The full-time researcher who sifts through grisly headlines and gleans the finer points of making soap from human skin for the writers of Criminal Minds didn't exactly see her career going in this direction. Ticona Joy started as a production assistant who liked horror movies and has since become one arm of the research-apparatus that keeps the CBS show realistic. The other is Jim Clemente, a writer-producer and former FBI agent who says he's read every script to check for accuracy. (The show also has a forensic linguist, James Fitzgerald, as a technical adviser.)
Clemente, who spent 12 years profiling killers in the Behavioral Analysis Unit, fact-checks the profiling and procedural elements of the show, while Joy's work is more on the front end of the process: she spends her mornings going through the weirdest headlines and sending them to the writers for inspiration, and she has a network of experts who field questions that range from mundane to miscellaneously macabre.
Joy has had to make some odd phone calls. For an episode early in season eight, the writers of Criminal Minds dreamed up a scenario where two killers murdered their victims by hitching them to the back of a car and driving. They asked Joy to look into the logistics of this.
"So I called one of my contacts at the L.A. Coroner's Office to ask, 'How fast would they go to do that, for how long, and then at what point would body parts start coming off?'" Joy says.
Many of her calls are cold-calls, which necessitate a somewhat lengthy and very polite introduction.
"I'm extremely clear about who I am because I don't want people asking — at the end of the day, they don't know if I really, truly work for the show," she says.
That streak of mild paranoia is endemic in the Criminal Minds staff. Rick Dunkle, a writer-producer, says despite being over 6 feet tall, "I am now very aware of the dark shadows in alleys."
Dunkle says he learned that having a dog decreases your chance of home invasion. He got a dog. He said some of the other staffers have installed bulletproof windows in their homes. A copy of The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers sits on his desk.
Joy says she's become "like a junior-profiler."
"I'm always looking at people," she says. "[I] listen to people — the way they talk, if their speaking is matching their arm movements, all this kind of stuff."
She continues, "When you see suspect-looking people on the street, you think, 'He probably is going to chop up someone. That's where he's going.'"
And they haven't become desensitized to violence — they say that the real crime scene photos still get to them.
"Now the horror that was in your head has actually been personified for you because there's the actual victim with their head in the fridge, and that kind of thing is just — I don't know how you prepare for it," says writer and showrunner Erica Messer. "It's just whether you choose to look there or not."
Clemente agrees. "The world of TV, as dark as it might seem to many people, for me is lighthearted compared to the real thing."
No one seems exactly habituated, although they are all less easily shocked (a story of a baby in a blender seems to have disturbed them deeply). And Messer and Joy both recall a grim research trip to the L.A. County morgue.
"That was not something you'd want to do again," Joy says, recalling that some of the writers were haunted by "the smell of death" long after they left the morgue.
Before the show and the resultant research started, "We were all in the same boat of 'we've heard of Ted Bundy, we know what a sociopath is, we know what a psychopath is,' everyone's heard of Jack the Ripper and Zodiac and all of that," Messer says. "But what makes them tick is something that wasn't familiar to any of us."
That's approximately where Clemente comes in.
"The biggest thing they needed my advice on is that all the writers who used to work on crime shows are used to 'they're writing a story, and they find this knife, and it has blood on it, and they trace the DNA,'" he says. "The hardest thing for them to understand is in Criminal Minds, the knife is irrelevant."
He explains, "It's the fact that he chose a knife that tells me something about his behavior. That he likes to get up close and personal. That he doesn't mind the wet work of it. That is the kind of person he is. That illuminates something about [him]."
Before the pilot was filmed, Clemente met with Mandy Patinkin, the former star of the show, while on leave from the FBI after a bone marrow transplant. Wearing a mask and gloves to protect his then-fragile immune system, he met Patinkin in a bagel shop and became "his muse," he says. Clemente is refracted through several of the characters on the show — Patinkin's character carried a photograph of a child he rescued in his wallet, just like Clemente; Thomas Gibson's character is a former prosecutor, just like Clemente; Shemar Moore's character was sexually victimized as a child, just like Clemente. The former BAU officer is deeply invested in accuracy and in spreading "news of the BAU," and so I ask what he thinks of Patinkin's comment that Criminal Minds was "destructive to [his] soul."
But Clemente interrupts me.
"I know what you're gonna say," he says. "Mandy at the time he said that must have forgotten that he portrayed the hero that saved men, women, and children every day. He was just — must've been — it must've just slipped his mind for a moment."
(Full disclosure: My father, Michael Lange, has directed several episodes of Criminal Minds.)