Law & Order: Criminal Intent may not have been the most successful series in the Law & Order franchise, but at least it was the hardest to kill. The original dinosaur lasted twice as long, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is two years older, is still going strong. But a 10-year run is still very impressive for a show that always had to live in the shadow of its big siblings, that was exiled to a basic cable channel after half a dozen years on network TV, and that generated less buzz over what it put on the air than the cast changes and reported tensions behind the scenes. (The latest failed attempt to kill the show off came just last week, when one TV site referred to the previous episode, incorrectly, as the finale. It was the episode about a murder during a production of a Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark-type Broadway disaster, with a cameo by Patti friggin' Smith as a professor of Greek mythology. Maybe the writer just figured it had to be the last episode, because what could top that?) I want to make it clear that this is a fan talking. I think that, for most of its time on the air, Criminal Intent was a better-than-solid torn-from-the-headlines detective show and much more entertaining that the ossified remains of the original Law & Order that remained lodged in NBC's schedule during the same period.
How was this Law & Order supposedly different from every other Law & Order? When the show was launched back in 2001, the explanation that was offered was that this show would balance out what we saw of the police investigation with scenes designed to show how the criminals themselves were experiencing the events. It wasn't too far into the first episode before the average viewer realized that what this meant, in practice, was that Criminal Intent was less like Law & Order than like every other murder-of-the-week cop show that had come before it, especially those shows where an iconic, quirky hero, Kojak or Columbo or whomever, did his detecting between visits to check in on whoever was sweating it out in the role of that week's special guest villain. And with Vincent D'Onofrio's hulking, neurotic genius detective Robert Goren, the show had a worthy addition to the pantheon.
There was a moment in the first episode where the squad captain, played by Jamey Sheridan, watches Goren perform an interrogation and says to his partner, Eames (Kathryn Erbe), "I see the Goren show's back in town." Midway through the series' run, the D'Onofrio/Erbe episodes began to alternate with episodes starring Chris Noth, as his old L & O character Mike Logan, and a revolving door of Logan's female partners (Annabella Sciorra, Juliette Nicholson, Alicia Witt), thus making it one of the few shows ever to have crossovers with itself. This was reportedly done to appease D'Onofrio and address his complaints about the work load. Partway into the eighth season, Jeff Goldblum checked in to carry his share of episodes, and for the ninth season, D'Onofrio and Erbe were gone, leaving viewers with all Goldblum, all the time, which would have been fine, if it hadn't been for the fact that, with each passing week, Goldblum looked as if the just wanted to get through every scene as fast as he could so he could call his agent again and see if he'd found a loophole in his contract yet. (Meanwhile, the role of the boss was passed from Sheridan to Eric Bogosian to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and finally, in the current season, Jay O. Sanders. Courtney B. Vance, who used to play the Assistant D.A., quit after five seasons and was never replaced, making it official that the "Order" part of this chapter in the franchise wasn't even an afterthought.) But no matter what was going on in Criminal Intent or who was in it, it pretty much remained The Goren Show.
This was a problem by the eighth season, because D'Onofrio seemed to have grown beyond the show's ability to control him, just as his talent had slipped its leash. Always an actor you could count on for big effects, D'Onofrio began sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and his body had become so huge, stiff, and unwieldy that the other actors in the room seemed better advised to dive for cover than try to hold their own with him. (Erbe, a good actress whose performance as a death row inmate in OZ still gives me nightmares, was never able to get much chemistry going with the big lug; a bewildering moment in one episode where Goren's junkie brother suggested that there was something sexual going on between the two may be the series' all-time low point.)
It didn't help that somebody decided that Goren should dazzle the Emmy voters by increasingly becoming a man in torment, a man whose intellectual gifts and professional integrity only serve to alienate him from those around him and wreck his career and whose personal life had become, to lift a line from Hill Street Blues, a three-ring circus of horrors with extra added attractions. D'Onofrio dove whole-heartedly into the chance to drag his character through every inch of all the circles of Hell, becoming so unshaven and bleary-eyed that the writers were hard-pressed to come up with anything more unsettling than the notion that this 10-ton walking train wreck of a man was authorized to roam the streets of New York while carrying a concealed weapon. By releasing Goren from his rubber room and bringing him back, with Eames, for a truncated (eight-episode) final season, USA committed what feels like an act of mercy. Season 10 was a chance to see if D'Onofrio could relax enough to just get through a few more hours of TV, playing the character he's embodied for a decade, without giving in to the delusion that he's in Dostoevsky territory. (An understandable mistake, but Crime & Punishment was a whole other Law & Order franchise show. Perhaps fittingly, it was the reality TV one.)
