Criminal Minds: Season 12 (DVD Review)
Release Date(s)2016-2017 (September 5, 2017)
Studio(s)Mark Gordon/Touchstone/CBS Television (Paramount)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
One of the best and most enduring series in the history of television delivers its finest season to date on the highly recommended Criminal Minds: Season 12 DVD boxed set, which contains 22 riveting episodes and several hours of illuminating bonus features. Simultaneously more breezily entertaining and more profoundly personal and psychological than previous seasons, season 12 is a master class in sustaining an audience’s interest in a long-running series; it contains all the pleasures viewers have come to associate with the show over the years while constantly pushing the writing, acting, and visual style into new, highly rewarding and productive directions. Some series can lay claim to being one of the smartest shows on TV, or one or the most moving, or best acted, or most frightening, or most expertly constructed; Criminal Minds is singular in that it is all of these at once – and considerably more.
The core of the show, which revolves around an FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit led by David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) that profiles the most violent and disturbed criminals imaginable, has remained essentially intact for years, yet there’s not a stale or overly familiar moment in the 15½ hours of material here. That’s due to a number of factors, the first of which is the exceptionally precise plotting and dialogue. Under the guidance of showrunner Erica Messer, Criminal Minds boasts the most rigorous and inventive writing staff on network TV; each individual case that the BAU tackles seems to be the result of a perfectly calibrated intersection between meticulous research and vivid imagination, as the writers provide layer upon layer of realistic detail but then spice up the authenticity with diabolically creative fictional twists. 12 years in, the writers are capable of such concision and clarity that they’re able to pack each 42-minute episode with enough texture and detail to sustain a feature film – a really good feature film.
Indeed, an episode like True North, in which the BAU investigates the appearance of several murdered bodies tied to stakes in the Arizona desert, delivers the satisfactions of a great feature-length horror movie – under star Joe Mantegna’s harrowingly atmospheric direction, the script by Bruce Zimmerman is genuinely unsettling, absorbing, and suspenseful. But where Criminal Minds’ greatness lies is in its refusal to settle for what would be more than enough on 99% of other TV series – its writers and directors skillfully and consistently integrate humor (often in the form of delightful banter between the characters played by Kirsten Vangsness and new addition Adam Rodriguez, both masters of comic timing) and poignancy with the requisite chills. One of the best episodes in this regard is Sick Day, which plays with the show’s format to tell a story in flashback as JJ (A.J. Cook) shares the particulars of a distressing case with her husband (Josh Stewart). Writer Virgil Williams uses this structural conceit to subtly craft one of the most distinctive portraits of a marriage I’ve ever seen on television, delineating the complex relationship between JJ’s job and her home life with devastating emotional impact. Under Larry Teng’s delicate direction, Cook and Stewart dig into the challenges and rewards of a marriage between two people under pressure with a sense of depth and revelation more typical of the films of John Cassavetes or Ingmar Bergman than a network procedural. It’s a stunning piece of work.
Yet it’s just one of many such episodes in Criminal Minds’ extraordinary twelfth season, which manages to deliver a full slate of serial killers, kidnappers, and hackers while still devoting considerable time to the exploration of its series regulars. In Mirror Image, for example, writer Breen Frazier comes up with a brilliantly twisty plot that serves as a fascinating brain teaser for the audience while also yielding shattering personal struggles for Tara (Aisha Tyler, who rises to the dramatic challenge with total command of her craft). And the second half of the season contains a wrenching ongoing storyline in which team member Spencer (Matthew Gray Gubler, who like Mantegna is also one of the show’s most reliably stylish and tasteful directors) is framed for a series of crimes and imprisoned. The episode that kicks this arc off, appropriately entitled Spencer, is its own self-contained masterpiece of visual storytelling in harmony with a great script (by Messer and Vangsness) and probing performances. Glenn Kershaw, who has long been one of Criminal Minds’ most expressive and innovative directors, is unerring in his manipulation of space, via both blocking and lens choice, to convey the anguished inner states of Spencer and the members of his team who are helplessly trying to come to his aid. The episode beautifully sets the tone for the rest of the season to follow, which ratchets up the stakes with each episode until building to a season finale (also dazzlingly directed by Kershaw) that synthesizes all the elements of the series in one immaculately executed episode with a killer final moment.
Kershaw is just one of many terrific directors whose work is showcased on the season 12 boxed set; Alec Smight, Tawnia McKiernan, and others take full advantage of the latitude the show offers to craft top-notch action filmmaking. One wouldn’t think a show as long-lasting and successful as Criminal Minds would give its directors much room to breathe, but the opposite turns out to be true – the helmers on Criminal Minds are allowed a considerable amount of freedom in the individual criminal cases that anchor each episode, and use that freedom to construct not only fully realized guest characters but richly elaborate environments for them to inhabit. I feel like if Blumhouse put out a horror movie exhibiting the kind of terrifying originality on display in McKiernan’s The Anti-Terror Squad episode, it would be hailed as a new genre classic – on Criminal Minds, it’s just business as usual. McKiernan and other artists on the show – not just directors but actors, writers, and producers – are interviewed in an hour of supplements on the DVD’s final disc, and the boxed set also includes commentary tracks and deleted scenes on key episodes. The transfer is superb, impeccably preserving the extremely subtle contrast and tonal range of Greg St. Johns’ exquisite cinematography while also providing a robust surround mix that immerses the viewer in the world of the BAU. In short, it’s the indispensable package that this indispensable series deserves.
- Jim Hemphill