If you thought CBS already had one of broadcast television's darkest hours, get ready for an extra dose.
In its sixth season, "Criminal Minds" is spawning a spinoff, with another Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI using special talents to track and capture bizarre felons. "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" follows the parent show starting Wednesday at 10 p.m., with Oscar winner Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland") heading the cast as the new team's leader.
Someone from the original series also turns up: Kirsten Vangsness, doing dual duty on both shows as quirky techno-whiz Penelope Garcia. Actress-comedian Janeane Garofalo is a cast regular as well, and other co-stars - including Michael Kelly, Matt Ryan and Beau Garrett ("TRON: Legacy") - were introduced last April in a backdoor-pilot episode of "Criminal Minds." Richard Schiff ("The West Wing") will recur as the FBI's director.
"I like what this show is about," the soft-spoken Whitaker says, "exploring the mind and trying to understand what people are capable of, the duality that exists in everyone. I'd asked if we would be exploring what the core of someone is, because once you do that, you can sometimes find a way of healing that."
In their street clothes
Vangsness describes the "Suspect Behavior" agents as "scrappy ragamuffins," as opposed to the sharp-dressed, generally refined sleuths on the original "Criminal Minds." Whitaker doesn't disagree, reasoning that aspect "gives the show a different flavor, just as much as Mandy Patinkin did when he was on the original show, or Joe Mantegna after him. It's not necessarily better, just different.
"I wanted the feeling that we could exist on the street, and that's what the writers have done, even in the space they've put us in. The team's office is in a dojo, so as soon as you walk in, people are fighting. In that respect, it's immediately different from the other show. You'll see episodes where we're sparring physically, but we're also using our minds acutely."
For Vangsness, whose work was mainly stage-based prior to "Criminal Minds," the chance to expand her presence in the franchise is appealing. She recalls, "When we did the 'Criminal Minds' episode that sort of started 'Suspect Behavior,' I wasn't in it very much. They had a different computer person, and that was cool."
That changed, though, when "Minds" co-star Paget Brewster pushed for close friend Vangsness to have a bigger role in the spinoff.
"She's like my manager, basically," Vangsness says with a laugh about Brewster. "I was at a thing where they announced the new and returning shows, and Forest was there, too. He came over to me and said, 'I'm looking forward to working with you.' And that's how I found out. I was like, 'Well, I guess it's happening. Forest Whitaker just told me!' "
Having played Garcia since 2005, Vangsness is pleased she has creative input into the character's "Suspect Behavior" behavior.
"They give me a lot of freedom in rewriting lines and massaging the words into how Garcia speaks," she says. "There's a certain cadence, and I have to find that. I do have a sense of what she does and doesn't do, and that ends up taking most of the time, more than the actual shooting. I want to make it fun for myself and for the audience."
Whitaker's "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" alter ego Sam Cooper could be a relative of others the actor has played in big-screen projects ranging from "The Crying Game" and "Blown Away" to "Jason's Lyric" and "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai."
"Those explorations of myth and theology and philosophy, my character lives in that space," he says. "When he goes into a crime scene, he's feeling it. Mike Kelly's character was a prison inmate, so he's the criminal mind who comes at it from the inside out."
No stranger to television, Whitaker hosted a "Twilight Zone" revival and did extended guest stints on "ER" and "The Shield." Working on the latter drama went a long way toward convincing him that "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" would be a good career fit as he also continues as a movie director ("Waiting to Exhale," "Hope Floats") and documentary producer (Sundance Channel's "Brick City," OWN's upcoming "Serving Life").
"I've been away a lot," Whitaker explains, "and I have a family and children. It was a big consideration for me to be here . Two of my children are off to college, and with the two younger ones, I realized I have been traveling around the world and working for a lot of their lives. I decided that I wanted to be by their side more."