Erica Messer is the unsung hero of the Behavioral Analysis Unit.
But she isn't an evidence clerk or a forensics geek.
Messer has been with Criminal Minds since its beginning 14 seasons ago, starting as a writer. She is now the revered series' showrunner and executive producer.
She has also written the premiere for Criminal Minds Season 14, which airs Wednesday night. The episode “300” is, surprise, the series' 300th episode, and follows up on a cult's abduction of Garcia and Reid on Criminal Minds Season 13 Episode 22.
Messer talks about the allure of her show, what to expect this season and what its future might hold.
As usual, Criminal Minds got a later renewal from CBS. Doesn't that waiting game get old for you?
[Laughs] It's teaching me patience. And apparently, I need this lesson, since I get it every year. Ultimately, it's ended up in our favor. Then I end up having a lot of gratitude for it.
It's part of the process of the business, and certainly, in this day and age, where a lot of things are owned by the same studio and network, we're one of those relics that is owned by two different people (ABC Studios and CBS). So it takes them a minute to figure things out. I don't take it personally.
Criminal Minds has a 15-episode season. What special challenges does that present?
It's become, actually, a really fun challenge, because a five-episode arc about a character's mental state, for example, after being held captive is an easier story to tell in a shorter amount of time.
If we had a full 22, where we might introduce that early on, then hit it a couple of times in the middle of the season, would it still have the power that it had by the time we get to 22 as it did in Episode 2? Probably not.
It really allowed us to do things differently. A five-episode arc now for a character is a third of the season. So we've all risen to that challenge and embraced it.
It's interesting because I have so many friends that haven't been on a broadcast show with a 22-episode order in so long that this is what they normally do. They do 10 or 13, and 15 seems like a lot to them.
It's been fun to have conversations with friends who have been in the world of the shorter order for a while, and they're like “Welcome. Welcome to this world.”
It's definitely allowed for different kinds of storytelling.
For the first time in a while, you've got the same cast back. What are the advantages of that?
There's a ton of advantages of keeping the same players.
I think especially for us in Season 14, where we've had so many years of a revolving door of people coming and going, that it was really kind of lovely to have a read-through for the 300th episode and for the first time in a while I wasn't introducing a new face at the table. And I mentioned that.
That group seemed to gel, and they're just so happy together, so lovely together, that it's a real pleasure to watch.
Wednesday night's episode, which you wrote, has a theme of family, using two very different families as examples. Talk about what you wanted to accomplish with this episode.
I always love to tell the ones when all hands on deck are the BAU hands, and we don't really require help from any outside source to solve our crime, especially when it's a direct assault on our team. In this case, having two of our beloved agents abducted doesn't get more personal than that.
I love those stories. I feel like the team you see in those episodes is always so amazing and emotional. There are moments when you get to take a beat and a breath, like JJ and Prentiss in the bathroom having a lovely memory about the people they're dying to go rescue.
Even within the bullet train of that episode, we take a breath. Those kind of things are important, and they don't get to happen all the time.
It is that sense of loyalty and family and very different ways of expressing that, within a cult and within our team.
There's something nice about not judging, really. You can't go and kill 300 people, but you think you're killing 300 people to protect yourself because that's your ideology. It's actually opposite of what ours is, and we feel guilty we didn't save the 300 people that you “sacrificed.” So there's a whole complication there.
I think now when everything is so polarized, it's a reflection of that in a way, the good version of family and the extreme doing the wrong thing for the right reason, but we don't think it's for the right reason.
Wednesday night's episode is also the 300th for the series. TV serves as escapism for most viewers, so what keeps bringing people back to what is often such a dark place?
I think it's because they know there's going to be light shining through as well, and that's within our team. The good guys who have been invited into the audience's living rooms for so long are really what keeps people coming back every week.
I know people have favorite characters and some of them aren't with us anymore, and some of them are. But I think they all lean into cheering on this team as a whole in their battle of good versus evil.
What else can viewers look forward to this season?
We're definitely going to go home with our characters more than we have in the past. I think they'll enjoy getting to see our heroes when they're at home in a more comfortable setting and seeing the human side of them, making the kids breakfast or moving in with loved ones, that kind of thing.
I think those bring moments of levity to an episode that might otherwise have just dark subject matter.
Is there added pressure to uphold the legacy of such a long-running show?
Yeah, there is. I basically don't look down. I just keep looking forward, because I do feel very responsible. Obviously, it's my job to be responsible, but I'm also the only writer who has been here for all 14 seasons.
It's never been an easy task. It wasn't easy when we had our 13(-episode) order; it wasn't easy when we got to Episode 100 or 200 or 300. It's never gotten easier. There's always a challenge.
We always try to keep one another on task when it comes to breaking these episodes and “does this feel like our show?” If we always stay true to “Is it good versus evil we're telling this week,” even if it isn't a serial offender, it'll be one of our episodes.
I think that's where we've gotten to after 14 years on the air. Now we're able to have more freedom and stay true to the good guys fighting the bad guys.
Criminal Minds is entering its 14th season, and it'shorter than previous years. Should fans be concerned that its end may be near?
I think anything past a certain time; we're always thinking that, and like every year is a bonus.
I would hope that the studio and the network give us that heads-up that this will be happening so the writers, the actors, the producers, everybody can tell the best stories we can possibly tell as we're heading out to pasture. As soon as we hear that, hopefully, we get a chance to address it.
Criminal Minds Season 14 premieres tonight at 10/9c on CBS.
Dale McGarrigle is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.