Thoughts on Criminal Minds "True Genius"

I had reasonably high hopes for this episode, really I did. But, in retrospect, it's clear to me that the reason I had such high hopes was precisely because I had never actually watched Criminal Minds. If I had seen just one installment, I'm quite certain that I would have managed to keep my expectations in check.

I'm not going to bother recapping the entire episode. There are, undoubtedly, people out there who are better able and more motivated to take on that task. Rather, I'm simply going to provide some thoughts on various aspects of the episode from the perspective of an opinionated person who is knowledge about the Zodiac.

I'll start by considering some of the dialogue.

Rossi: Bottom line: the Zodiac is the most well documented, unsolved serial-killing case in modern times.

Hard to argue with that.

Rossi: Most likely wound up in a prison or mental hospital.

Although common speculation, this scenario is pretty unlikely in my estimation. If the Zodiac ended up in prison, it's highly probable that he would have been identified through his fingerprints. Furthermore, the Zodiac's ability to cope with the demands of normal life during his heyday suggests that he likely managed to avoid institutionalization in the subsequent timeframe.  In all probability, he maintained a relatively normal appearance and simply reached a point where he discontinued killing - similar to Dennis Rader, aka BTK, prior to his re-emergence.

The Chronicle's website manager received two phone calls this morning. There was just heavy breathing on the other end, like the phone calls Zodiac used to make.

The Zodiac's two phone calls were to law enforcement - the adversary that he was intent on embarrassing. The Chronicle and the other newspapers were the means through which the killer communicated with the people of the Bay Area (including law enforcement). And, of course, the Zodiac did not just breath heavily; he actually delivered very deliberate messages.

Reid: The spam had to be converted from matrix code to binary code, then converted to base eight before being translated back into letters...


Hotchner: Garcia, I need you to compile a list of people with I.Q.s of 160 or above in the region.

Garcia: Checking with the Bay Area Mensa society...

Binary, base 8 and Mensa?! Did the producers hire Gareth Penn as a creative consultant or what?

Reid: Can you rotate that? See, F-4 is a chess square.

Jareau: He murdered people according to a chess game?

Reid: Specifically, game 6 of Fischer vs. Spassky in 1972, one of the greatest chess matches ever played. The murder locations correspond to the final three moves of the game.

This kind of stuff is pure fantasy. Of course, there's no explanation regarding the specifics of the given grid, e.g. what determines the spacing of the squares, the offsets of its alignment, black squares vs. white squares, etc. So, without any other supporting information, Reid jumps from F-4 (the page on which the classified ad appeared) and three crime scene locations to some forty-year old chess game. Uh-huh...

Hotchner: Garcia, do you have the list of Zodiac case experts?

Garcia: Yes, standing by for you I have everyone who has ever written or blogged about it. FYI, there are way too many people obsessed with this sicko.

Despite being a line from a fictional character, the negative connotation regarding people who are "obsessed" with the case of the Zodiac is unmistakable. I find it interesting that when the Zodiac's murder victims are serving as fodder for pure-fantasy entertainment, all is well and good. But, when everyday people dedicate large parts of their lives to the pursuit of understanding and identifying this fugitive, we're somehow incomprehensible ne'er-do-wells who are obsessed with a sicko. There is also an element of this attitude in the episode's antagonist, Caleb, and the object of his attention, Harvey.

The show's desire to have itself taken seriously is significantly hindered by the outlandishness of the fictional events. Criminal Minds seems to fill a void created by people who think the character Hannibal Lecter is entirely too reasonable and realistic. Need some serial-killer mystery solved? Just call the gang from BAU. Prentiss will make some ridiculously improbable observation which is, of course, correct. Next up, Hotchner will get Garcia on the line who will cross reference this thing with that other thing. Finally, Reid will use his genius-yet-fragile intellect to interpret the results in some impossibly arcane way and... Voila! The case is solved. What's not to like?

There may be aspects of Criminal Minds that are entertaining. But its plots - based on my single-sample data set - are closer to a high-school student's daydream than they are to the reality criminal profiling. For those of us who prefer to have some element of reality in our fiction, the show leaves much to be desired.

Since Criminal Minds appears to be so infatuated with genius-level I.Q.s, I'm going to pose my overall opinion of the episode in the form of a verbal analogy.

"True Genius" is to serious fiction as __________ is to good nutrition.

