I’ve been thinking about CRIMINAL MINDS again, and no, not because Matthew Gray Gubler is serious eye candy. Oh, alright, not JUST because he’s eye candy.
I’ve been trying to figure out why the character of Spencer Reid speaks to me so strongly. The entire show does, which surprises me a touch – it’s a pretty violent show, though you don’t so much see the violence as see its aftermath – but this character, this painfully thin genius with floppy hair and gawky limbs, who speaks too fast and too much and insists on having everything on paper instead of in digital copy… why do I find him so powerful?
When we dive into any story – fiction or nonfiction, television or movie or book – we’re most interested in the characters. There are some shows I watch because I’m fascinated by their construction, like MAD MEN, but I don’t crave the show the way I’m eager for some others because I don’t find the characters appealing. I’m not invested in them. I watch them as one can’t help but sneak glances at a car accident on the highway or the crazy person on the bus. I’m fascinated, but wary. I want to keep an eye on them, to make sure that I don’t get too close.
It occurs to me (and I’m sure others have had the same thought before) that the characters we are drawn to tend to fall into two categories. There are those characters who exemplify what we wish we could be. This explains the fascination with heroes, super and otherwise, for they experience situations of stress that bring out qualities we all hope we have. This explains the love for Picard, Batman, Superman, General Patton, Elizabeth I, Anne Frank, Eowyn, fairy tale princesses… the list goes on. We all hope that if the situation arises we would do what had to be done to save the day, even if that means sacrificing ourselves for the good of the group. This is the category that there is no shame in adoring openly. It is culturally acceptable to aspire to such courage and strength, and I have no wish to disparage that.
It is the second category that interests me, though. These are the characters we secretly love best. Maybe we can’t explain why they draw our attention, maybe we instinctively feel a connection and hold it close to our hearts, treasuring the feel of intimacy with this person we’ve never met. These are the characters who exemplify what we actually are. It’s been said over and over that we’re all looking for characters on tv that are like us, and this is why reality shows succeed (this argument makes me sad for America. And the world. But that’s a different rant.). When I first started watching FRIENDS or SEX AND THE CITY, the conversations with friends always revolved around which characters we were most like – are you Charlotte or Samantha? Are you Phoebe or Chandler?
Spencer Reid is one of those characters for which I felt an immediate connection and affection, and it’s more than the fact that he’s likeable. It’s the way his intellectual gifts play into the show. Too frequently in popular culture we encounter what cultural commentator Sarah Vowell calls the “nerd voice,” that “pre-emptive mockery” that the “postmodern nerd” has to do. We take the shot, we make the joke about ourselves first, so that nobody else makes it. It’s less painful that way and we come across as nonthreatening to those who are not self-identified nerds. Characters with gifted intellects are the continual punchline. This is the basis for the comedy of THE BIG BANG THEORY, a show I enjoy but which sometimes makes me flinch a little as it plays into continual stereotypes. The fact that these guys are very smart, work in highly technical areas of their fields, and enjoy costumes and video games makes them the butt of jokes.
CRIMINAL MINDS avoids this. The characters are FBI behavioral profilers, and none of them ever apologize for being specialists, for the simple fact of knowing stuff. Garcia is valued for her technical wizardry. Morgan, despite coming across as the muscle of the group sometimes, is early on shown to be an expert on understanding obsessive behavior, while Prentiss frequently displays a range of linguistic knowledge that’s continually surprising.
But still, even in that world, Spencer Reid is unusual. He has an IQ of 187, an eidetic memory, and can read 20,000 words per minute. He’s also probably got some mild form of autism, like Asperger’s Syndrome. He holds degrees in multiple subjects, including more than one doctoral degree, and he graduated from high school around age 12.
Spencer Reid resonates with me because he is never the punchline. The others occasionally tease him, but it is never unkind. The lines are always delivered in a way that makes it clear that the other characters have a deep love for this gifted and awkward young man. He is an example in popular culture of a character who does not apologize for his intellect. He does not use the nerd voice. His knowledge and abilities are vital for the functioning of his team, and his colleagues and friends treat him with respect, admiration, and affection. Furthermore, unlike Sheldon Cooper of BIG BANG THEORY fame, he is not an insufferable knowitall. The popular conception of the nerd is either the know-it-all jerk or the sadsack loser who lives with his mother (Howard) and can’t get a girl (Raj). Reid is not ashamed to admit when he doesn’t know something, and he is eager to learn. He is also endearingly excited to share the things he’s learned with his friends, which occasionally prompts affectionate but faintly exasperated attempts by his colleagues to get him to stop talking. But again, it’s never unkind.
We are drawn to characters who are like us, who provide an example in popular culture of someone with whom we can identify. I am not as smart as Reid. I do not have Asperger’s, an eidetic memory, or mad reading skillz. But I am tired of the nerd voice. It is a relief to have a character to admire who does not apologize for or try to hide his mind – a character who interacts with learning and knowledge in a way similar to the way I do. Reid and the rest of the CRIMINAL MINDS characters show the inherent value in encouraging us nerds to rejoice in our knowledge and opportunities to learn and make use of our minds to the fullest extent we can. And for that, I love them.