'Criminal Minds' 100th episode

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Early on in his tenure as showrunner for the CBS drama "Criminal Minds," Ed Bernero came up with a standard to help him quickly gauge when a story line was right for the show. He realized all of the stories needed to be what he called "Arthurian."

Despite the fact that "Criminal Minds" follows a team of 21st century FBI agents who make up the elite Behavioral Analysis Unit -- the bureau's weapon against serial killers and other deadly predators -- Bernero discovered the ancient legend or King Arthur and his Round Table of knights served as the perfect template. The structure is surprisingly simple: The knights meet, there's a call to adventure, then a journey to the dragon, the slaying of the dragon, and the return home.

"That's what these guys are," Bernero says of the series' regulars, comparing them to knights in shining armor. "They're battling the only real monsters we have left in the world."

Bernero's Arthurian standard seems to have served the show well. Despite tough competition, "Minds" was an immediate ratings performer when it premiered in 2005. For the first six weeks of the 2009-10 season, the show ranked 16th among adults 18-49 and cracked the top 10 in total viewers, which explains why it's easily cruising past the 100-episode mark Tuesday. At first glance, "Minds" might appear to be just another solid procedural in a TV landscape where audiences crave to play along with the crime solving on their screens, but CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler describes the show as "much more character-based."

"Ed was very smart in pointing out you needed to have characters that brought a unique point of view on each crime and each criminal," Tassler says. "If you watch how the characters have arced over the season, certain crimes become personal to them."


Ed Bernero, left, and Joe Mantegna at the 100th episode party
 
Getting personal is a hallmark of the show, because the BAU literally has to break into the minds of the criminals they're tracking to figure out their motives and ultimately bring them to justice. Tassler notes that responsibility "could ultimately take a toll on their characters," but explains Bernero and the show have "been very smart about how you reveal back story, and how you really trust each character's ability to retain their sanity as they deal with the most psychologically deviant criminals out there."

Bernero suggests the "Minds" storytelling is different at its most basic level. "We've never collected a fingerprint, we've never collected a bit of physical evidence," he says. "All we collect is character."

Mark Gordon, whose company created and produces "Minds," notes the show has taken a journey from its initial pitch to 100 episodes. Creator Jeff Davis initially brought Gordon and his company president Deborah Spera the idea for "Quantico," a series that would take one serial killer case and follow it through an entire season. "We changed it to be something different every week because audiences like a close-ended show," Gordon says. "And in syndication it's a better bet."

"In my naivete at the time, I believed completely and wholeheartedly in the success of the show," Spera says, noting she had just transitioned from Showtime where she had been vp movies and miniseries. "I knew we had something special from my perspective. I thought it would find its audience."

When he read the pilot script, actor Thomas Gibson, who plays BAU team leader Aaron Hotchner, knew "Criminal Minds" was promising. "I thought, if it comes together as it does on the page, we've got a shot," he remembers. "You never can predict if an audience is going to embrace or reject it. It really did come together as we hoped. Then we found out we were up against 'Lost.' "

CBS had scheduled "Criminal Minds" on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. up against the second season of "Lost," the critical darling and ratings powerhouse that helped revitalize ABC's brand.

"It was really scary to be up against 'Lost,' and it was really unnerving to see all the critics had it out for us," Spera says. "We were not well-received across the country." But Spera still believed they had a winning idea. "If you go into a bookstore, the crime section isn't getting any smaller. We were looking at crime from a completely different perspective."

Despite the competition, Spera's hunch proved right, even as the show faced other hurdles. "The pilot is the very, very first step in what might be a successful series," Gordon explains. "The first year was complicated in that Ed wasn't there for the pilot." Bernero went to Vancouver and met Davis and the cast before the pilot started shooting, but had to go to New York to finish the final episode of his cop-and-EMT series "Third Watch" on NBC. Davis ultimately left "Minds" for other projects, with Bernero taking showrunner duties. "Making a series is different from making a pilot," Gordon says. "Having a guy like Ed as the showrunner makes a huge difference. The reason the show is run so well is because of him, and I give him an enormous amount of credit."

Having an experienced showrunner like Bernero who knows how to keep the trains running on time also helps "Minds" maneuver through the creative minefield that comes along with producing a very dark show with intense and grisly subject matter, explains Barry Jossen, executive vp studio and creative production for ABC Entertainment Group, which co-produces "Minds." "When the process is working well, it provides for more creative opportunities, and that works really well on 'Criminal Minds,' " Jossen says. "The result is what you see on the screen, which is really consistently good television shows."

Initially Bernero wasn't sure about jumping onto "Criminal Minds" after wrapping up "Third Watch." "It really was a kind of bittersweet time," he explains. "I just wanted to do something lighter."

Bernero was encouraged to take a meeting with Gordon and Spera, who he thought were going to be stereotypical feature film executives. "I had all of these kind of preconceived notions of what this big movie guy was going to be like," he says. "They were so not that. Mark is an incredibly sweet and funny guy. I called my wife and told her I'd like working with them for a while. In this interesting way, all of the darkness of the show disappeared in the lightness of Mark and Deb."

"Minds" has survived "Lost" -- not to mention the yearly winter onslaught of Fox's "American Idol" -- executive changes and even the unexpected departure of former star Mandy Patinkin, who abruptly left the show after two seasons playing Jason Gideon, the emotionally intuitive "mother hen" of the series. What could have been a fatal blow to the show's unique chemistry of character ended up being a strength with the introduction of David Rossi (veteran actor Joe Mantegna). Bernero says he followed the "M*A*S*H" strategy when replacing a character, which is to write someone completely different from who was on the series before. "We went as far away from the Gideon character as we could," Bernero says.

Mantegna picked up on the change right away. While the Gideon character was a bird watcher, Rossi was a hunter. "My very first scene was me blasting a duck out of the air with a shotgun," Mantegna says. "It was a pretty bold statement."

The transition also allowed for about seven episodes without Gideon or Rossi, which provided the rest of the cast -- Gibson, along with Shemar Moore, Paget Brewster, Matthew Gray Gubler, A.J. Cook and Kirsten Vangsness -- the chance to work as a group independent of either character. "People got used to the fact that these guys could do it too," Bernero says. Mantegna credits that move with making his transition into "Criminal Minds" so smooth. "I felt like I was entering the Yankees," Mantegna says. "They had lost a major player, but a position was open." Mantegna has now shot more episodes of the series than Patinkin.

It's no surprise CBS has greenlit a "Minds" spinoff written by Bernero's fellow executive producer Chris Mundy that is set to air this season. "It will be very special," Gordon explains. "It will satisfy the enthusiasm of the show, but it will also be different enough so you won't feel you're watching an episode of 'Criminal Minds' with different people on it."

While the details of the series are still being worked out, the success of the spinoff will be tied back to what makes the original series so successful, says David Stapf, president of CBS Paramount Network Television, which also co-produces "Minds."

"A big part of what makes 'Criminal Minds' work is hopefully what makes the spinoff work," Stapf explains. "Each member of the team brings a different flavor to the team. You would hope to get the same set of characters that help define what they do for a living."

Bernero is excited about his show hitting the 100-episode mark, but feels the series is just beginning to hit its mark. "I honestly don't see a reason why we couldn't do 300 episodes," he says. "We still have things to explore with these characters. We're still having a great time."
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