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While some series become hits and immediately look at spawning the success with a spin-off, it took six seasons for the CBS hit crime drama "Criminal Minds" to launch a sequel. Edward Allen Bernero, the co-creator (with Chris Mundy) and showrunner of "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," told our Jim Halterman earlier this week that he was as surprised as anyone when the time was finally right to start the new series. "I'm not generally a supporter of the spin-off model because I wasn't sure what was going to be different," he explained. "We spent five years talking about how these are the only people in the world who can do this and suddenly there are a bunch of other people who can but it feels so different and it has its own life." During the chat, Bernero, who continues as executive producer/showrunner of the parent series, explained specifically how "Suspect Behavior" is indeed different, why Penelope Garcia is the only character that will be seen on both series and what lines they can and can't cross in telling the often-horrific crime stories.
Jim Halterman: You wrapped production on season one of 'Suspect Behavior' before the first episode has aired. Was it a luxury to shoot those episodes without having ratings reports coming in and reading audience reaction online?
Edward Allen Bernero: No, that actually is a pain in the ass because when you're not on it's sort of maximum messaging time from the studio because there's no rush. 'Try this, try that!' Where it's a luxury is going 'Oh, that scene would be better in that episode.' You can move things around and you have plenty of time to cut and re-cut things and pick the right music. Television shows move so fast that pretty soon you're just going 'I hope that looks good because we don't have time to do it twice.' It gets to be a bear in that respect. The schedule just weighs down on you because it takes us eight days to shoot an episode and we air one every seven days so you have to run out of time somewhere.
JH: 'Criminal Minds' started strong right out of the gate so it would seem a spin-off could have come right after that first or second season. Why now?
EAB: We actually talked about it every year from the year the show first came on and this was the first time we all agreed on how to do it. There was this thing called the 'red cell,' which was a little more in-the-background than our team. This team is a little more laid back and they're real. They are sort of a laidback version of the FBI. They don't really wear suits and just come in the backdoor. It was the first time that we saw a way in to doing another team that had a different reason for being there.
JH: How do you go about assembling the writers' room for the spin-off? Did you pull writers from the original show or did you go with all new voices?
EAB: The writing room was put together with completely new people. What we did was that we had the advantage this go-around. The first one we hired a lot of 'Law & Order' writers and procedural writers and 'Criminal Minds' is about character; their procedure is character. We didn't have a false start of hiring procedural writers and then looking for character writers and we knew we wanted character writers right off the bat. Once the writers started to understand what a 'Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior' episode is they really just dived in. They're an amazing group of young writers.
JH: Was it difficult finding the line between making the show different but not too different?
EAB: Not really. What I realized pretty quickly on is that the biggest core difference is the family at the center of it and they're so different. I don't even worry anymore about it being the same as the other one. The way the Cooper character (played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) attacks a crime is so different from the way Hotchner (played by Thomas Gibson) would attack it or how Rossi (Joe Mantegna) would attack it [in 'Criminal Minds']. You don't have to remind yourself to be different; it just is. I believe that all good drama is family and people tune in to watch the family at the center.
JH: Forest Whitaker is such a great actor and you really get to see his calm, reassuring side in his role as Cooper. How has he been to work with on the show?
EAB: I have grown to thoroughly respect him not just as an actor but as a human being. He's one of the sweetest, kindest human beings I've ever met. He's just so gentle and wants to be involved in so many different aspects of the production and never like 'I'm the star so you have to do this.' It's more like 'Let's talk about this, let's talk about that.' He's been involved in the creation of his character and he's just been so amazing to work with. It's been quite an education for me.
JH: Why was it Penelope Garcia (the technical analyst played by Kristen Vangsness) that crossed over into this new show over anyone else?
EAB: Penelope is Merlin in the world of the 'Criminal Minds' mythology. She seemed to be the one most likely to be able to help both teams without one team losing anything. We didn't want to lose anything from 'Criminal Minds' to start out 'Suspect Behavior' and we knew we could use Penelope on both shows and both shows could still use her. It was the only logical character to move over.
JH: In the first episode, you get some character information about Jonathan "Prophet" Simms (Michael Kelly) and that actually has a pay-off at the end of the episode. You don't always get that in procedurals.
EAB: I've come to find that that's the biggest core difference between the two shows. If you remember the beginning of 'Criminal Minds,' the Gideon character (Mandy Patinkin) was damaged and the team supported him but this is almost diametrically the opposite. All the characters around Cooper are a little bit more damaged than the 'Criminal Minds' characters and he serves as the center for them. In that respect, the shows are almost polar opposites. You learn a little bit more about everybody and how Cooper is not just helping bad guys come back from the dark but, in some ways, help the team, as well. They are all projects that he's working on.
JH: From the episodes of 'Suspect Behavior' I've viewed, you're already starting out using familiar faces in ways we're not used to seeing them such as Raphael Sbarge and Justine Bateman.
EAB: I especially like to use comic actors because they're really good with drama. We did some episodes with Jamie Kennedy [on 'Criminal Minds'] and even in the last episode of 'Suspect Behavior' we use French Stewart from 'Third Rock from the Sun.' We try to get as many recognizable faces doing something you would not expect them to do. It actually plays well into the stories, which is these men and women are people you see but you just don't know they're bad guys.
JH: Speaking of comedic actors, were you surprised at what Janeane Garafalo is bringing to the show since she's normally known for comedy?
EAB: I was surprised and she is really, really good. She just doesn't seem to know it, which is in some ways refreshing. You'll see over the thirteen episodes that she's really a great actor.
JH: And she seems almost uncomfortable hearing that, doesn't she?
EAB: She does! She doesn't like it. She's very quiet and she's one of the worst people in the world at taking a compliment.
JH: Is there a line you won't cross in your stories? In the first episode, there are kids in the story and I wondered how far you can go in that regard.
EAB: It's always a battle. We generally start from real cases and then come back from the real cases because you just can't do some of the stuff that happens out there. All we really want to do is scare people. We don't really want to freak people out and we try to infer as much violence as possible rather than show anything graphic. It's always a battle that we fight from the first moment of breaking a story and how far do we want to go. Hopefully we don't ever cross the line into bad taste but our biggest problem is always doing less than reality.
JH: Finally, the audience thirst for these shows is insatiable. Why is that?
EAB: I really think people like to be scared. People feel a little like they're seeing superheroes go out and battle demons and dragons and putting the world right again. I think people are comforted by that. People like a little bit of a scare and getting close to touching the fire but primarily knowing there are a group of people who have dedicated their lives to keeping them safe.
"Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" premieres tonight on CBS at 10:00/9:00c following "Criminal Minds."