'Criminal Minds' Hits 150 Episodes: EP Erica Messer Reflects on Series' Evolution, Reveals Season 7 Secrets (Q&A)

Criminal Minds Erica Messer - H 2012

Criminal Minds Erica Messer - H 2012

Criminal Minds is hitting another milestone: 150 episodes.

Riding strong in season 7, the CBS procedural has had its share of headline-making news with numerous cast departures -- and subsequent returns. Still, the show -- centered on an eclectic team of profilers in the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) -- continues to average nearly 13 million total viewers per week in its current season and showing no signs of significant ratings deterioration.

"Episode 200 would be during season 9 so bring us back. It's not that far away.," showrunner Erica Messer half-joked to The Hollywood Reporter, referencing network-mate NCIS' big feat airing Feb. 7.

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Messer, who has been with Criminal Minds since the very beginning, chatted with THR on two separate occasions -- once in November during filming and again just one day before air -- about the show's evolution, details of episode 150 (suspect: serial rapist called The Piano Man) and hints at the season 7 finale (hint: it's two hours).

The Hollywood Reporter: Seven seasons and still going strong. How has Criminal Minds evolved?

Erica Messer: The one thing we’ve been able to continue to do is tell fresh and compelling stories. Early on people were afraid this show wouldn’t have enough bad guys to last a year and here we are seven years in. The way we’ve evolved is really through our characters. We’ve been able to learn more and more about the heroes that are chasing the bad guys. No matter what crazy world we take you into every week, the faces that are there are the constants. It’s like lightening in a bottle and it doesn’t happen often.

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THR: When the idea for the episode came to fruition, was it approached differently or was it based more off the emotion in this season so far?

Messer: It was not approached the same as the 100th episode was. We had built up s nemesis for Hatch and it seemed like the natural time to pay that off. But the 150th, we didn’t have that built in this season. We had it a little bit last year with Prentiss (Paget Brewster), Penelope and Doyle, and that’s been put to rest. But Breen Frazier wrote the episode and when we started breaking it, [we asked] what If in this one, a victim catches the bad guy? How does the team save Prentiss from becoming bad? It’s a play within the play of the journey of someone who’s been victimized, seeking revenge. In the end our heroes need to make sure she doesn’t go down a path that changes her forever. It’s a different sort of episode in that way.

THR: Episode 150 is a Prentiss-heavy episode. What does the reappearance of the serial rapist mean for her?

Messer: It rings true for her because she had that with Doyle. She thought he was out of her life and then he came back and turned it all upside down and had to leave the family she loved and leave that life behind because she was victimized by him again. It really hits home for her. It gave us an opportunity to show the audience what she's been dealing with off-screen for the last 12 episodes that she's been back.

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THR: Are there special nods to previous episodes that the fans might pick up?

Messer: In every episode we try to put little cookies in and it’s an episode that’s heavy on music. There are jokes made about what kind of music people like. I think it’ll take a lot of people back to a time in the '80s. These are songs that you would definitely sing along to but it’s in this really twisted way. Every time we hit an episode like this, we like to give a shoutout to our fans.

THR: Do you have an idea about what the season 7 finale will look like?

Messer: We are prepping and shooting episodes 17 and 18. In the room, we're breaking episode 22, with 23 and 24 will be a two-hour finale. We know where we want it to go [in the season finale] and now we just have to find out every beat of our stories and get the ideas approved. (Cast member Matthew Gray Gubler is set to direct episode 19 and A.J. Cook recently told THR that J.J. will get into a big fight a few episodes down the line.)

THR: What are you hoping to have accomplished by the end of this season?

Messer: It’s the season to celebrate the team being back together and I think we’ve been able to do that. And continue to celebrate the good stuff that’s happened to the BAU, among the dark things that they have to surround themselves with.

THR: How closely do you pull the actors into the conversation now that they've been in their characters' skin for so long?

Messer: I believe in collaboration. I’m the only writer who’s been here since day 1 on the writing staff. I know these characters and I could sit in a room and say, "They’ll say this, they won’t say that." I know what their voices are, but no one knows their voices better than the [actors]. They have every right to express what their character would say or do. The hope is that we’re in the ballpark and we’re not all the way out in la la land.

THR: Was there a specific moment that may not have occurred had those discussions not taken place?

Messer: Joe [Mantegna] was the one who said, "I really want to meet one of Ralphie’s ex-wives." And we said, "Alright let’s see what we can do with that." We talked to A.J. [Cook] at the beginning of the year; the plan was now that’s she’s back she’s going to be a profiler, which we wanted to be a done deal. She and I can bond over being a working mom and we wanted to bring that side of J.J. out.

THR: Do you feel there are more stories left to be told?

Messer: There are so many stories that we can’t even write about, things that are happening in the world right now that are horrible, tragic and feels like a Criminal Minds episode. When you drive down a neighborhood street, you have to think: Behind every door there’s a number of stories. It’s not just a story about families, it’s a story about a mother and the father and the children and it’s intricate and it’s endless. I think as long as they have us, we’ll keep telling these stories.

THR: What are some of the challenges that you’re facing now that weren’t present in earlier seasons?

Messer: It’s keeping everyone excited to come to work everyday because most of the crew, cast and staff have been here for years. There’s the, "OK, it’s been seven years and I’m ready to move on." It’s been a really good team here and I’d like everyone to stick it out a while longer and see where it takes us.

THR: Is 200 episodes in the distant future?

Messer: You know what? I think that will be a sales pitch that we use to the studio and the network. Episode 200 would be during season 9 so bring us back. It's not that far away.

Criminal Minds' 150th episode airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

[Note: Compiled from two separate interviews.]