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Criminal Minds: Evolution Showrunner Erica Messer On Bringing The Show Back To Life - Exclusive Interview

Erica Messer has been working on "Criminal Minds" as a writer and producer since it first began airing back in 2005, completing a 15-season run on CBS in 2020. Now, as showrunner of the Paramount+ revival series "Criminal Minds: Evolution," the multi-hyphenate television executive is breathing new life into the show, which airs on Thursdays.

Starring Joe Mantegna, Kirsten Vangsness, and Adam Rodriguez, among other returning actors from the original, "Criminal Minds: Evolution" offers a new twist on a tried-and-true old favorite. Picking up after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FBI agents from the Behavioral Analysis Unit regroup in order to track down a sophisticated serial killer who is recruiting people across the country to commit atrocious crimes.

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Messer delved into bringing the show back in a new capacity and revealed what to expect from the rest of the current season and beyond.

Messer approaches Evolution as Season 16 of Criminal Minds

You recently finished filming "Criminal Minds: Evolution." What was the last day like?

We just wrapped last night, December 5, and it was incredible. We ended the night with Joe [Mantegna] and Adam [Rodriguez], who we started the season off with as well. It was a lovely bookend, and [there was] a great sense of celebration at the end of the night. It was probably 10 o'clock when we wrapped, and there was music playing and everybody hugging. We were all masked of course, but we were all hugging and excited that we did it. "Criminal Minds" Season 16-slash- "Criminal Minds: Evolution" Season 1 is in the books, and we couldn't be more excited to all be back together.

Why was it important to make "Evolution" a 16th season rather than a reboot, a remake, or some other incarnation?

We are building off of the fact that in 2021, "Criminal Minds" was the most streamed series in the world — and the show began in 2005 when streaming wasn't a word yet, when iPhones weren't even made yet. The show has literally evolved, and the idea [of] making the show for a streaming service versus being a streaming hit are two different things. 

The word "evolution" didn't come into play for us until we were well into production. It was just "Criminal Minds" Season 16 for a very long time. And then it was, "Hey, we want to call this 'Evolution.'" That was a natural merging in that they wanted to set it apart so that it doesn't get lost in the 324 episodes of the original. As "Evolution," it gets to stand out a little bit more.

She wanted to avoid it being viewed as 'Criminal Minds After Dark'

You've been with the show since its inception. How do you keep things fresh after 16 seasons?

It's not as hard as you think. My general rule for the UnSub stories is to keep it real, simple, and scary — believing that this could happen out there, not that it necessarily has happened, but that it could. Those are the things that scare me, and I think that they scare a lot of our fans as well.

Over the years, we've had so many different writers. We did the math once, and it was 40 writers or something [who] have worked on "Criminal Minds" over the course of the series. You have all those different perspectives, all those different people bringing their truth to a story, including the vulnerability of, "This is what really scares me, and I want to write about it." When you have that diversity in a room with different storytellers, you're going to keep it fresh without even trying because you have these new voices.

Then this season, Breen Frazier, who's incredible, and Chris Barber, also amazing, have been with me. Breen and I have worked on "Criminal Minds" together for years, and Chris joined us on the last couple of seasons, and the three of us have been on from the writer's room through production. We've been the architects and the interior designers of this season, coming up with a framework with the whole team of writers.

You include a lot of diverse voices. You embrace their ideas, and that keeps it fresh. I don't think it's any secret. It's embracing others' perspectives and giving them a safe place to feel like they can share those perspectives.

The move to Paramount+ has allowed the series to be a little darker and a little more gruesome. Has there been anything on Season 16 that was too dark or gruesome to run with?

I've been big on not wanting the Paramount+ version to feel like "Criminal Minds After Dark." I didn't want us to all of a sudden be unrecognizable. I feel like whatever you imagine is going to be worse than anything I could show you, so I will pull back. There are some things you had to see — you had to see that spinal [incision] to get the impact of it, but you didn't see him actually cutting; you just saw the guy's reaction.

Those kinds of things, while it's gruesome and feels a little more real in some ways — like these UnSubs are killing themselves, which feels very visceral — I didn't want us to be unrecognizable. We joke that our show has ages 12 to 112 watching us. So even with the [foul] language, it's there but we didn't want to be gratuitous with that either. When it feels appropriate to drop something more than "damn," then we do it. But we didn't want to all of a sudden sound like "The Sopranos."

Fans will get some insight into Garcia and Alvez's date

How does everyone keep things light on set? [Did] anything funny or memorable happen this season that stands out?

This is why the show works. Everyone behind the scenes is lovely and funny and filled with light. If it wasn't like that, it would be too much darkness. We bring a balance to the stories we have to tell by enjoying one another and having fun and keeping it light. The levity on this set is incredible, and we've been able to bring a little bit more of that into this season.

Penelope Garcia is not happy that she's back, but ultimately she's back with her family, so things can't be that bad. Adam [Rodriguez] and Kirsten [Vangsness] are incredible together, so Alvez and Garcia are incredible together. They regularly make me laugh, on screen and off. They have a great rapport. Then, Paget [Brewster] is so much funnier than [Emily] Prentiss gets to be. But this season, we get little asides from Prentiss that feel more like Paget. That's fun to get those things in there.

I interviewed Kirsten recently, and she teased that Garcia and Alvez bond in an unexpected way this season. What can you tell us about where that relationship is heading?

They are this unique couple that's not a couple. It's that wild thing where she says, "I needed to tell someone. I couldn't tell Prentiss. I couldn't tell J.J., and I couldn't tell this and I couldn't tell that, so I have to tell you." And Alvez is like, "I'm the last person?" That doesn't seem fair, but that's who they are together. Later in the season, we will do a flashback of that date that they went on in February 2020. We will all get to see what that was like.

She's already preparing for another season

What can we expect from David Rossi's storyline? His wife died off-screen; he's no longer the head of the BAU. Any nuggets there?

It's going to feel a little bit like our hero that is David Rossi is so focused and driven to find [the serial killer] Sicarius that other things fall apart, especially boundaries. He is so driven to find Sicarius that it's to his own detriment. He becomes singularly focused. This is part of his grief arc too — wanting to escape from the heartache, he's focusing on this really important case that needs his guidance and his expertise, but there is a personal cost that comes with that.

Will Season 16 be tied up with a bow at the end, or will it be open-ended in hopes of a 17th season? And if it does get picked up, where does "Evolution" go?

You're going to feel satisfied, but there's definitely an ellipsis at the end. It is more of a "to be continued" than a "the end" [at the end] of Season 16. And Season 17 — fingers crossed — the writers and I are talking about where we could go. We want to maintain this stuff that we've set up — where there's a Big Bad of the season, and then there are also some UnSubs of the week — because we feel like that really worked and we want to be able to maintain that. Then we hope to dive into our characters even more and build on those relationships.

"Criminal Minds: Evolution" airs Thursdays on Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.