<EM>Criminal Minds</EM>' Mandy Patinkin Criminal Minds' Mandy Patinkin

Call it Stealth Television. Last season, CBS' Criminal Minds (Wednesdays at 9 pm/ET) simmered just below pop culture's boiling point. Now a solid hit, the show's true-to-life stories of the FBI's hunt for serial killers, rapists, arsonists and terrorists frighten and fascinate millions of loyal fans. Many of whom may be harboring such questions as:

Is there a real Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) at the FBI?
Yes, it is considered an elite team of agent profilers. "Of the 12,000 FBI agents," says star Mandy Patinkin, "only 26 are in the BAU."

What led series creator Ed Bernero to want to write about this subject?
He's a former Chicago cop whose 10 years on the job took a psychological toll. "I felt I had fundamentally changed as a human," says Bernero. "All I would see were bad things." So Bernero turned to writing and his longtime interest in the process of catching serial killers.

Do these grim stories take a toll on the actors?
Absolutely. Kirsten Vangsness, who plays the unit's computer whiz, Penelope Garcia, can't watch her own show because it's too creepy. Patinkin says this show "has worn me down. It is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting."

How do the real-life agents handle the stress?
Lola Glaudini, who plays Special Agent Elle Greenaway, says the real-life profilers gave her the best advice about handling the horrors. "They said go home, shut the door, take a shower and play with your kids. If you don't, you don't survive."

What do they do to lighten up the mood on set?
"I take my cue from the crew, who treat it like a comedy half the time," says Patinkin. In the BAU conference room, the victims listed on the dry-erase boards are all named after the show's real-life office staff. "We say, You haven't lived until you've died on Criminal Minds.'"

Fans of CBS procedurals can pick up the Oct. 23 TV Guide for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Without a Trace's 100th episode.

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