Less than three years after ending its 15-season, 324-episode run on CBS, Criminal Minds is returning in a new iteration on Paramount+, where fans will soon discover that the characters—much like the format of the FBI procedural drama—have changed with the transition to streaming.
Created by longtime Criminal Minds showrunner Erica Messer, Evolution picks up nearly three years after the events of the series finale and finds all of the members of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit attempting to chart new paths on their own before inevitably finding their way back to each other to catch the ultimate UnSub. After accepting a promotion to become the new Unit Chief, a role that requires her to oversee multiple departments, Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster) has been struggling to cut through the red tape of the Bureau, where her superiors have not only split up the agents but also placed a greater value on combating domestic terrorism than catching serial killers. (But who’s to say serial killers aren’t domestic terrorists?)
Meanwhile, a disheveled David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) has had the rug pulled out from under him and has decided to throw himself into his work, in an unsuccessful attempt to distract himself from his grief over the loss of a loved one. Living out of a filthy hotel room, Rossi is hellbent on finding the killer of a slain family in Virginia until another case leads him across state lines to Maryland. On the other side of the country, in Yakima County, Washington, Dr. Tara Lewis (Aisha Tyler) finds 16 dead bodies inside a shipping container and hypothesizes that a serial killer has gone undetected by the authorities for more than 15 years. Despite being set on cracking cases and exhibiting typical signs of a workaholic while flying solo in the field, Tara has also started dating someone who will catch fans by surprise, leading to some fun banter when she returns to the headquarters. (The show is, as cliché as it sounds, strongest when it leans into the group scenes with the BAU.)
Elsewhere, J.J. (A.J. Cook) and her husband, Will (Josh Stewart), are struggling to reconnect romantically while juggling their busy schedules. Tech whizz Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) has become emboldened in her time away from the BAU, which has suffered in her absence with a revolving door of technicians. But when Luke Alvez (Adam Rodriguez) shows up at her door in a last-ditch effort to seek help on a case, Penelope feels conflicted about re-entering the fold. Evolution brings new layers to their complicated relationship—and, yes, they do address what happened after Luke asked Penelope out on a date in the series finale—with the witty repartee between the two proving to be one of the biggest highlights of the first two episodes that were screened for critics.
With the help of her writers’ room, Messer, to her credit, has effectively played off the noticeable absence of Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Matt Simmons (Daniel Henney) as a case of how the BAU is forced to do more with less after the unit suffered budget cuts. For starters, they don’t even have the resources—let alone the jet—to profile the criminals like they used to. Reid and Simmons are both on confidential assignments, but there is the promise that they will return if and when they so choose, which is reflective of their real-life circumstances. But with six original cast members reprising their roles in the revival, there is no shortage of dynamics to explore further, and fewer main characters ultimately might be a blessing in disguise. In fact, in what could be considered its 16th season, Criminal Minds accomplishes a difficult feat for any long-running procedural: It finds a way to add new (and somewhat surprising) layers to characters who have graced the screen for more than a decade.
Without the constraints of network TV, Evolution has quickly found its footing on streaming, breathing new life into a franchise and a genre that has become omnipresent in the current TV landscape. Sure, the BAU is still cracking a “Case of the Week,” but the cases are tied to a larger, season-long arc, so audiences can delve into the personal lives of the profilers and criminals alike in a way that the show largely struggled to do in 42 minutes on broadcast. What’s more, there’s a greater freedom to have difficult conversations about handling grief and trauma, and, of course, the opportunity to use adult language that feels more believable for agents who come face-to-face with the worst parts of humanity on a daily basis. While Rossi has already suffered plenty of loss in his life, Mantegna seems to relish an opportunity to play a darker and more brooding version of this character again—and it doesn’t hurt that he gets to use some more colorful verbiage in the process.
But the show simply wouldn’t work without a new UnSub (or Big Bad)—a role that has been terrifyingly assumed by Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gilford. The actor shines as Elias Volt, an operations analyst at a global cybersecurity firm who is the brains behind a cross-country network of serial killers that he dutifully grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Although it makes sense for the show to talk about contemporary issues, references to the pandemic, when it’s still ongoing, feel very on-the-nose and unnecessarily cliché. Case in point? “All my years as a profiler, I studied killers, but I never studied what a pandemic would do to them,” Rossi says in the trailer for the season. We just lived through it; you don’t need to preach to the choir.)
A master manipulator with decades of experience, Volt has an uncanny ability to compartmentalize, with a scene at the end of the second episode shining more light on his personal life. But his quick-witted nature will be put to the test when the BAU attempts to take down his web of minions one by one. And while Evolution certainly doesn’t reinvent any hallmarks of crime dramas—this is Criminal Minds, after all—the serialized nature of the new season gradually builds intrigue that will ultimately make a final showdown between Volt and the BAU much more satisfying.
In a world where long-running procedurals have become the norm rather than the exception, one could argue that this revival could provide a useful framework for other shows of this caliber to reinvent themselves on streaming, if there ever comes a time when broadcast is no longer a viable option. After all, who’s to say that the next big streaming hit can’t be an old network fave?
Criminal Minds: Evolution premieres November 24 on Paramount+.