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‘Criminal Minds’ finds new life — and fans — on TikTok

| Thursday, September 17, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

When I first downloaded TikTok back in March, a whole lifetime ago, I had two main questions. The first was “What’s the Hype House?” (To be honest, I still really don’t know). The second — and more pressing — was “Why is everyone on this app obsessed with ‘Criminal Minds?’” 

It’s a real thing. TikTok is the rare app you can essentially format to your exact commodifications — clicking the “like,” “favorite” or “not interested” buttons will basically turn your “For You page” into an echo chamber of personal interests. Still, no matter what I did, I kept seeing videos from “Criminal Minds” fan accounts — clips from episodes or joke videos about the characters set to popular sounds. TikTok is the new Tumblr for fan culture, and I was somehow right in the center of it. And while I’d seen a few episodes here and there, I’d never watched “Criminal Minds” from start to finish and after a few months, I was curious as to what all the hype was about. Against my better judgement, I queued up Netflix and started from the pilot.

From a purely critical lens, “Criminal Minds,” a series about criminal profilers working in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, is not a groundbreaking show. I’m not an expert or anything — my favorite movie of all time is “High School Musical,” I don’t pretend to have elite taste — but I think it’s fair to say “Criminal Minds” is a standard crime procedural, with a little more psychology and a lot more twisted murder. Virtually every episode begins with a horrifying murder or abduction — always set to the same eerie background music — then the team from the BAU arrives on the scene to start creating a profile of the “unsub,” or unidentified subject. Since their profile is usually incorrect at first, they interview the wrong people until new information comes to light, someone has a “Eureka!” moment, cracks the case and the team arrives in the nick of time to save the last victim before they face an untimely demise. There are a few notable exceptions — the Season 2 episode “North Mammon,” for example, has a seriously creepy twist at the end that will forever haunt my worst nightmares — but for the most part, “Criminal Minds” always manages to be predictably terrifying. 

“Criminal Minds” isn’t by any means the only show about profiling killers. Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” an original series from acclaimed director David Fincher and starring Jonathan Groff, is about the historical beginnings of the BAU of “Criminal Minds,” though it was then called the Behavioral Science Unit, or BSU. Based on a true story of how agents worked to understand serial killers in the 1970s, “Mindhunter” is technically a better show in comparison — the plots are balanced, episodes painstakingly shot and well-researched — but “Criminal Minds” has scores of fans “Mindhunter” will likely never see. Why?

At least part of it has to be longevity. “Criminal Minds” just wrapped a 15-year run in February, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the cast and the characters they play have captured their fans’ hearts over the years. Despite the procedural approach from crime to crime, the personal lives of the BAU agents are complex and often nuanced, and fans from the beginning have grown alongside the characters for over a decade. Dr. Spencer Reid, played by Matthew Gray Gubler, is a fan favorite, especially on TikTok — his wealth of knowledge and messily tailored good looks have earned him admiration of fans worldwide. But there’s more to the show’s popularity than Gubler’s jawline. For example, I’m a highly anxious person who hates horror movies — when I was six, my mom had to drag me out of the “Winnie the Pooh” movie because I was scared of the Heffalumps — but I can’t make myself stop watching. Each killer terrifies me more than the last; yet, I keep clicking “next episode.”

The honest answer is that no matter how many TikToks or episodes I watch, I still won’t be able to explain the Internet’s fascination, let alone my own, with watching spine-chilling crimes play out on screen. I have only a feeble guess: Maybe part of the reason this show is so popular is not just because we’re unfortunately enthralled with the darkest aspects of humankind, but because for 43 minutes, you’re distracted by someone else’s worst nightmare instead of focusing on your own. It’s not comforting, but it is an escape — that is, until you start hearing noises right before you drift off to sleep. 

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About Claire Rafford

Claire is a senior from Tempe, Arizona majoring in English and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Business-Economics. She peaked when her team won the Battle of the Books state championship in 2011.

Contact Claire