The Character Replacements That Caused Criminal Minds To Go Downhill

Most television creatives would dream of having a series run for 15 seasons, but that becomes reality for only a small number of shows, and "Criminal Minds" was lucky enough to be one of those. The series follows a special branch of the FBI called the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) which analyzes data and aids in the capture of serial killers and other violent criminals. Matthew Gray Gubler, A. J. Cook, Shemar Moore, and Kirsten Vangsness were among the stars of the long-running drama. 

Filling 15 seasons certainly calls for the work both in front of and behind the camera of hundreds, if not thousands of talented individuals. The lengthy commitment to be involved in the show, however, does not always guarantee that any particular person will remain through the end. At numerous points, actors left the show to pursue other work, which often led to the introduction of new characters. While no character was ever recast with a different performer, the show did swap out characters in the same type of role. This worked sometimes, and other times ... fans thought maybe it didn't. One character replacement, among a few others, has stood out in fans' minds as being a signifier of the series' quality going seriously downhill.

Prentiss taking over for Hotchner was the beginning of the end for many

On the "Criminal Minds" subreddit, u/ShakeandBake_26 asked if anyone felt character replacements caused the series to take a turn for the worse. In their query, they explained how the late-series replacement of Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) with Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster) emphasized the show quickly losing steam.

Prentiss was a cast member of "Criminal Minds" since 2006, but she comes and goes from the show. However, in Season 12, Episode 3, "Taboo," Prentiss rejoins the team as a temporary substitute for Hotchner. The placement becomes permanent shortly after in Episode 6, "Elliott's Pond," where Hotchner is revealed to be in witness protection with his son. Prentiss commands the BAU until the series finale in 2020. 

Replies on the subreddit cited a sharp decrease in quality around the time of this transition. One user wrote that after Season 12, the actors were pretty much mailing it in and that there just wasn't any team chemistry despite the writers' best efforts. The fans don't inherently find Prentiss to be the problem, but rather a signifier that after the major departure of a character like Hotchner, regaining the original spark of the show proved nearly impossible. Another user summed it up, saying "[Hotchner] leaving shifted the tone of the whole show in a way that I don't think they ever properly managed to come back from."

Critics also felt a disconnect on the BAU team

Critics took similar issues as the fans with elements of the procedural. Vox's Season 15 review pointed out that the crimes the show dealt with had become increasingly implausible and harder to take seriously. What made matters worse to was that the crimes also tended to be solved with just a few clicks of a computer, eliminating much of the suspense the show relied on. 

Then there were the other character replacements. Beginning in Season 11, a season before Emily Prentiss took over the BAU, the principal cast was expanded to include three new characters: Matthew Simmons (Daniel Henney), Tara Lewis (Aisha Tyler), and Luke Alvez (Adam Rodriguez). While this was partially motivated by the absence of characters like Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and the salvaging of characters from failed spin-offs "Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders" and "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," the additions created a declining rapport among the characters, making it more difficult to connect to the elite team.

"[The cast is] less a finely-tuned machine and more of a monolith with interchangeable parts, none of whom have the space to reflect on a crime or feel a genuine emotional reaction... [Fans] might simply be finding little reason to tune in each week when the characters we love get lost in an overcrowded field, and in a sea of gore," Mediaversity reported in their Season 14 review.