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Criminal Minds Needs a Thesaurus

August 2, 2010

[Originally posted at my blog Pop Scribblings. Thanks to the awesome folks at FryButt for having me on board.]

As someone without cable, the summer doldrums have forced me to watch TV shows I would usually surf right by. For some reason, I keep getting caught up in the CSI franchise, and especially Criminal Minds.

Oh Criminal Minds. You have a decent cast (I have leftover goodwill for Joe Mantegna from his Joan of Arcadia days) and are a good way to spend an hour while folding laundry. So why must you overuse the word “unsub”?

The term, which Wikipedia tells me stands for “unknown subject of an investigation,” is uttered by all the characters (studly black guy, stern white guy, nerdy guy, brunette lady and quirky lady with a crush on studly black guy) ad nauseum. For me it’s become the equivalent of fingernails on chalkboard.

“Where’s our unsub?” “The unsub fits the profile of the Springfield serial killer.” “If I’m guessing right, we’ll find  our unsub at Subway.”

I’m not kidding. Watch this clip.

As Cathy would say, ack.

(By the way, CSI: New York is also guilty of overusing its own cutesy insidery nickname: “vic,” short for “victim.” Which is equally annoying, but I don’t watch the show enough to break into hives over it.)

Come September, I won’t be watching anymore, but according to Nielsen, millions of people do. So I thought I’d suggest other words for the characters to say instead. The show is so violent and grim, using them could only help lighten the mood.

  • Evildoer
  • Villain
  • Fiend
  • Rapscallion
  • Barbarian
  • Dastard (less offensive cousin of “bastard”)
  • Lawbreaker
  • Scoundrel
  • The Big Bad (favored by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and friends, and my personal favorite)

With the show launching a spinoff starring awesome actors Forest Whitaker and Janeane Garafalo (bizarre, right?), I feel its more urgent than ever for the show to retire that word and spare the actors and viewers alike. Give unsub a rest, Criminal Minds–or at least vary the word choice once in awhile.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2010 9:25 am

    “Unsub” is so ridiculous. It’s an attempt to sound edgy, but will have the unintentional effect of tying the shows utilizing it to the era in which they were produced, much like their technological advancements and portrayal of specific marginalized groups as “unsubs”.

  2. unscrambled permalink
    August 2, 2010 11:23 am

    Agreed. At least “vic” has widespread usage in the street economy, and probably among cops. I don’t know many of the latter though, so I’m just guessing, but you tend to pick up words that people around you use.

    Maybe “unsub” is used elsewhere, but I have never heard it out of anyone’s mouth except for on that show.

  3. August 2, 2010 12:18 pm

    They totally do overuse to word “unsub” but I can’t help it, I love me some Criminal Minds regardless. Especially because the show veers into the same trope as the CSI shows, where it seems as if the crime-busters have near psychic powers when it comes to finding criminals.

  4. Octavia permalink
    August 2, 2010 12:57 pm

    Ahaha, I love this! So true. I fully support more use of the word fiend.

  5. evmaroon permalink
    August 2, 2010 12:58 pm

    I would pay money to see Montegna say “rapscallion” with all seriousness in an episode. Especially in a chase scene.

  6. August 2, 2010 1:25 pm

    I am on board with him saying “scoundrel” as well. Or “blaggard”!

  7. August 2, 2010 1:31 pm

    Tomfoolery needs to make the comeback.

  8. August 2, 2010 1:47 pm

    “Especially because the show veers into the same trope as the CSI shows, where it seems as if the crime-busters have near psychic powers when it comes to finding criminals.”

    It’s so true. I think Garcia (quirky woman) has a magic computer, because they give her the most oddly specific stuff to look up and she finds it five seconds.

    “Garcia, could you find men named Leonard who wore a blue shirt on Thursday in a 30 mile radius of our unsub’s last known location.”

    It’s really that random.

  9. August 2, 2010 1:56 pm

    @popscribblings: Right? And she finds it in, like, 15 seconds tops! I know it’s the FBI and all but that just seems comic book improbable.

  10. August 2, 2010 2:25 pm

    I stopped watching CM after Mandy left! He gave the show some gravitas.

  11. August 3, 2010 1:03 pm

    I’ve never seen an episode of Criminal Minds. I have a bellyful of procedural shows and that just seemed like another one.

    That being said, I think shows around generally fall into traps and patterns when it comes to stuff like dialog, which is simply a fact of laziness on the parts of the writers or bad decisions by the show runners. The idea is to remind viewers that they’re watching a particular world where this is the lingo, but not to hammer it so hard that it becomes a cliché…

  12. evmaroon permalink
    August 3, 2010 3:45 pm

    The thing about CM, not that you asked, penpusher, is that it really goes for the most gut-wrenching, gory to endure, hard-to-watch narratives of all of the procedurals out there, in my opinion. SVU loves the sexual sadist/sexualized murder, but it doesn’t take us through the eyes of the perpetrators as much as CM. CSI goes straight to the gore, but it’s all aftermath. Watching CM is a little like watching a bully kick a dog. So I think because the tension is ratcheted so high, the writers have to bring the storylines and details together even more compactly than these shows generally go for. Garcia has to find the odd data set in 15 seconds because we won’t be able to stand seeing yet another couple get dismembered in a fake motel room. Hopefully that makes some sense. I think the lingo thing is set up to make us feel some kind of deranged comfort with the characters.

  13. August 3, 2010 4:01 pm

    Exactly, Ev. I think that’s why I stopped watching after four episodes. I am not a fan of gore or what the industry terms, “graphic disturbing depictions of violent acts”.

  14. Sarah permalink
    August 8, 2010 4:52 pm

    I liked the first couple of seasons because it had my husband, Mandy Patinkin in it. I didn’t so much care for the new guy, but I think the rest of the cast are decent actors. Or at least decent enough to make the characters likable. But I agree, it would be a lot more watchable if there was better slang for the bad guys.

  15. August 10, 2010 5:04 pm

    I’m watching a CSI right now and am just about resisting the temptation to change channel. “Vic” (I’d forgotten the frequent use of “unsub” in Criminal Minds) comes across as lacking any humanity. I know that’s taking it way too seriously (and I *am* getting old) but it prevents even the slightest emotional connection to the story.

  16. August 10, 2010 5:47 pm

    I think “vic” is different from “unsub” in that the use of vic is mimicking real life professionals, so the show uses the term to show the pros are being accurately portrayed. But also, CSI-type crimesolving shows are not necessarily about connecting with the victim or the crime, they are about connecting with the crime-solvers, so we like to see the world from their perspective. Part of working in those fields means a certain amount of dehumanizing must happen to do their job, without suffering trauma and burnout. The question is, why do WE have to dehumanize ourselves from it? We’re not working in that field! So Phil, maybe it is taking it too seriously, but I do have to wonder, where is the line drawn for ourselves as audience members who consume these stories copiously? (I don’t mean this as ‘slippery slope’ but more about ‘tipping point’.)

  17. Jerry permalink
    January 27, 2011 12:04 am

    OK, OK, Criminal Minds writers…….you’ve made it clear that there is an insider term called “unsub”……….fine. GET OVER YOURSELVES. Maybe they should use the term “unperp” instead.

  18. War'N permalink
    November 23, 2011 9:38 pm

    ‘Knights who say Ni” “Knights Who Formerly Said Ni” (monty python and the holy grail)

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