When the world last saw the members of the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) on Criminal Minds, it was a happy and shiny goodbye. The February 2020 series finale aired right before the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the characters wrapped with a surprise going away party for Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness), who was leaving the team to focus on less murderous things in her life.
Meanwhile, Rossi (Joe Mantegna) decided to stick with the job and not retire, the unit got a swanky new jet, and everyone was downright jovial. Or, at least they were in comparison to how the characters return when Criminal Minds: Evolution makes its Nov. 24 debut on Paramount+.
"We really wanted to play with the idea that the whole world has changed since we last saw these characters," showrunner Erica Messer tells Metacritic. "It was really an opportunity to show through the team how we've all experienced change and, I would say, growth. Sometimes you don't realize what the growth is until you've been through the uncomfortable change."
When the 10-episode season kicks off it will be without two BAU members: Matthew Gray Gubler as Dr. Spencer Reid and Daniel Henney as Matt Simmons. As for the rest of the characters? They're each in a different mindset until a new unsub (Zach Gilford), who has assembled a complex network of serial killers over the pandemic, surfaces. When he does, the BAU shifts its priorities, fast.
"This character is super unique," teases Messer. "[He is] something we've never been able to explore on this show before."
Ahead of the Criminal Minds: Evolution premiere, Metacritic sits down with Messer and cast members Aisha Tyler and Vangsness to preview where these characters have landed when the show returns.
The last time viewers saw Rossi, he was contemplating retirement but realized he was meant to be with the BAU. When the show returns, Rossi is still with the unit, however the job has turned into an obsession. He's barely getting by, refusing to open up to anyone, and a dark thing that happened during the pandemic hangs over his head. So, he turns to work to cope.
"That also feels real," says Messer. "Feeling like you lost control of [something] that happened in your life and now you're just going to double down on work because you can control that. It's not really, but you can have illusion of control. That makes him feel like he's got a purpose, and he's not going to fail."
One character who threw themselves into work during the pandemic is Lewis. When the show kicks off she's in another state, away from the rest of the team, and that is where the grisly discovery that sets the entire season in motion goes down. But Lewis has also had some personal developments since the last time viewers saw her, which will be revealed in the second episode.
"Tara was one of the people that didn't leave the BAU at the end of Season 15. And you can really see that she's sunk into the work," previews Tyler. "She's just in jeans in the field covered in dirt and doing the work. You can see the last couple of years really affected her. I loved that. I did want to see that there had been transformation — that you weren't just picking up the same show in the same way. I think we all felt that way. That word 'evolution' really does mean something and we're going to see that."
Like many working mothers during the pandemic, JJ has been trying to do it all when the show returns. That means the cameras follow her home, where she's a wife and mother as well as a serial-killer-catching agent. Add in the stress of the pandemic and so many people vying for her attention, and it's a lot.
"JJ is a representative of a lot of working parents, specifically working moms, who are juggling everything and sometimes feel like they're failing at home and at work because they're not 100-percent in both places," says Messer. "This is an evolution of her relationships, as a wife, as a mother, as a colleague. She is somebody who's never going to let you down in any of those hats that she wears, but there is a toll that it could take on her."
There are people who had a really rough time during the pandemic, and there are people like Garcia who absolutely thrived. When the show returns she's still away from the BAU and happy with her choice to leave because it's given her lots of time to heal and find herself again.
"Garcia thrived during sheltering in place, and set up boundaries and came up with realizations that she wasn't going to be a doormat anymore," Vangsness says. "She's been doing this job for 15 years to earn love. Well, she suddenly realized, 'I don't have to earn it. I just get it because I'm breathing.' And so, you get that version of her now."
Prentiss is juggling a lot on the work front when Criminal Minds: Evolution debuts, and that includes contending with an elevated role and a new boss who seems to have it out for the BAU and refuses to give them the financing they need to accomplish certain goals. Meanwhile, she's also seeing certain people on her team struggle, and she's forced to cover for them.
"Even though she's got way more people reporting to her than just the BAU, her soft spot is clearly the BAU," explains Messer. "She wants to help them as much as humanly possible because she was in the trenches with them. She's boots-on-the-ground and knew how hard that job is."
One character viewers won't really get into within the first few episodes of the series is Alvez, who, other than working out a lot during the pandemic, seems unaffected.
Messer says there was a lot to fit into these first 10 episodes back, but if the show is renewed for another season, there's more planned for the character.
"Alvez is the one in the field that can be 100-percent focused and Prentiss is the one in the office who can be 100-percent focused. Seeing those two representatives, that was incredibly important for us — to have those anchors," she explains. "We will explore his personal stories a little bit later. And of course he and Garcia are just so great together. They always make me smile."
Criminal Minds: Evolution debuts Nov. 24 on Paramount+ with a two-episode premiere. Weekly installments will follow until the midseason finale on Dec. 15.