In just a few days, the BAU will open its doors again on Paramount+‘s Criminal Minds: Evolution. The new series, which is set deep in the pandemic, finds the beloved characters adjusting to their new normal after they go their separate ways. Of course, in true Criminal Minds fashion, they team is pulled back in when they’re faced with their most formidable unsub (played by Friday Night LightsZach Gilford), a killer heavily influenced by said pandemic who goes on a crime spree via an interconnected serial-killing network.

The revamp, which focuses on one serialized 10-episode arc instead of cases of the week, also comes less than three years after the original series ended its run on CBS after 15 seasons, an unexpected farewell that left its original cast members — most of whom return for Criminal Minds: Evolution — itching for more.

“It never should have gone away,” series star Paget Brewster, who plays Prentiss, told ET during an exclusive set visit in September of the original series. “When we got together, it was after the pandemic [and] we started talking. We heard word was floating around that maybe Criminal Minds would come back as a streaming show and we all wanted it to happen… We were all really excited to be able to get back together and do the show again.”

Aisha Tyler, who portrays Tara, agreed with Brewster’s sentiments, saying, “It’s incredibly exciting to be back.” “For the cast, we all feel in some ways like we never left,” she said. “Season 15, we still had so many stories to tell. We really felt like we hit our stride and we weren’t mourning the show so much as just feeling like, ‘Yeah, it would be really great to do this again.’ So when we got approached, honestly not that far after the last episode aired of the show, it was an immediate ‘yes’ for everybody. We had a lot of time to talk and think and daydream about what this was going to feel like and it’s even better than we had hoped. I think everyone’s thrilled to be here.”

Many in the cast credited the momentum to Criminal Minds reruns and strong streaming numbers during the two-plus years away. “Through the pandemic, we really built up the momentum. A lot of younger kids started watching it on Netflix and with this TikTok world, it all sort of took off a little more,” said A.J. Cook, who plays “JJ.” “It was already a popular show but then it became something else. I don’t know how we got here but I’m happy we are!”

Paramount+

But there will be a few key players missing in action, namely Daniel Henney’s Matt Simmons and Matthew Gray Gubler’s Dr. Spencer Reid. While Henney is otherwise engaged as one of the leads in Prime Video’s period epic, The Wheel of Time, Gubler opted not to return to the Criminal Minds universe. The good news is, as revealed by showrunner/executive producer Erica Messer, their characters are very much still alive in the world. And, in the first episode of the Paramount+ update, their absence is directly addressed. “They’re acknowledged as they’re off on assignment,” teased Joe Mantegna, who plays Rossi.

“Matthew and Daniel’s characters’ desks are still out there with their name tags on it and their tchotchkes, the way that it happens after a pandemic shuts everything down [and] everyone left the office,” Brewster shared. Even though they’re not seen in the new series, the door always remains open. “We’re hoping they’ll come back if we come back for a season 2,” she reassured, with Mantegna hopeful, saying, “I have a feeling we may not have seen the last of those two.”

Perhaps filling a little bit of that void is new cast member Zach Gilford, who plays the aforementioned unsub, Elias Volt, wreaking havoc on the BAU with his unconventional tech-inspired tactics. His introduction to the franchise marks a full-circle moment for the actor, who once auditioned for Gubler’s role many, many years ago.

“I was super pumped to join Criminal Minds. It literally was one of the first auditions I ever had was the pilot and this Gubler guy got it,” Gilford joked. “I’ll never forget it because I just moved to New York and was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna be in a TV show.’ Didn’t get the part, I didn’t even get a callback so when they called me 17 years later and to get to play the bad guy, it just is cool. It’s kind of a dream job in that it’s 12 minutes away from my house. Everyone’s nice and the work is really cool. It’s so fun to be a part of a show that’s so established and loved, but is revamping, polishing itself up a little bit. It gets to be a little edgier, a little more stylized and I get to be a part of that.”

Paramount+

While Gilford is primarily known for playing “good guy” roles, he found playing a villainous role to be enticing. “Playing this dark role versus normally being the good guy, I think part of it is they want him to be a little unassuming,” he said of his character. “It’s fun. There’s definitely been days where I go home, and I don’t realize it but I’m a little crabby and my wife [Kiele Sanchez] calls me out. I’m like, ‘Well, you know what I’ve been doing all day? I’ve been killing people!’ You take it home with you a little bit.” Sanchez also plays a surprise role on Criminal Minds: Evolution as Gilford’s character’s wife, though how that onscreen relationship plays into the larger narrative is one of the big season-long questions.

The actor says “it’s always fun to get to do something different then you’ve done,” and to have the opportunity “to show people that you’re a good actor and you’re not a one-trick pony.” “I had a blast doing Friday Night Lights and I know I’ve done a lot of stuff where it’s the nice guy, the everyman and there’s definitely that person that I bring to this,” Gilford acknowledged. “But there’s a lot of departure from that and it’s not necessarily fun to do ’cause it’s a little yucky. But it’s cool and I hope people like it, and I hope it kind of dupes them into rooting for the bad guy.”

As for any special messages the cast would like to share with the fans who have kept the franchise alive during its hiatus, it’s that they are grateful for the unwavering support.

“All of us are so appreciative and you feel this mantle of responsibility, all of us do. I think all of us are so full of appreciation and a little like, we hope you like it,” said Kirsten Vangsness, who plays Garcia. “We’re half excited and half afraid and I think all of us are so appreciative we get to do this job again, so thank you to anyone who has ever watched an episode — even on accident.”

Added Brewster, “We’re all excited to be back and we hope the audience likes the new twist on Criminal Minds. Criminal Minds: Evolution on Paramount+ is a slightly different show; it’s very cinematic and beautiful, creepy. There’s a twist to it so we’re really hoping our fans go there with us.”

The first two episodes of Criminal Minds: Evolution drop Thanksgiving Day on Paramount+. A special broadcast of the first episode will air that same evening at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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