In Praise of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”

Note: This post contains spoilers for all ten seasons of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.”

There was a point in time when the “Law and Order” dominated NBC’s schedule like “CSI” did on CBS’ schedule. There were the main “Law and Order” shows–“Law and Order,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”–as well as “Law and Order: Trial by Jury,” “Law and Order: LA” and the spin-off “Conviction.” But now “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” is the only show that remains on NBC, while the occasional rerun of “Law and Order” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” on cable channels.

After picking up “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” on Netflix, I rediscovered how good this version of “Law and Order” was. Early this morning, I finished my journey through all of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” which essentially ends with Det. Robert Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Det. Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe) basically riding off into the sunset to solve the next case for the Major Case Squad. (Okay, there was no sunset, but they did get into an SUV and drive down a street to go to their next case at the end of the series finale.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the show examines detectives of the Major Case Squad pursuing culprits while the audience also sees the lead-up to the crime as well as how the perpetrator or suspects act post-crime. The show initially focused on Goren and Eames, as well as Captain James Deakins (Jamey Sheridan) and ADA Ron Carver (Courtney B. Vance). Come season five, we’re reintroduced to Det. Mike Logan (Chris Noth), who was previously seen on “Law and Order,” as well as introduced to his partner, Det. Carolyn Barek (Annabella Sciorra). Logan and Barek episodes alternate with Goren and Eames, but otherwise it’s the same. Come season six, we have Captain Ross (Eric Bogosian, who will probably be best remembered for being on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” than being a really good writer) and Logan gets a new partner, Det. Megan Wheeler (Julianne Nicholson) while ADA Carver leaves. In season eight, Logan leaves and is replaced by Zack Nichols (Jeff Goldblum), but then in season nine, Goren and Eames leave while Ross is murdered. Ross is replaced by Zoe Callas (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Wheeler never returns, only to be replaced by Det. Serena Stevens (Saffron Burrows), and season nine generally isn’t enjoyable. Season 10 goes back to the original format with Goren and Eames back, but with Det. Joseph Hannah (Jay O. Sanders) and Goren finally going to therapy. (There are some other minor casting changes, but that pretty much covers all 10 season.)

Although the show had a shift in tone around season six as we got to know more about the personal lives of the characters, particularly Goren, the show remained an enjoyable crime show. Sure, it was predictable because of the format, but as the series went on you started to feel a connection with the characters and become interested in the adventures of Goren and Eames and other detectives. When Captain Ross was killed, I found myself a bit sad about the character’s departure because of how all of the characters interacted with him, as well as the fact that the FBI made it very difficult for the detectives to find the person responsible for the captain’s death.

What also made the show enjoyable was that it felt like a modern “Columbo.” In many cases, we knew who the perpetrator was and we got to see him try to wiggle out of the chase from Major Case. But there was also a bit of a Sherlock Holmes-esque characterization of the main duo. Goren was a fascinating, troubled and brilliant detective while Eames was his partner who was often as brilliant as her partner. The show also had captains who would routinely reel the detectives in when they overstepped their boundaries. There were moments where Goren was actually suspended for his behavior, not to mention that his reinstatement in season 10 did require him to see a therapist. Something that has always bothered me about “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” was how often Det. Stabler (Christopher Meloni) would rough up suspects in the interrogation room, but he was suspended for that in some episodes.

There was also a chemistry between Goren and Eames that was completely platonic, but made them a great duo to watch work a case. Although I’m sure there are probably fans out there who would have loved to have seen them get together romantically, the platonic working relationship between the two was terrific to watch and was one of the reasons why the show was such a joy to watch.

For being a show that wasn’t high art, “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” managed to be thoroughly enjoyable, not demanding of needing to catch every episode and often amusing because of the writing. It’s actually a bit of a shame that the show didn’t last longer, but it went out on a high note. At least there are still reruns and the entire series on Netflix, because I really recommend watching the show if you want something that’s a guilty pleasure. Meanwhile, I would love it if Dick Wolf gave the world a final “Law and Order” show, this time focusing on Doctor Elizabeth Rodgers (Leslie Hendrix), the medical examiner.