‘Criminal Minds’: Television’s Violent Crime and its Impact on Audiences and Reality
Whether you watch the news at six o’clock or at ten o’clock – or not at all – the devastating images seen on-screen are familiar. This could be due to the continuous and ongoing crimes, conflicts, wars, and reports of victims of numerous attacks and murders. It could also be due to similar scenes viewed on the same screen as part of the many crime and procedural programmes that have become increasingly popular. The exaggerated insight into the investigation of crimes such as homicide as entertainment usually do not show explicit content of crimes actually being committed, despite many being shown after the watershed, drawing a kind of boundary. Whilst most crime programmes often focus on the procedures involved, Criminal Minds has been accused of pushing past this limit with extremely violent and sinister depictions. In many episodes women and children are seen being abducted against their will, kept hostage in appaling conditions, and the barbaric actions of killers who torture and murder their victims are often depicted. For example, the two part season three finale/ season four opener shows random people in New York being shot and killed in a spree throughout the city; in the episode “Remembrance of Things Past” numerous young woman are abducted, tortured and forced to telephone their families before being killed by electrocution. These crime and procedural programmes, including Criminal Minds, are often repeated during the day, making fictionalised versions of the images on the news regular daytime television entertainment. Both reality and fiction become all too familiar, giving the news headlines less and less impact with each report.
The leader of the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit on Criminal Minds, Jason Gideon, departed the show after season two for reasons revolving around familiarity of these dark scenarios, a stance written to appear almost as ‘art imitating life’. The actor playing the character of Gideon, Mandy Patinkin, has since stated the highly watched programme as his “biggest public mistake” suggesting he signed up without realising the writers, in Patinkin’s words, were going to “kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week”. As the statement comes from one of the on-screen individuals most involved in making the programme at the time, does this suggest that the material featured as edged too far beyond the lines of ‘civilisation’? Is the programme’s content really into a territory that is just too ‘dark’? As an experienced actor on set, Patinkin would have been able to see that week’s plotline in jigsaw form, before being put together by cast and crew to become what the viewers see on-screen. Actors are expected to understand the fictional nature of the elements built around them that resemble the world their character inhabits during filming. However, despite great experience in the industry, and seeing firsthand the construction, and subsequent deconstruction, of the characters and crimes on set every day, Patinkin still criticised the ‘dark’ state of minded needed to play his character, and the depictions of “torture and murder on a daily basis”.
Similarly to Patinkin, in a large number of the negative comments taken from message boards concerning the show – from which there were also a large number of positive responses– viewers stated that the reason they had stopped watching Criminal Minds when Patinkin left was due to the “sick” violence against women and “depraved” scenarios shown. Many have questioned the entertainment value of this genre and its extreme content, as, when similar large-scale atrocities are reported on the news in real life, the initial reaction is of shock and disgust.
The debate surrounding violent crime in programmes like Criminal Minds can be fierce on the internet, however, it seems the more we talk about issues in our television habits, the less we are surprised by, or even acknowledge, instances of violence in reality. Crimes like these have become part of our culture both fictionally and in our actual lives, despite how much they are condemned. Regarding the cause of this violence, the questi0n seems unanwserable: so far we appear unable to tell whether life imitates art, or art imitates life. Whichever is the case, society is exposed to this kind of violence; some commenters even suggested that Criminal Minds had made a difference to them by making them more safety conscious in their daily lives, as the crimes fictionalised on the show do happen throughout the world. Others suggested that crime doesn’t go away if ignored, suggesting the show confronts the reality of violent crime. However, neither does it go away if only confronted in the extreme in front of the sofa.
