Paget Brewster’s return to ‘Criminal Minds’ finds rare success

“People always leave,” were the famous words of One Tree Hill’s Peyton Sawyer. But the problem with TV shows isn’t that actor’s leave — it’s that shows try to bring them back.

Wednesday  Marked the 200th episode of CBS’s Criminal Minds which also saw the return of Paget Brewster’s Emily Prentiss. From the moment Brewster announced her departure at the end of the show’s seventh season, both she and executive producer Erica Messer seemed open to the idea of bringing her back for a future guest spot.

But does bringing back departed characters give audiences a chance to appreciate the dynamics of how a show once was, or does it throw salt in old wounds and leave viewers unsatisfied?

When Chad Michael Murray famously returned to the set of One Tree Hill in its final season after departing the show three years earlier, he was given just a single scene that showed little interaction with his former co-stars. The guest spot was useless. Viewers got little explanation for what Murray’s Lucas Scott had been doing the past three years and why his wife Peyton (Hilarie Burton) hadn’t shown up to her best friend Brooke’s wedding, or even phoned when she had a baby.

In that three-year period, One Tree Hill had managed to reinvent itself. With the departure of Lucas and Peyton — one of the show’s central couples — the series brought various new characters into the fold and largely shifted its focus onto other relationships. Lucas’ return served to do no more than remind viewers he had left and prove his once dramatic and comedic dynamic with his former colleague was only a shadow of what it once was.

The West Wing saw slightly greater success when it welcomed former White House communications advisor Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) back into the fold for the series’ final two episodes. Lowe didn’t have too many scenes but the circumstances of his return to Washington made sense. The White House was transitioning to a new president and newly named Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) wanted a friend and trusted colleague by his side. With Sam’s reintroduction, viewers sensed that the once young fresh-faced staff of the Bartlet presidency were now all grown up and ready to tackle new jobs. Sam’s return was logical, yet marginalized enough that it did not interfere with the dynamic created on the show in three seasons since his departure.

So just how did Criminal Minds make room for Prentiss at the BAU for one more night?

Putting other characters in peril seems to be a popular way to reintroduce old characters. Lucas’ return to Tree Hill — or more specifically just the Tree Hill airport — came on the heels of his brother’s kidnapping. Prentiss’ return came after the kidnapping for another former colleague and friend, JJ (A.J. Cook).

In interviews about the 200th episode, Brewster suggested that her role would be fairly large because Prentiss would have information about JJ that many other characters would not. At its core, the 200th episode was about JJ, but Prentiss was given the privilege of the opening voiceover. Though she didn’t appear until 15 minutes in, the speed with which she rushed to aid her old team suggested she was still a part of the BAU family.

It worked in Brewster’s favor that she left the show on good terms with her casemates and the audience, all of whom knew about her departure ahead of time. Likely not all departed characters would receive such a warm welcome on their old stomping grounds.

Recently fans were shocked to learn that Cote de Pablo, who played NCIS female lead Ziva David, would only appear in one episode of the CBS hit’s 11th season. Though fans have been adamant in requesting Ziva’s return, co-star David McCallum recently told DigitalSpy of his “frustration and anger that someone should just walk out on us,” adding, “I just don’t understand how a leading lady in a show that’s worldwide, who ostensibly wants to have a career as an actress, suddenly walks away from such a gem and just vanishes a couple of days before we start production.”

It seems there is a specific set of conditions under which an actor can reasonably leave a show and be invited back. Brewster’s situation is unique. She was forced to leave the show once before, amid budget cuts halfway through season six, but protests from the audience and cast members brought her back for season seven.

With Prentiss’ season seven departure, the show established a new dynamic, bringing in Alex Blake (Jeanne Tripplehorn) as a profiler, but the 200th episode cleverly avoided disturbing that new rhythm through use of flashbacks.

Criminal Minds was smart and realistic in bringing Brewster back. Some of her scenes in the episode were shot on a plane, because logically she could not have traveled from London to D.C. with lightning speed. The only time viewers saw Prentiss with her entire former team came during the celebration of JJ’s return at the end of the episode. The writers did not try to hide the changed dynamics of the team or marginalize Blake. Rather, Blake recognized it was nice to finally put a face to the name she had heard so much about.

But all good things must come to an end and Hotch (Thomas Gibson), ended the episode by asking Prentiss the question on everyones mind: “Emily how much longer do we have you?”  When she replied, “Six hours,” Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) promptly said it was too soon for her to leave, echoing audience sentiment.

Prentiss’ visit wasn’t perfect. We didn’t get to see much of the witty banter with her male counterparts that was quintessential to her time on the show, but in the context of the episode her presence worked. Though her departure will surely widen the hole in the hearts of fans already saddened when she left the first two times, it is worth that little bit of pain for a visit done right.

Ever the wise man, Rossi (Joe Mantegna) reminded the viewers and the team they although Prentiss visit might’ve been short, “It was more than we had yesterday.”