Likely to Be Unpleasant Reading

Last night, my daughter and I were watching the CBS show Criminal Minds–which, I guess, was our first mistake. It may be the weakest of the successful shows in the procedural crime genre–often the plot hinges on profiling (a psychic power for people with no psychic power), and there is a definite tendency in some episodes toward torture porn. On the other hand, it has a couple of the more interestingly geeky characters on mainstream TV (e.g. Garcia and Reed). There was a great episode a year or two ago when Reed and Hotchner were stuck in a cell with a serial killer who seemed intent on provoking a violent confrontation, and Hotchner (for various plausible reasons) seemed to welcome the opportunity. Reed saved the situation by talking with brilliant semi-relevance until help arrived. It was priceless, especially the last exchange between Reed and the killer. Garcia probably needs no words of praise from me; even as I speak, people are setting up geeky cults about her. If not, I want to know why not.

Still, last night’s episode was so deeply vile that I probably won’t be watching the show again.

The plot involved a family abducting a couple of girls whom they intended to train as a mate for their 10 year old boy, after murdering the girls’ parents. The big reveal (stone obvious from the start, like many of the Awful Secrets on this show) was that the mother of the family had been abducted the same way when she was a child. The family had been doing this (abducting girls and murdering their parents), generation after generation, for at least a century. Also, it was just part of a network of families doing the same thing. A group of families, travelling from place to place, engaged in stealing, murder and child abduction.

Do you see where this is going?

Yes, the murdering kidnappers turned out to be Romani. Not just isolated Romani criminals, but part of a whole Romani subculture that preys on the wealth and the lives of us saintly, law-abiding non-Romani. Any non-murdering non-thieving Romani were depicted by Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film.

It was hideous: an hour of commercial television devoted to a blood-libel against a cultural minority, all for the sacred purpose of selling cars and soap and pimple-cream and whatever else CBS was advertising that night.

This is how CBS celebrated the first full day in office of President Barack Obama. I suppose Plan B was a miniseries remake of Birth of a Nation or a colorized version of Triumph of the Will.

Extra bonus dumbness: the scriptwriter thought the Romani speak Rumanian. I kid you not. I guess they don’t have an internet connection, or books, or shreds of human decency in the dark hole where this script had its loathesome birth.

I apologize for the unpleasant tone of this entry: this isn’t the sort of issue I’d normally address on this blog. But, in a quick glance around the interwebs this AM, it looked like no one was talking about this. And I think that someone should be.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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22 Responses to Likely to Be Unpleasant Reading

  1. fpb says:

    To be fair, I actually own a copy of Sieg des Willens, and it has nothing blood-libellous or racist about it. It is all about the great time young Nazis have together, and how wonderful and healthful it is to be with your brother Germans. It is also a superb piece of film-making, but you already knew that. This sounds, in every way, infinitely worse.

    Incidentally, do you know that there is a historical background to the stories of child abductions by Gypsies? The truth is exactly the opposite. In Scotland at least, unmarried mothers and others who for whatever reason did not want to acknowledge or bring up a child, would sometimes give it to the “summer walkers” – nomads some but not all of whom were Gypsies. Of course, if the transaction ever became known, the guilty family would try to turn the charge on the Gypsy, and you can imagine the results. It is an interesting fact that in Italy, where this kind of custom did not exist, the various prejudices against Gypsies do not include baby-snatching. Mostly they are accused of thieving – which some of them certainly do commit.

    Either way, everyone involved in this travesty should be sacked and blacklisted. As you say – on the inauguration of President Obama! Nice little omen for the future.

    • JE says:

      “To be fair, I actually own a copy of Sieg des Willens, and it has nothing blood-libellous or racist about it.”

      True–I was just going for the most-inappropriate-possible.

      Interesting about the Scottish stuff–reminds me of the Tam Lin legend, for some reason.

      “Either way, everyone involved in this travesty should be sacked and blacklisted.”

      Seriously. It was the most appalling piece of television I’ve ever seen.

  2. renesears says:

    I don’t actually watch this show, so I can’t comment on the episode. But I did notice that some of the same issues are being discussed over on matociquala’s journal. Here’s the link to the entry:

    It seems like that entry is more impressions of the show & discussion in the comments, but she also says she’s doing a post on this episode and cultural appropriation over at, although it doesn’t seem to have posted yet.

    Why I’m reading posts about a show I don’t watch, I can’t tell you.

    • JE says:

      Well, almost anything EB writes is worth reading. But my POV is so far from hers on CM that I usually don’t get much benefit from her comments on it; she seems quite uncritical about the show. It was good to see some of the commentators raise some of these issues, however tentatively.

  3. zornhau says:


    Checks date. No. This is the 21st century. Hmmm.