Another debate surrounding violence in forms of entertainment is that of whether viewing this material makes people more susceptible to committing violent acts; however violent crime has always occurred in society. What has not always been a staple is the apparent desensitization of the public towards these crimes in real life, which seems to stem from the prevalence of extreme crimes in media entertainment. In the U.K recently the BBC received a barrage of complaints from the press concerning their police drama Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, about the graphic nature of the show under the category of ‘violence and dangerous behaviour. In spite of these concerns, the programme received over seven million viewers per episode and was highly praised for its writing, performances, and the portrayal of the psychological effects on character Catherine. Similarly, the American series Fargo – shown on Channel Four in the U.K – was nominated for various awards due to its popularity, yet has been described as ‘brutally’ and ‘senselessly’ violent. The series is based on the Coen brothers’ cult film of the same name, released in the 1990s. Many critics have stated that while the film contained a lot of violence, most of it occured off-screen, and any violence shown was satirical, filmed in the style of the Coen brothers’ usual ‘black’ humour. In comparison, critics have suggested some of the violence shown in the series is too graphic; Lester is shown battering his wife to death with a hammer, whilst Malvo is seen mudering Sam Hess by stabbing him in the neck, both in the first episode. There are many other programmes depicting violence on television, both American and British.
A psychological study by the University of Iowa found that increased exposure to violence through entertainment media in the form of video games resulted in “a powerful desensitization on a global level”. The study also concluded that these results can be extrapolated to similar test surrounding television media.
As audiences become more used to images of violence through this genre of television, are we also becoming desensitized to the reality of violent crime and its victims being reported across our screens? It has also been found by the University of Queensland that repeated exposure to crime and death through television on the news leads to desensitization. This can be seen in the coining of the concept of ‘disaster fatigue’, and is beginning to play out as a kind of ‘fatigue’ towards the violent crime going on around us both on the streets and on television, in entertainment and the news. On a daily basis coverage of real violent crimes if shown: for example the recent atrocities and beheadings of the terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, the London riots of 2011, which spread throughout England’s South and resulted in five people being killed, and the tragic murder of pupils from American school Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Criminal Minds portrays crimes that reflect many of the crimes on the news, from terrorism and shootings to the riots caused by the videos released of brutal killings in the episode “Hopeless”.
The number of complaints about swearing, sexual and violent content on television have fallen, despite the prevalence vastly increasing. audiences are now just used to it. From the four major UK channels , the programmes shown most, and with the highest ratings per screening feature a number of crime and procedural shows, whereas the new is not listed at all.
Many television programmes now feature a high level of crime or violence, with even soaps and Downton Abbey being criticised, particularly for the apparently gratuitous scenes of Anna Bates being attacked and raped during the latter’s fourth season last year. Whilst all shows in this genre depict storylines of homicide, terrorism and other violent crimes, the majority of programmes, such as CSI and NCIS, focus primarily on the procedural actions of the team during their investigations, Criminal Minds can sometimes be seen as uncomfortable viewing during some scenes that portray the victims during the ordeals and crimes featured in that episode.
However the show does not glamorize or encourage the kind of crimes depicted, and instead focuses on the team of BAU characters and their determination and passion to provide justice and put an end to the various criminals they profile. The characters are given backstories, personalities, emotions, and connections with each other as a team in order to bring back a more ‘human’ element to the programme, without allowing the violence shown to completely take over the episodes. Each of the characters are shown as being affected by their experiences in different ways, including Agent Gideon, Mandy Patinkin’s character. Hotch suffers from guilt over his ex-wife’s death; Reid became addicted to narcotics due to one ‘unsub’; and Garcia volunteers with support groups for the bereaved or families of missing persons. The beginning and end of each episode features the voiceover of one of the characters with a quote or proverb that relates to the episode, which is meant to act as a kind of moral message to bookend the experiences shown. Criminal Minds is described by those involved in the show as being about the psychology of profiling, and what makes people commit such violent crimes, rather and about torture.
However, if audiances are watching crimes take place, fictionally or as part of news bulletins, does that somehow make us complicit due to the lack of response we are able to give to the images we have seen repeated over and over again from our sofas?
What do you think? Leave a comment.