Her Mind’s Eye Sees Many More Plots

As the showrunner of Criminal Minds, Erica Messer guides one of CBS’ core drama franchises. But wild horses almost dragged her into a news career.

Messer grew up in Maryland, near Assateague Island, a federally protected seashore populated by feral ponies and long a target of development-mad state officials. As an undergrad in the mid-’90s at Salisbury University, Messer made several short documentaries about Assateague and overdevelopment in Worcester County, Md.

Driven by her student-documentary experience, she almost accepted a job at 48 Hours after graduation, but decided that New York felt too close to home. So she headed to L.A., still intent on working in TV. She landed as an assistant in drama development at X-Files-era Fox.

“I’m reading these scripts, and I realize I don’t want to be giving notes on these scripts,” she says. “I want to be giving these scripts to the network.”

She joined Party of Five as an assistant, going on to write for Alias, The OC and Charmed. She joined the staff of Criminal Minds for its first season in 2005, then took the helm in 2011 after the exit of original showrunner Ed Bernero. Now Messer prides herself on running a series that, for writers, serves as the kind of supportive setting that, she says, she learned from watching Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman running the staff on Party of Five.

“I want to be able to provide that same environment here,” she says. “I want people who come in these doors to say it’s a really good place to work, it’s a really good camp.”

It’s also a really good ratings generator. In its 10th season, Criminal Minds is currently CBS’ second-highest-rated series in Nielsen live-plus-seven ratings, averaging a 3.9 through Jan. 4, behind only The Big Bang Theory. In a season in which CBS has seen its demo ratings fall even as it continues to hold the lead among broadcasters in total viewers, Criminal Minds is as important to the network as ever.

Not that the show lacks critics. Criminal Minds has drawn occasional fire for its emphasis on violent crime. But Messer contends that the show focuses on “the heroes of the story”—the law enforcement agents who track down violent criminals. (Messer’s brother is a cop in Florida.) But while she has shaped the content of the show, it has also shaped her.

“I write to my fears a lot as a mom with kids,” she says. “I make sure whenever I go out that I park near a light of some sort, or if I’m with the kids, we’re as close to the door as we can be.” That impulse to worry even during the most mundane moments is part instinct, she says. “But I don’t know that I would have that if it wasn’t for this show.”

Scary, yes, but scary stories told well are as popular as ever. CBS may be banking on that as it mulls a Criminal Minds spinoff created by Messer that would focus on a team that investigates crimes committed against Americans abroad. An imbedded pilot for the spinoff, which will air as an episode of Criminal Minds, shoots in February.

While there is no word yet whether the spinoff will go to series, network executives are hopeful.

“I have tremendous confidence in her,” CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler says of Messer. “I don’t like getting out ahead of myself, but I can say that in terms of how she’s built the show, the amount of thought and prep and research she’s brought into the development process, it’s been with surgical precision, and she’s really impressed us.”

If the spinoff takes, Messer plans to run both shows. She is not naïve about how much work that will take.

“I believe in hiring good people who love what they do, and once you do that, everything falls into place,” she says. As for what she hopes will be the Criminal Minds mothership, “I would never do anything to hurt this show, and I would never leave it,” she says. “I’ve been with it for 10 years. It’s like a third child to me.”