Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Real Reason AJ Cook Left Criminal Minds

For 14 seasons, AJ Cook graced our television screens on Criminal Minds as Jennifer "JJ" Jareau, media-liaison-turned-criminal-profiler of our favorite FBI BAU squad. Cook's JJ was an integral part of Criminal Minds, but for exactly one season (minus a spare guest appearance — more on that later), the actress wasn't on the series and her character wasn't with the team. 

2010 was, frankly, a bit of a messy year for Criminal Minds. Along with Cook's sudden departure announced at the end of season 5, Paget Brewster, who played Emily Prentiss, endured a smattering of contract drama that put her place on the show in jeopardy as well. While time ultimately vindicated both actresses when they returned to the show to finish it out — Cook with season 7, Brewster way later with season 12 — through the series finale, it's nonetheless a bumpy bit of history.

Any diehard fan of Criminal Minds will point to the familial energy of the BAU team as what kept them coming back year after year more than any killer-of-the-week's brilliance or brutality ever did. The cast would readily agree, too. Here's why AJ Cook had her brief departure from Criminal Minds, how it's intertwined with her co-star's departure, and why she finally returned.

Reports of creative differences and financial concerns leading up to AJ Cook's Criminal Minds exit

There were two alleged reasons as to why Cook briefly went separate ways with Criminal Minds: the time-honored "creative differences" boilerplate, and reports of cost-cutting. On June 14, 2010, Entertainment Weekly broke news that Cook had been "fired" from Criminal Minds, with producers having "opted not to pick up" her contract for season 6. The outlet went on to report, "The decision to cut Cook [...] was made for financial creative reasons."

During an interview with Screen Rant later in July 2010, Cook's Criminal Minds co-star Kirsten Vangsness, who played Penelope Garcia, channeled fan outrage over Cook's firing. "It sucks when they fire your friends. I don't know who made that decision, but I know that us as a family — the family that [executive producer] Ed Bernero made of us — are crushed and it's awful," she said. "It makes you very aware that it's a job and if they need you, they keep you, and if they don't, they fire you. Not that she's not necessary! But, someone made a decision that she was not necessary and that's a bad decision — in my opinion.

Cook ultimately appeared on just two episodes of the sixth season: one to make the excuse of being transferred to the Pentagon, and the other to help assist in ending Prentiss' storyline faking her death at the end of that season.

At the time, some fans decried the apparent sexism at hand, arguing that executives thought only one woman on the Criminal Minds cast would suffice, but Cook's departure did come with the assurance that she would be replaced with another female cast member. That turned out to be Rachel Nichols as Ashley Seaver, who only appeared for a single season. Though Brewster stayed on for that season too, the episode count in her final contract was dropped and she didn't return for the seventh season beyond it. For the next five seasons, the show had a bit of a revolving door for a third female co-star, eventually landing upon Aisha Tyler as Tara Lewis beginning with season 11. She became a full-time cast member along with Brewster's return on season 12 and through the end of the series.

It wasn't AJ Cook's decision to leave Criminal Minds

In April 2011, Deadline confirmed that Cook (and Brewster) would return for Criminal Minds season 7, which suggested issues of network-showrunner turmoil given that the news came at the same time it was announced executive producer Ed Bernero was leaving the series after season 6. Bernero opened up more about that struggle in 2019 with a Criminal Minds fan blog, claiming that CBS executives had instructed him to get rid of certain actors — including Cook and Brewster.

"I still don't understand what the studio wanted there, don't understand some of the things I had to do, like with Paget and AJ. Like they called me one day and said, 'We need you to get rid of X Y and Z,' and I was like, 'WHY?' and I fought them, but the cast doesn't work for the show, the cast works for the network," he wrote. "That was a tough year. AJ and Paget are two of the most incredible human beings you are ever going to meet and I truly love both of them. That phone call I had to make was to this day one of the worst days I've ever had as Executive Producer."

Bernero also went on to suggest that the fan backlash and misplaced blame for the actresses' departures may have destroyed what chance the first attempt at a spin-off, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, ever might have had. 

"You know it's interesting too, in that it affected the spin-off that Chris Mundy left to do, Suspect Behavior. The audience thought that they needed the money to create the spin-off that they were paying AJ and Paget, when really they had nothing to do with any of that," wrote Bernero. "So the problem was some people blamed Suspect Behavior for JJ and Emily being gone from the mothership." Suspect Behavior premiered to less-than-scintillating reviews, and didn't even receive a complete season order before being canceled in 2011.

The tea, later

As time has drifted by and stakes lessened to maintain cordiality, more information has eked out from Criminal Minds' erstwhile cast and crew. For Cook's part, she has maintained a relatively cool head about her time away from Criminal Minds, merely describing her disappointment in 2011 to TV Guide: "It felt like a breakup with a guy. It happened out of nowhere. And it was an 'it's not you, it's me' sort of thing. You think, 'What did I do?' It's been a rollercoaster ride, but I just had to put one foot forward and keep moving." 

In her own magnificent, bullish way, Brewster didn't pull punches talking about that terrible year with The A.V. Club in 2015. The actress revealed that Cook's replacement, Rachel Nichols, was paid twice what both she and Cook were paid. "I was so soured by the experience of being fired for no reason. Because it wasn't budget cuts. The person they had hired to replace us got paid twice what we got paid!" said Brewster. "It's a network that's not particularly kind to women. That's why a lot of women leave those procedurals. Or are fired."

It's blistering, to say the least, to learn that neither woman received equitable treatment or compensation. Time ultimately vindicated Cook in particular, and even helped her grow as an actress and artist.

All's well that ends well on Criminal Minds

When Cook returned to Criminal Minds, it came as a surprise, but she was very gratified by what was probably a significant part of the reason why: fan petitions and outcry. "Their outpouring of support really blew me away. That's definitely the silver lining to being let go," she told TV Guide after re-signing to the show. "The fans really let me know how they felt, and I guess they really let CBS know too."

When JJ returned to the BAU, she did so with eyes wide open and with a new sense of purpose behind her that Cook felt was necessary. As she explained during a TV Insider retrospective after the show ended, "For JJ, the obvious thing is when she went away. A lot changed for her when she came back. [...] That really started JJ down a [...] fuller path. She started having kids, and we saw the mama bear side of her come out."

Cook also went on to make her directing debut on the show, much like her co-stars Matthew Gray Gubler and Thomas Gibson. Criminal Minds provided unique opportunities for all its cast members to expand their artistic horizons, and Cook credited the familial atmosphere for that gift. 

"It's just a breeding ground for love and support. There was no safer place I could have dreamt up or imagined for me to direct for my first time," she told TV Insider. "We believe it's building each other up that gets things done and not the tearing down of one another. That's why it was such a beautiful place to come and work and play every day because you felt safe." 

It might have taken the network a little while longer to learn this truth, but it did bear out for the best in the end, and we all got to reap the entertainment benefit of it.