Erica Messer exists in a world of horrific murderers, psychotic stalkers and deranged sociopaths — and she’s thrived in that environment.
Messer is the exec producer and showrunner of CBS drama “Criminal Minds,” which airs its 200th episode Feb. 5. She rose through the ranks from the skein’s first year, ascending to showrunner status in the 2011-12 season. It’s not an exaggeration to call the ABC Studios-CBS TV Studios production her baby — and in fact, she had her other two babies (now ages 7 and 9) while working on “Minds.”
“This show is sort of my third child,” Messer says. “I’ve been here so long and I’m protective of it in a way that no one else is. I’m the only one left who has cared for this thing from the very beginning.”
“Minds” is a show that demanded tight collaboration among writers from the start, because of its rocky birth. Series creator Jeff Davis left the scene before it premiered in the fall of 2005. In season two, the departure of star Mandy Patinkin, who said he could no longer stomach the intensity of the crime stories, forced a quick recalibration.
Messer learned by example from her predecessor, Ed Bernero, how to run a room where everyone feels comfortable weighing in, and to be critical if need be.
“This was never a show that had a creator who had the final say on everything,” says Messer, who counts Bernero as a key career mentor, along with Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman. Messer got her start working for that pair as an assistant on Fox’s “Party of Five” in the 1990s. She moved on as a writer to ABC’s “Alias,” getting a tutorial in serialized storytelling from J.J. Abrams and John Eisendrath.
The secret to the longevity of “Minds,” in Messer’s view, has been its distinct focus on the work of criminal profilers and how they help lead law enforcement to cracking the most disturbing cases.
“Our show tells the story of the guys who try to figure out the why behind the bad guy’s behavior,” she says.
Messer is well aware the show can be too extreme for some viewers. But enough are compelled by the “Minds” approach to psychodrama to make it a Wednesday-night workhorse for the Eye. In its ninth season, it averages a healthy 13 million viewers and a 3.5 rating/10 share in adults 18-49.
“It’s kind of a polarizing show,” she says. “People either are intrigued by that human behavior, and the scare is part of the thrill, or they can’t get past our teaser — they don’t want to live in that world.”