, where the ground is stained with blood. That allows me to [imagine] every tortured victim throughout history in this empty arena. This piece is a metaphor for hate, insensitivity, torture. When this show operates at its highest plane, it's as a window into man's inhumanity to man. And the question is why?''
More than 13 million viewers seem to be just as eager as Patinkin to learn the answer to that question. Criminal Minds is this season's second-most-watched new drama (behind ABC's Commander in Chief), despite facing two very big obstacles: airing opposite ABC's powerhouse Lost, and existing on a network that carries eight other crime dramas. Centering on a team of FBI profilers, Minds features the requisite sage mentor (Patinkin), the introspective heir apparent (Dharma & Greg's Thomas Gibson as Special Agent Aaron Hotchner), the socially awkward egghead (Gubler), the hotshot toughie in size zero pants (The Handler's Lola Glaudini as Elle Greenaway), and the self-assured stud who likes to kick down doors (The Young and the Restless' Shemar Moore as Agent Derek Morgan). Between Minds' shameless use of CSI-style snap-zoom shots and its limited attention to personal detail (what's the deal with Gideon's wedding ring? Will we ever see the inside of Greenaway's apartment?), it seems downright ridiculous that CBS execs would deny that Minds is just another procedural show. But they do.
''This was developed as a suspense thriller,'' insists the network's entertainment president, Nina Tassler. ''With Criminal Minds, it's more of an exploration of the psychological motivation of things. It's really the analysis of aberrant human behavior.''
True enough. Minds avoids being solely a procedural crime drama by focusing on the why of the grisly wrongdoings not just the who, what, and where. The show also relies on real-life FBI profilers to help spin stories about a killer's MO: Why does an obsessive-compulsive arsonist like to attack her victims in threes? Why would a serial killer hold a family hostage and assume the father's role before taking their lives? ''It's about the emotional mind-set that goes on in this world,'' explains Moore. ''You end up feeling bad for the criminals as you get to understand them. They still deserve what they deserve, but you have a certain compassion for how they got here.''