It must have been a strange feeling for Robert Davi when he made a guest appearance on the CBS crime drama Criminal Minds. Davi played the role of Detective Eric Kurz in the final episode of season five and the premiere of season six. It was only 10 years earlier that he closed the book on Agent Bailey Malone.
Agent Malone was Aaron Hotchner before there was Aaron Hotchner, just like Malone’s show Profiler was Criminal Minds before there was Criminal Minds. Starting in 1997, Profiler ran for four seasons on NBC’s Saturday night schedule. It followed the story of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force and Dr. Samantha Waters, its profiler (Ally Walker). Malone, Detective John Grant (Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon), George Fraley (Peter Frechette) and Dr. Grace Alvarez (Roma Maffia) followed Waters’ profiling instinct across the country to track and stop violent killers.
The VCTF had its stern leader in Malone, detective muscle in Grant and even CBS’ patented computer wiz in Fraley. Dr. Alvarez filled the forensics role. Sound familiar? They were Hotchner’s Behavioral Analysis Unit by a different name. Each member of Profiler’s team kept its duties more specialized than Hotchner’s BAU where all the characters seem almost equally adept at all the skills they need to track their “unsubs.”
Profiler’s story had an additional serial element that Criminal Minds mostly avoids. Its week-to-week stories took place on top of Dr. Waters’ personal life marked by an extreme tragedy: The death of her husband at the hands of a serial killer known only as “Jack.” Sam is haunted by the continual torture-hold Jack keeps her in as he weaves in and out of the show’s first three seasons until the VCTF ultimately apprehends him. It would be as if Foyet haunted Hotch for the entirety of Minds. Walker then left the show and it floundered quickly, lasting only one more season. Interestingly enough, Walker’s replacement was played by Madison Riley, who had a guest appearance on Criminal Minds in 2013.
Had it aired today, Profiler may have enjoyed a more successful fate. Broadcast television is a different place now than it was in the late 1990s. A look at last season’s top ratings compared to those of 1997 shows how much things have changed.
2011-12 Total Viewership
- NCIS 19.2 million
- American Idol (Wed) 17.7 million
- Dancing with the Stars (fall perf) 17.6 million
- Dancing with the Stars (spring perf) 17 million
- American Idol (Thurs) 16.6 million
- NCIS: Los Angeles 15.5 million
- Dancing with the Stars (fall results) 15.4 million
- The Big Bang Theory 14.9 million
- Dancing with the Stars (spring results) 14.7 million
- Two and a Half Men 14.6 million
Now the top broadcast shows of the 1996-97 television season
- ER 20.6 million
- Seinfeld 19.9 million
- Suddenly Susan 16.5 million
- Friends 16.3 million
- The Naked Truth 16.3 million
- Fired Up 16.6 million
- Monday Night Football 15.5 million
- The Single Guy 13.7 million
- Home Improvement 13.6 million
- Touched by an Angel 12.9 million
See the next 20 here.
Most glaringly, six of last year’s top shows were of the reality genre, which didn’t exist in 1997. Sitcoms accounted for similar bulk in 1997 taking up 70 percent of the list.
How would Profiler have ranked? Its 1996-97 viewership of 7.4 million put it 82nd. The same viewership last year would have vaulted it 30 spots higher, near the likes of Glee, House, Revenge and Scandal – all of which survived. Nearby shows like Terra Nova, NYC 22 and Missing weren’t so lucky. Following seasons saw Profiler jump to 9-10 million viewers, on par with Undercover Boss, How I Met Your Mother, Greys Anatomy, CSI: NY and The Amazing Race. Those shows survive easily.
Criminal Minds is a more mature show than Profiler. That could be due to CBS having perfected the criminal drama format. It turns out these shows like suburban model homes, and that’s not a knock on the shows or suburban model homes. Okay maybe a little bit. This Business Insider piece from two years ago explains how they do it (even though it was prompted by a Minds spinoff that didn’t last the season). Each show benefits from the others’ successes, and Profiler never had that benefit on the NBC of the late 1990s. Not to say it would have lasted longer if it had, just that it existed on more of an island than Criminal Minds does today.
Even with that help, I don’t think Criminal Minds is perfect. Minds is set up in a way that removes as much of a viewer’s need to think as it possibly can. Dr. Spencer Reid does most of the hand holding as the team member with an eidetic memory – basically he knows everything. That’s awfully convenient. Every development in the show is revealed through dialogue, usually as a series of questions, discussions and realizations by the BAU team. Very little is actually shown. You can close your eyes and listen to it for an entire episode without missing much of anything. Profiler was more artful than that. I’d love to see a breakdown between the average amount of time in each show without dialogue. My bet would be Profiler comes out on top. And that’s why it’s my favourite of the two. It could also be why it didn’t last half as long as Minds.
Davi appeared in two of what I think are Criminal Minds’ darkest episodes as a serial killer murdered families and left only one survivor to remember the horrors. As he looked around the set, I wonder if Davi saw Profiler as a show that came before its time?