‘Suspect Behavior’ Has talent, Needs Writing

by Shannon Baldo
Columnist

If you’ve tuned into any CBS program over the past six months, you probably know that the network has been working diligently on a spinoff of its highly successful series “Criminal Minds” that would feature Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker as the head of a similar team of FBI behavioral analysts.

Long awaited after its backdoor pilot last April, “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” finally premiered last week. Two questions seemed to plague discussion of the show. First, does CBS really need another popular crime drama franchise like the “CSI:” and “NCIS”? And second, how on earth did Forest Whitaker end up there?

Now that the show has premiered, I can offer at least a brief review. “Suspect Behavior” tries to offer a grittier, more unconventional version of the action-packed behavioral-analysis trade, and in some sense it succeeds. With lower production values, purposefully rougher dialogue and an incredible cast, the show at least avoids falling into the pitfalls of too slick, too smooth writing that the original “Criminal Minds” has recently encountered.

But this does not mean that “Suspect Behavior” does not hit pitfalls of its own, failing to overcome, first, the awkward writing that almost inevitably accompanies a pilot and, second, the boredom and unoriginality of creating yet another police procedural. With such potential resources, “Suspect Behavior” could easily pull itself out of its conventionality and distinguish itself from the rest of CBS’s crime dramas. But based on the first episode, it doesn’t seem likely that the show will reach those heights — or even aspire to them — anytime soon.

Yet what interests me most about “Suspect Behavior” is the mere presence of Whitaker. A great admirer of his after seeing “The Last King of Scotland” — one of the most impressive movies of the last decade, I think — it surprised me when I discovered that an actor of his caliber was taking a role in basic television, as that rarely happens, especially in the States.

In an interview, Whitaker explained that he had taken the role in order to spend more time with his children rather than at distant locations for films; yet it still seems strange for him to take a role on CBS rather than more reputable premium channels such as HBO or Showtime.

And this phenomenon seems to be happening more and more. Whitaker is now the second actor of great standing to take a commonplace role in a basic police procedural. The first was Tony Award-winner Laurence Fishburne, a talented stage and film actor who recently took on the role of Ray Langston in the original “CSI:,” a move which somehow breathed new life into the drama’s 10th season.

Quite honestly, I cannot offer any sort of reasonable explanation for this trend, because it utterly baffles me. Whitaker and Fishburne both must have accepted their leading roles on CBS procedurals fully aware of the programs’ history of painful writing and poor acting, and so even my halfhearted attempt to attribute it to the quality of the project utterly fails.

Yet what bothers me most about this trend is that it is bothersome at all. I wrote several weeks ago about my opinion on television as a medium — it should essentially be used as a powerful and complex artistic medium-rare. And, in this view, it shouldn’t be bothersome at all that renowned, talented actors are entering the world of television; in fact, it should be perfectly normal for them to embark on complex roles in cleverly and carefully written programs, no matter the medium.

But that’s not what this is. This is two fantastic actors who have taken roles which must be essentially easy for them in programs of mediocre writing and overproduction, because those are the best leading roles offered to them in the current culture of television, in which the primary function is satisfying the public cry for mindless entertainment.

We, as an audience, should be demanding the complex, challenging writing which these actors have proven they can handle; storylines that pierce their characters to the core; shows that can move us emotionally as easily as their films. But that’s not what we have, and that’s not what we are asking of them.

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