Ellen Gray: 'NCIS' spin-off searched for serial killers

Posted: February 16, 2011


HOW MANY TV shows does it take to keep up with the nation's serial killers?

One more than we had last week, apparently.

Starting tonight, with the premiere of "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and Janeane Garofalo join the search for the kind of criminals who don't often turn up on local police blotters.

Twisted, complicated and generally smarter than the average bear, they're the perpetrators Hollywood loves to hate, worthy opponents for actors whose credentials qualify them for something better than playing hide-and-seek with more typical miscreants.

I would argue that Whitaker's credentials qualify him for something better than the spin-off of a not-very-special CBS procedural, but I get that the man needs to make a living. As for Garofalo, I can only hope that producers find an excuse - soon - to bring in "24's" Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) so she'll have someone to play with.

Tethered closely enough to the "Criminal Minds" mother ship so that viewers who might already be scared silly never have to be more than a commercial break away from a protective FBI agent (or three), "Suspect Behavior" is everything CBS could hope for in a spin-off of a show that's averaging more than 14.5 million viewers a week. The tone's similar, the characters are similar, the crimes are just as out there.

If you don't care for "Criminal Minds," Whitaker, Garofalo and company probably aren't going to be enough of a reason for you to tune in. Their characters may get to be interesting from time to time, but the crime's always going to be the main focus.

If you love "Criminal Minds," well, you're not alone.

The show, now in its sixth season, draws more eyeballs than CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" or either of its spin-offs, and lags only slightly behind CBS' "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "The Mentalist" in total viewers.

There's a certain amount of labored dialogue in tonight's opener, "Two of a Kind," that's meant to explain stuff about the agents - particularly John "Prophet" Sims (Michael Kelly) - but then it's off to Cleveland, where a little blond girl has disappeared and an elite team from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, led by Special Agent Sam Cooper (Whitaker), has been dispatched to find her.

The episode plays a little with the idea that the disappearance of a child from a white, middle-class neighborhood will generate a lot more attention than a similar disappearance in an inner city, but play is all it really does, the plot having been carefully constructed to allow the escape of just enough righteous indignation to keep a lid on things just the way they are.

A subsequent episode involving adult victims is allowed to be considerably more gruesome, though possibly even less believable.

Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) does double duty for both shows as the go-to nerd with the ability to pull information out of search engines at speeds that make IBM's supercomputer Watson - wrapping up its "Jeopardy!" competition against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter tonight - look like a slowpoke.

If the FBI actually employs anyone like Garcia, whose manipulation of databases allows her to see connections that may have eluded law enforcement for years, I have to wonder why she hasn't been unleashed on this pesky serial-killer problem, so that some of us could get back to considering the far more pressing issues of "The Good Wife." *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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