Why ‘Criminal Minds: Evolution’ Is Digging Into the Personal Lives of Both the BAU and UnSub

Adam Rodriguez, A.J. Cook, Kirsten Vangsness, Paget Brewster, and Joe Mantegna in 'Criminal Minds: Evolution'

Anyone else grateful for the BAU this Thanksgiving?

Turkey day was a red-letter day for Criminal Minds fans: The darkly wry procedural about the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit reunited its cast to launch a new iteration on Paramount+, making the case once again for its 15-season popularity.

The instantly addictive Criminal Minds: Evolution — bringing back stars Joe Mantegna as Unit Chief David Rossi, Paget Brewster as Section Chief Emily Prentiss, Kirsten Vangsness as eccentric tech analyst Penelope Garcia, and A.J. Cook, Aisha Tyler, and Adam Rodriguez as Supervisory Special Agents Jennifer “JJ” Jareau, Tara Lewis and Luke Alvez — picks up nearly three years after wrapping with the mostly intact team of profilers tracking a very organized madman (Zach Gilford) and his acolytes.

Nicknamed “Sicarius” for the venomous spiders he employed in one murder, the unsub (later ID’d as Elias Voit) is the mastermind behind a decidedly antisocial network of serial killers who connected online during the pandemic. In Evolution’s first two episodes, two of Sicarius’ followers cracked open the “kill kits” he’d sent them and got to lethal work.

Michael Yarish /Paramount+

During COVID, “we were doing things like getting food delivered and trusting a total stranger to shop for my family,” says showrunner and longtime Minds scribe Erica Messer. “They’re bringing it right to my door, they know where I live, what vehicles I drive. It freaked me out.” So much so that she began to obsess over serial killers in a time of quarantine. “My head went to the show I’d been writing for so long and thought, ‘These people have this need [to kill], so what are they doing?’”

Armed with the idea of a maniac prepping like-minded predators to strike once the world opened back up, Messer video-chatted with the close-knit cast in the fall of 2020 — at the height of her “paranoid state” — to pitch her killer idea. Says Vangsness: “I love working with every single person in this cast, so the prospect that we would get to do it again just felt like an embarrassment of riches.” In the end, only Matthew Gray Gubler and Daniel Henney were unavailable (their agents, Reid and Simmons, are off on assignment), leaving six of the eight series regulars to enjoy the new freedoms of streaming.

“They took advantage of the fact that we did it for as long as we did and thought ‘How would we try to make it better?’” posits Mantegna. The drama has a more cinematic look and trades Minds’ case-of-the-week formula for a 10-episode arc devoted to a single investigation. (After the December 15 midseason finale, the final five episodes stream weekly starting January 12.) “It really allows us to dig deeper into the minds of these killers,” Cook notes, “but more than that, it allows us the time to get into the heads of our heroes and see the toll that takes on them and their lives — the highs and the lows.”

The expanded scope also makes space to delve into the team’s personal lives. While Alvez and Prentiss are showcased on the job (“Those are our two anchors in the workspace, holding down the fort both at the home office and out in the field,” Messer explains), we’ve met the now openly bisexual Tara’s girlfriend and gone home with JJ, who, Cook says, “has been in the trenches like every working parent through quarantine, and she’s exhausted!” And Rossi? Well, the recent death of his wife Krystall has spun him out in ways we’ve never seen before.

“Yeah, I’m in a pretty dark place,” agrees the actor, hinting that the widower will slowly regain his bearings by leaning on his family/team. “It mirrors what many of us have felt in the last couple years. It’s been a strange time for the planet, and that’s no different for those of us with the BAU.”

Once the Quantico, Virginia, band got back together in Episode 2, the gallows humor was flowing, as was the cast’s unbeatable chemistry. They’ll need both to endure what’s coming. The Mantegna-directed third episode, launching December 1, reveals more on the hacker feeding Garcia info on their target.

Criminal Minds: Evolution, Thursdays, Paramount+

This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine’s Criminal Minds: Evolution cover story. For details on the Paramount+ revival, Yellowstone prequel 1923, and more, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, December 1.