Aside from the occasional Method spasm, D'Onofrio behaved himself, and the final season of Criminal Intent could be judged a success, on these specific terms: The show regained enough focus that it was able to climb back from the edge of twitching, drooling insanity and achieve mediocrity. (It's summer TV. We're grading on a curve here.) Tonight's case involved a lawsuit filed against a romantic hook-up social networking site by a pair of corpses who strongly resembled the Winklevoss twins (of Facebook lawsuit/ The Social Network fame), and a smooth talker who looked like what Aziz Ansari's character on Parks and Recreation thinks he looks like. In lieu of the kind of masterful guest casting stroke that the show has sometimes been able to pull off—Cynthia Nixon's gorgeously pathetic simulation of Julie Taymor being the most recent example—James Van Der Beek was hauled in to sort of play Justin Timberlake sort of playing Sean Parker, the latest act in Van Deer Beek's longstanding but doomed campaign to convince the world he's really an actor by impersonating the most repulsive characters he can find, as noisily as possible. Buried somewhere in the mix was a good idea about what it might be like to fall out of love with your partner after you'd used the relationship as the logo and creation myth at the center of your company and public persona. It kind of got lost in the shuffle, partly because none of the characters seemed especially passionate, one way or the other, about anyone: not the people they were supposed to be having affairs with or the people they were suspected of having murdered. If that was meant to be the point, it was a self-defeating one.
Oh, well. It turns out that the problem with trying to scale a TV character back down to a manageable size after he's gone all intense and Promethean and charged out there where the buses don't run is that, once he's made it back down to Earth, the character seems diminished. It's a little disappointing, even if the character in his straining-for-greatness phase was pretty intolerable. Maybe the show had just gotten tired or maybe one reason the mysteries in the final season didn't feel especially involving was that they couldn't compete with the suspense generated from just seeing D'Onofrio/Goren back on the job; would he manage to hold it together, or would he suddenly snap, hop up on a desk and start flapping his arms like a hawk while reciting William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, or the theme song from The Banana Splits? Might he go all Jim Morrison in Miami? Would he experience a Full Metal Jacket flashback, or, worse, start reeling off dialogue from The Velocity of Gary or The Salton Sea? ("He hasn't eaten for a few days. That and the rabies don't make for a happy badger.")
In the end, he held it together, and after one last perp had been led off in handcuffs to face judgment in the "Order" section that this show doesn't actually have anymore, Goren arrived at a friendly truce with his psychologist (Julia Ormond) and rode off into the sunset with Eames—to another crime scene, not a motel, thank Christ. It was the very definition of "Meh," but it restored stability to Goren's character and may have reassured anyone who was watching to see if casting D'Onofrio in his next independent film production would mean kissing the insurance company goodbye. As such, it probably constituted a happy ending to the series. It just didn't make stability look like much fun, which may be a less impressive accomplishment than the previous seasons where the show managed to make ambitious, wall-crawling craziness look just as drab. Sometimes, the good times are to be found right in the middle, and trying to get back there can be harder than you'd think.
- Can we get a shout out for Leslie Hendrix, who has played the medical examiner, Dr. Rodgers, on the top three Law & Order series? Apparently, the gang at SVU thinks they're too good to share their coroner with other shows, because Hendrix hasn't been seen on that one since 2000; so, presumably, her brief appearance on tonight's Criminal Intent marks the character's last hurrah. Although she got off some good lines and excellent displays of attitude on the old Law & Order prime, Criminal Intent probably did the most to fill in suggestions of a life for Rodgers outside the morgue. (It was strongly implied that she and the murdered captain played by Eric Bogosian had been knocking boots.)
- Informed by someone at the murder scene that the victims are identical twins, Eames says, "Well, that's a first for us." You want to bet that some intern spent the better part of his night combing through all the previous episodes to confirm that this was, indeed, a first for them?
- The head of the company embroiled in the Facebook-like lawsuit tries to put things in perspective by assuring the detectives, "We're not Facebook!" On last week's episode, Goren told the producer of the disastrous Broadway musical with the hot director and the rock star composer and the rising body count that he must be concerned about having a multimillion-dollar laughingstock on his hands, "like Spider-man." My all-time favorite line like this is in the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a boxer. Informed that the great boxing promoter Lucious Sweet wants to meet him, Homer exclaims, "Lucious Sweet! He's exactly as rich and famous as Don King, and he looks just like him, too!"