The Facts

The third series in Dick Wolf's Law & Order family of television shows, Law & Order: Criminal Intent premiered in 2001. It details the exploits of two detectives on New York City's Major Case Squad, Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Alex Eames (Kathryn Erbe). The Major Case Squad appears to draw jurisdiction over high-profile crimes, or those that have the potential to be so - murders involving millions of dollars, other cops, or celebrities, in particular. The detectives are backed by their Captain, James Deakins (Jamey Sheridan), and Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver (Courtney B. Vance).

Criminal Intent breaks from the Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU format in one major way - the opening. Rather than the typical Law & Order opening where we see someone stumble across a body, on CI, the audience is actually shown the events leading up to the crime. We know the potential suspects and major witnesses before the Detectives do - for example, we see the cheating husband and his mistress, and then we see the husband get into a fight with his wife, and the wife run off to her own lover for comfort. In some cases, we even see the crime being committed - though generally, the audience isn't told immediately who's guilty. It's usually not until after the opening credits when we finally see Detectives Goren and Eames come onto the scene and begin looking for clues.

My Opinion (A review, as it were)

First, let me state that this is by far my favorite incarnation of Law & Order. The original is good, but the formula is getting a little bit tired, and beyond that, Lenny gets on your nerves after a while. SVU is too self-righteous, and at the same time, tries way too hard to come up with crimes that are more heinous than rape. It's impossible for them to just hunt down a rapist - he has to be raping retarded girls or his own daughters.

Criminal Intent, on the other hand, has neither of those problems. The cases are fairly varied, and the format is still fresh, to me, at least. Like SVU, they don't do the half hour investigation, half hour trial thing - most of the show is investigative and/or interrogative work, and there's a lot less time in the courtroom.

No, the problem with the show is the same thing that makes it great - its lead. Vincent D'Onofrio has been nominated for an Emmy for his role as Det. Goren, but I can't quite figure it out. His character is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes-ish, solving crimes through his uncanny ability to piece together seemingly unrelated and trivial facts, along with keen psychological observations. Instead, he's just completely unbelievable, and comes off as near-psychic with the leaps he's made. Just from episodes I've caught in the last couple of weeks, D'Onofrio's character is familiar with maximum security Thai women's prisons, reads Smithsonian Magazine religiously, is an expert on classic cars, is conversant in the Koran, follows baseball and football and knows about every important game ever in either sport, recognizes nearly every language on the planet, and has a deep working knowledge of antiques. Furthermore, he seems to never be wrong, even on the most outlandish claims.

This might be more sufferable except for his other tendency - he mugs. Constantly. If you haven't seen the show, all I can advise you to do is picture William Shatner in order to understand his cadence. D'Onofrio gives three words of a line, and then... pauses, frequently staring... off into space and... grinning at something... only he understands, before giving another two or three words and repeating the stare and grin. And then there's the angles. In order to give us the impression that his character sees things in a different way from most other people, D'Onofrio literally looks at things from different angles. In the most recent episode I saw, I'm not convinced he ever let his head go less than fifteen degrees off-center.

In my mind, the intensity of D'Onofrio's character (let's call it Vincetensity) serves to sabotage the intent of the producers. No matter how horrible the crime is, it's impossible to take it seriously when you stop and think about the latest leap D'Onofrio's just made, or marvel at the way he wanders through the set, mugging for the camera, chewing on scenery and grinning like a hulking man-child. I really suspect it's only a matter of time before we discover his character is an Asperger Syndrome patient. Surely that would explain a lot of his actions - like the way he'll just wander off in the middle of questioning a suspect to fixate on something that may or may not be a piece of evidence, wholly without regard to what Eames or the suspect think about it.

The worst part is, the other actors are picking up on it. Eames was Goren's straight man - Erbe played the character seriously for a while, but apparently she and the writers have had a talk, because lately Eames has had more lines alluding to Goren's near-godlike ability to assemble random facts, and she's sneering through more and more of her lines. Even the A.D.A. has started to get a little whacky, with Vance featured along with D'Onofrio playing with a suspected murderer's childhood collection of model cars. It's really only a matter of time before the show collapses under the weight of its own writing and D'Onofrio's acting.

Nonetheless, check it out. The cross between compelling crime drama and terrible acting is a unique phenomenon that has made this a must-view for me, and I find myself eagerly anticipating the next episode, both to see what happens and to lampoon it around the water cooler the next day at work.

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