The ultimate victor in the streaming wars has been the audience, which now enjoys the spoils of a content-starved environment in which death is never final, and any familiar TV franchise has a good shot at being resurrected. For proof, as if any more is needed, look to the motley crew of psychopath hunters from the long-running procedural “Criminal Minds,” now back in action on Paramount+ less than three years after CBS took them off the case.
But this is not quite the show viewers watched for 324 episodes. This is “Criminal Minds: Evolution,” a 10-episode-long soft reboot clearly intended to push the franchise into a more mature territory with deliberate pacing and a renewed focus on the profilers solving the murders, rather than the perpetrators committing them. It’s a logical progression for the show, which for all its success on CBS, always felt a bit too dark for the network, but still not as dark as it should be given the ghastly subject matter.
With “Evolution” comes a chance to build a richer and more authentic iteration of “Criminal Minds” beyond the strictures of the 10 p.m. timeslot. At the very least, “Evolution” gives the show another shot at a proper sendoff. “Criminal Minds” confronted the conundrum faced by every retiring series with gruesome subject matter or a nasty tone: try on optimism, even if doing so defies what came before it, or commit to a brand-appropriate ending that bums the audience out. The February 2020 episode now technically considered the Season 15 finale, rather than the series finale, opted for sweetness and light at the cost of tonal inconsistency and unattended plot threads.
“Evolution” will be far closer to what fans remember, with each character quivering under the massive psychic burden of a job that requires occupying the headspaces of serial killers. Joe Mantegna reprises his role as David Rossi, the shrewd and fastidious lead profiler of the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit, who is in a far worse state of mind than he was last seen in. There’s a time jump — essentially in real-time — to account for the pandemic, during which Rossi has suffered a crippling personal loss. He redirects his grief into the work, making him more likely to lash out at his colleagues when they second-guess the professional opinions that now comprise his entire existence.
The rest of the BAU gang is more or less intact, with the exception of Spencer Reid (day-one regular Matthew Gray Gubler) and Season 13 addition Matt Simmons (Daniel Henney). Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster) is still heading up the unit after a failed bid to run the entire agency, but is now under the thumb of a smug new superior who will happily short-change the BAU to get further in his career. Tara (Aisha Tyler) and Luke (Adam Rodriguez) are still on the beat, closing in on their latest twisted “unsub.” (“Unknown subject,” for those out of the loop.) Meanwhile, resident white hat Penelope (Kirsten Vangsness) is decidedly not on the beat, having resolved to prioritize self-care over hunting killers.
This may all sound like just another season of “Criminal Minds” rather than an “Evolution.” And that’s to be expected, with the show under the direction of showrunner Erica Messer, an OG producer who also worked on the short-lived spinoff “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.” But the step forward is in the plotting, which is designed to make “Evolution” a more serialized serial killer procedural. Rather than juggle a season-long Big Bad with mostly contained monster-of-the-week stories, “Evolution” braids the two together, lending the show a new momentum and cohesiveness that it’s only hinted at before. With each killer the team neutralizes, they get closer to their bigger target. The real masterstroke is casting Zach Gilford as the prime unsub, the spiritual leader of a nationwide network of murderous acolytes. Gilford’s intensity makes for a truly creepy foe against which the BAU feels well-matched, and he makes the most of his opportunity to play the anti-Matt Saracen, his beloved “Friday Night Lights” character.
For loyal viewers, the ones who bemoaned the hastiness of the series finale, business as usual will be just fine given how recently the show signed off. But it’s hard to make the case that “Evolution” takes full advantage of its jump to Paramount+. Sure, there’s a smattering of premium cable language here and there, but aside from a few naughty words, there’s not much to differentiate the show from its predecessor.
A higher level of gore would have taken the series in a more disturbing new direction. Granted, “Evolution” is as gothic as ever in its subject matter, but the depravity of its killers is still mostly implied and takes place mostly off-screen. The subtlety certainly makes the show easier to stomach, but also makes it feel trapped in primetime rather than truly evolved.
Perhaps “Evolution” feels tame because its logline – a charismatic leader commands a legion of serial killers – is identical to that of “The Following,” the three-season Fox thriller. For all that show’s shortcomings, its violence delivered gut punches that forced the to audience to face down the horror of the subject matter. “Evolution” is a lively and competent extension of a recently ended series, but little more, and it’s certainly not a leap forward.
“Criminal Minds: Evolution” premieres with two episodes on Paramount+ on Nov. 24.
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