(a) Pluto
(b) A well-balanced meal
(c) Bubble gum
(d) Vodka

Answer Show
Michael Cole


  1. Jamie 25 January, 2012 at 11:08 Reply

    This was an interesting read. Although, I am both fascinated with the Zodiac and Criminal Minds I found this episode very hard to watch. But it IS a fictional show in the end and ppl just tune in to see they’re favorite actor. I started watching this show about 3 yrs ago and they have changed the cast (some for better, most) and writers in recent yrs. May this be the reason for lack of quality? Possibly. But, i will continue to tune in or dvr my show every Wednesday night. But in the end these ppl play “fictional characters”. Guess what? This show isn’t real….OMG!!!! LOL. But i do love it!!

    • Mike 26 January, 2012 at 08:16

      You’re right, of course. It is, after all, just fiction. As I mentioned, I was definitely a victim of my own expectations. But, honestly, I thought they could have done so much more with a plot involving the Zodiac.

      Maybe I’ll try watching the show again some time when the plot doesn’t involve a subject that I’m so heavily invested in. Still, I don’t hold out too much hope. At the end of the day, this type of show is probably just not my cup of tea. I think a lot of people find these shows entertaining precisely because they’re so far beyond reality. But for me, that characteristic of the story telling ultimately ruins the story.

  2. Anne 28 January, 2012 at 04:12 Reply

    “The Chronicle’s website manager received two phone calls this morning. There was just heavy breathing on the other end, like the phone calls Zodiac used to make.”

    Unfortunately, this sounds like the Criminal Minds people are buying into Robert Graysmith’s claims that Zodiac/Arthur Allen made similar calls to Darlene Ferrin’s family after murdering her, and later harassed Graysmith himself with such calls (Fincher’s Zodiac movie ended with the note that Graysmith stopped receiving them after Allen died). Still, it sounds better than their other attempt at writing a story based on Zodiac, ‘Omnivore,’ in which one of the survivors is revealed to be the real killer.

  3. kate 15 February, 2012 at 03:16 Reply

    I think you’re missing the point of this episode. It was about Reid. The zodiac killer plot was the b-side. They don’t have enough time to research every precise detail of the case, and they have to change things to make it interesting for the audience. As for your comment about the show being “closer to a high-school student’s daydream than they are to the reality criminal profiling”, the writers have always said it’s unrealistic. There has to be some level of fantasy for audiences to be invested. Look at LOST, that was the most unrealistic show of all time – even before it went Sci-Fi – but it also had the best ratings. If you want 100% fact, watch a documentary.

    • Mike 15 February, 2012 at 23:43

      I don’t think I’m missing the point; I just don’t appreciate the point… From the various things I’ve read regarding the show, I understand that it’s a character-driven series that devotes episodes to a subset of the cast of characters, and that much of the long-term audience enjoys this aspect of the show. But, this doesn’t give the writers a total pass when it comes to the plot.

      Regarding their research on the Zodiac, I thought it was reasonably well done. Apart from the bit about the phone calls – which probably is due to Graysmith, as Anne points out – I really didn’t have a problem with the details. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising given that, nowadays, getting the details right is a lot easier than it used to be.

      Of course, my perspective is going to be the Zodiac-killer plot. But, as I alluded to, I was especially disappointed because I thought Criminal Minds had an opportunity to create a memorable piece of fiction. Instead, we got Caleb and his buddy, the not-so-smart genius, Harvey.

      I’m glad to hear that the writers are aware that their product is unrealistic. Admittedly, I’m not the target audience for this show, which is why I had never seen an episode before True Genius. I also have never watched LOST, CSI or, undoubtedly, a bunch of other shows that some people consider to be great.

      Still, I do enjoy fiction. It’s just when I have to suspend disbelief so extremely, I find the stories significantly less compelling.

      But it’s hard to argue with success, and Criminal Minds has enjoyed an impressive amount of it. They must be doing something right. Ultimately, the fact that I didn’t like the show is of relatively little consequence. It’s just one guy’s opinion…

  4. Julie 14 August, 2012 at 07:05 Reply

    I just wanted to point out that profiling someone who is a genius, by using the Mensa society as your only parameter is very excluding and was the most unbelievable Garcia bit. They probably should have specifically excluded anyone in Mensa. Why would a real genius be a member? Garcia said people with an IQ of a “measly 132” are members. Wanna be geniuses are not the profile of the unsub.

    • Zodiac Revisited 14 August, 2012 at 07:12

      Thanks Julie. Yeah, I find the whole Garcia character to be a bit ridiculous. It’s such a caricature of real life. If only things were so easy.

      Also, I’m still trying to figure out why Garcia doesn’t just do a few database cross references and solve the real Zodiac Killer case! 🙂

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