    • JE says:

      Re: WTF?

      Everything old is new again, I guess.

      There’s a tendency to treat the Romani as imaginary beings ( was talking about it a while ago), and that may be part of what’s going on: the screenwriter is no more concerned about the rights of Romani than he would be about orcs or elves.

  4. phoenixw says:

    OMFG. I’d like to know who thought it was a good idea. Do you suppose that whomever vetted that ep looked at the story and decided:
    a) there are no Romani anymore (much like ignorant people believe that there are no witches anymore)
    b) it’s ok to libel a micro-culture because they won’t sue
    c) Gypsies are mythical beings, like fairies and witches
    d) all of the above

    I don’t watch the show – I barely watch tv at all anymore – but it’s terribly disappointing when modern storytelling goes so far awry. This is worth an e-mail to CBS. Hmm.

    Thanks for saying something.

    • JE says:

      Thanks for the affirmation. I think I will be writing to CBS. (My daughter has already fired off a semi-furious missive.)

      One of the things that has bothered me in the comments I’ve seen online is the casual acceptance of the slander. Even when commenters take note of it, they tend to view it as a blemish on an otherwise “good ep.” Arrrgh.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Reed and Hotchner were stuck in a cell with a serial killer who seemed intent on provoking a violent confrontation

    John Douglas wrote about being stuck in a cell with Edmund Kemper. Douglas finished his interview and rang for a guard. No answer. Kemper explained it was the shift change. He then stood up. Kemper is a *big* man, and he put some fear into Douglas before smiling and saying, “Just kidding.”

    So they’ve probably read some books on profiling, but not on the Romani.

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      Interesting story. They are very good on some things, not others. I wonder if that’s partly because of an uneven writing staff.

  6. davidcapeguy says:

    I’m astonished that CBS put this on the air. I find myself wondering if their decision-makers are of the “modern ignorant” sort who don’t know anything other than television. In other words, perhaps they don’t know that the Romani are real, actual human beings. And no, being dumb as a rock is no defense.


    I’m not able to watch these modern police procedural shows, they’re just too…logically sloppy. They find someone’s fingerprint at the scene of a crime and they “J’Accuse! Your fingerprint proves that you are the killer!” Well, no. It proves that they were at the crime scene. Perhaps before. Perhaps after. Perhaps during. But by itself, it’s not proof of guilt. They’re intellectually similiar to the “Craig Kennedy” stories written by Arthur B. Reeve. Kennedy was the “American Sherlock Holmes,” very popular in the first decades of the 20th century, still on tv in the early 50s, utterly forgotten today. He was a “scientific detective,” only his science was imaginary, as were the scientific marvels he invented to solve his cases. Sloppy.

    • JE says:

      They are pretty bad, as a rule. The CSI mantra that evidence trumps everything else begs the question: data isn’t evidence until it’s being used in an argument, until it’s been interpreted somehow.

      Oh, well: this is an hour of my week I get to use for other purposes, I guess.

  7. I absolutely loath those hour long crime drama shows on the major networks. They all just seem to be about shock value and sensationalism. Also I don’t know how realistic they are since I don’t watch them, but I assume not very.

    I do enjoy the shows on the discovery channel like FBI Files which are all non-fiction.

    • JE says:

      Realism (in the sense of real-world content) is definitely weak for the procedural shows, even when they do a “Ripped from the headlines!” sort of story.

  8. onyxhawke says:

    And yet people wonder why i don’t watch much tv…

  9. onyxhawke says:


    Unplug the tv for two weeks.

  10. Romani? LOL. Where I came from (Hungary) they’re thought of as thieves who speak crappy Hungarian. I thought stereotyping couldn’t get worse.

    Also what were they referred to as in the episode? Were they ever called gypsies?

    Also, of course some Romani do speak Romanian — if they’re from Romania! They live in a lot of countries. But the scriptwriter probably thought that “Romani” and “Romanian” go together, is that how it looked?

    • JE says:

      I forget if the term “gypsies” ever came up, but I don’t think anyone called them that casually.

      “But the scriptwriter probably thought that ‘Romani’ and ‘Romanian’ go together, is that how it looked?”

      Yes, exactly. The fact that someone spoke a Romanian word was used as to support the inference that the criminals were Romani (or “perverting Romani culture”).

      Oh well. Like I say, that gives me an hour a week back…

    • fpb says:

      As I explained upthread, the legend that Gypsies abduct children is a specifically British (hence American) legend, which reverses an actual social custom known at least in Scotland, where the local nomads were given unwanted children. The Hungarian opinion of Gypsies seems pretty much the same as the Italian, probably because the Gypsies in question are the same too.

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