Scary stories a cold reality

ERICA THOMPSON
Last updated 10:12 03/04/2012
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DARK WORK: Joe Mantegna, Thomas Gibson and AJ Cook in Criminal Minds.

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The number of serial killers running amok on United States crime shows can seem a little far-fetched from our relatively quiet New Zealand shores.

But it's a different story on the other side of the world.

In the same week The Dominion Post visited the Los Angeles home of Criminal Minds, the chilling TV One drama about a team of profilers investigating violent crimes, the police were warning the public about a real serial killer on the loose in Orange County. The suspect had already murdered four people and was expected to strike again.

"Unfortunately, it's not that far from the truth," says Criminal Minds star Thomas Gibson, who plays Hotch, of the sometimes thin line between fact and fiction on the show, which is set inside the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit.

"There was a statistic that Matthew [Gray Gubler's] character [Reid] came up with that at any given moment they think there are dozens and dozens [of serial killers] operating in the US alone."

That technically makes serial murder rare in a place the size of North America, but the BAU is not a fictional organisation.

Co-star Joe Mantegna (Rossi) says the real BAU "delves into things that are much darker than we've ever touched", and for this reason, he dismisses criticisms of Criminal Minds' often grisly cases.

While original cast member Mandy Patinkin, who now stars in Homeland, abruptly left the series because he found the storylines too traumatising, Mantegna takes a different tack.

"My feeling is because we are not [based on] a pretend group - this stuff really happens and this is what it really looks like. So for us to do less than that I think is a disservice and a lie in a way.

"It does get pretty horrific, but as long as we're not doing it for shock value, which I don't think we do, it doesn't bother me," he says. "I know when you get into subject matter with children and stuff like that, it gets very disturbing and people say that to us: 'I love the show. I'm obsessed with it, but whenever they do stuff with little kids, I've got to walk away.' I get it.

"Unfortunately, I'd like to be able to do that in life. You'd like to be able to say if you walk away, it's not going to happen, but it does.

"So we're showing you this is the way it is and thank God we have these people who really exist who help stop it."

Mantegna has met with real BAU agents a number of times and has even had his fictional expertise put to the test.

"I've actually had them bring out evidence for me to examine from real-life stuff to profile," he says.

"They bought out this one thing - a whole bunch of Barbie dolls that this guy had meticulously done things to, I mean, intricate little lettering covering every inch of the Barbie doll and pins everywhere like voodoo dolls  a whole bunch of them.

"And they laid it all out and they asked me questions like how seriously did this guy take it? My feeling was he was so into doing this that he hadn't made that leap to the next level and I was correct.

"They said, 'Yeah, they nabbed him before [anything happened]'. He was obviously doing this to torment some particular woman, but it was satisfying him enough that he was sending her these whacked-out Barbie dolls."

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While its spinoff show, Suspect Behaviour, flopped, Criminal Minds continues to grow its global audience and was recently renewed for an eighth season.

It's a show that fans feel so strongly about that they instigated a petition to have actresses Paget Brewster (Prentiss) and AJ Cook (JJ), who were dropped from the series in the sixth season, successfully reinstated to the team (Brewster has since announced she won't be returning after the current season).

Mantegna believes part of the show's success lies in the nature of the work.

"It's like peeking behind the curtains. It's why people like horror movies."

By focusing on the perpetrator - the "unsub" or the unknown subject - Criminal Minds offers a darker riff on the standard cop show. The victims tend to be ordinary people indiscriminately chosen, which, as in real life, plays on all our worst fears.

"There's kind of a theme running through some of the episodes this year where our bad guy or bad girl/woman is sympathetic to some extent," Gibson says.

"It's certainly no excuse for anything that they do, but there are these sort of tragic aspects to all these stories.

"There are some real tough ones this year as far as understanding why a person did what they did."

CAST PUTS BEST FOOT FORWARD

Thomas Gibson has snapped - pictures of shoes, socks and feet, that is.

The Criminal Minds actor laughs when quizzed about his unusual behind-the-scenes image collection on his official Twitter account - @Gibsonthomas.

"We started posting photos from the set and I think it simply was, 'What shoes is Garcia or Penelope (Kirsten Vangsness) wearing today'?" he explains.

"So I snapped a picture of her feet and posted it and then I did one of Shemar [Moore] and one of Matthew and one of Joe and it was, 'Whose are these? Whose do you think these are?' and suddenly I had this raging foot fetish and it's just taken on its own life from there."

Gibson says he enjoys giving fans little glimpses backstage.

"I'm careful about what exactly gets revealed. I don't want to spoil anything.

"Occasionally, people want to tell us how to tell the stories, but I am very grateful to our fans for being invested to that degree, because they invite us into their houses every week, and they keep coming back, so we have to be very appreciative for that kind of support."

One thing fans are interested in is Hotch's love life, or lack thereof.

Gibson hints that his normally grim-faced character may finally get the chance for romance this year.

"It will be nice to see how things go and it's time, given just how hard things have been for him, to see a little bit of optimism and a light at the end of the tunnel."

THE DETAILS

What: Criminal Minds

When: Monday, 8.30pm

Where: TV One

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