Investigating Criminal Intent: Law and Order Outlier

Before Law and Order: Criminal Intent moved from NBC to USA Network in 2007, I had written off the variation, choosing instead Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit as my version of choice.  I took notice of Criminal Intent as it shifted to cable, interested in seeing if it would change at all to fit the USA Network original programming brand.  With the abundance of Law and Order: CI reruns that still pervade cable’s daytime schedules, it was (and still is) surprisingly easy to get sucked into Groren and Eames’s investigations. However, as Criminal Intent prepares to return to USA for its tenth and final season this Sunday with the ballyhooed return of the original detective partnership of Goren and Eames, I find myself drawn to the show as an outlier of the Law and Order franchise.  It’s more “Law” than “Order,” going so far as to strike the lone Assistant District Attorney character after the fifth season to focus solely on the investigations and the (alternating) detective teams.  The removal of the courtroom element imbues the detectives with an almost preternatural ability to get confessions from their suspects, aligning the lead detectives, particularly Det. Bobby Goren, with exceptional (male) investigator brethren like Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, or Adrian Monk.

Columbo informs Law and Order: Criminal Intent‘s format and characterization.  The initial “twist” on the Law and Order formula that Criminal Intent advertised was the focus on the criminal in the opening scenes.  Early episodes hewed closer to the inverted detective story that Columbo popularized on television, some going as far as showing the criminal committing the murder, providing all the information the viewer needed to establish dramatic irony (see: season one, episode five, “Jones”).  The format connection between Columbo and Criminal Intent is “common knowledge” enough to be present in LO:CI‘s IMDb trivia page.  Most later episodes show only a few scenes establishing the victim and general circumstances of the murder, keeping the culprit hidden to maintain the tension of a “whodunit” narrative.

A byproduct of this later obfuscation of the murderer is that the skills of the investigating detectives appear heightened, making deductive and inductive leaps based solely on their skills and the information shared by viewer and detective.  This appears most often and explicitly regarding Det. Goren, a character who others repeatedly discuss as a genius.  Jeff Goldblum’s Det. Nichols similarly gained the mantle of “genius” during his tenure as a CI lead detective but less emphatically than Goren and more as code for “successful eccentric.”  The other alternating lead detective, Logan, was an import from the original Law and Order series and was characterized more as a stubborn but street-smart bruiser.  Goren’s shadow fell over both detectives because of his “genius” and ability to wrench confessions from his suspects.  Goren’s cerebral approach to detective work and D’Onofrio‘s performance of his awkward and lean-prone physicality also recall Columbo, particularly Peter Falk‘s portrayal of the eponymous detective as bumbling and physically askance. (Goran’s proclivity for leaning has even garnered a fan-made music video montage to “Lean Back.”)  Goren even occasionally drops the famous “Just one more thing . . .” Columbo catchphrase when questioning his suspects.

I have thus far only discussed the male detectives; this is because only the male detectives are positioned as the lead detectives (and thus lead characters) on Criminal Intent.  Though the characterization of the female detectives is strong–particularly with Eames’s multidimensionality–they are almost always primarily characterized in relation to their male partners.  Logan, Nichols, and Goren often take the active role in the investigation with their female partner forced into a reactive role.  Gender dynamics in the Law and Order franchise is deserving of much more attention than I can give here.  I point out this focus on male lead detectives and their exceptional skills to highlight the perhaps closer connection Criminal Intent has with that mode of detective storytelling than the bi-valent Law and Order formula.  Goren’s antecedents include Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, and Adrian Monk.  I have argued previously that this exceptional individual take on Law and Order helps Criminal Intent fit with USA Network’s brand, a brand based explicitly on characters and heavily influenced by Monk‘s success.  None of these detectives face the scrutiny of the courts within their narratives; their confessions only have to imply that they would lead to legal conviction.  This format allows for the detectives to be exceptional without facing the realism of paperwork, technicalities, and courtroom arguments.

Though Law and Order: Special Victims Unit also focuses on the detectives, their partnerships are part of a team unit that also includes a clear connection to the legal system though their prominent ADA characters.  Criminal Intent has been allowed to be an outlier to the formula–doing away with “Order” and focusing on an exceptional individual male detective– in part because it has been a network-outlier since its 2007 move from NBC and actually fits nicely into USA Network’s brand identity.

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5 responses to “Investigating Criminal Intent: Law and Order Outlier

  1. Noel Kirkpatrick

    Ah, the siren’s song of Law & Order

    The comparisons to Holmes is one that the series is particular for driving home, especially with Goren’s archnemesis Nicole Wallace (played by Olivia d’Abo with relish), a crafty sociopath who constantly thwarts him. Likewise CI plays up concerns over mental instability in Goren due to concerns over his mother’s schizophrenia (a recurring element in the series, especially in later seasons).

    While the exclusion of the “Order” element does set it apart from its sister shows, the confession itself remains at its core. The original flavor would often have the ADA breaking the witness on the stand (indeed, very little in the way of physical evidence is ever introduced in the original), it still resulted in breaking the suspect/defendant.

    As the series progress, I feel like the original itself became the outlier of the franchise. While most episodes of all programs follow that procedural flavor, they increasingly became concerned with the characters’ personal lives, from Stabler and Benson’s particular trigger buttons (and will they/won’t they tension) to Goren’s personal history and mental health challenges (Goldblum’s Nichols had less pressing, but no less psychoanalyzed, father issues), perhaps as a way to keep the show from losing viewers.

    To the USA brand/genre point, it’s telling to me that, unlike its now-partner show In Plain Sight, the attempt to make CI more “blue skies” (Goldblum’s casting, I believe, was this attempt), didn’t stick. Indeed, while still about a unique, driven, and exceptional individual, CI isn’t “fun”, and its humor is dry and morbid (and offered served up by the superb Leslie Hendrix, a veteran of the franchise). This NYC (in counter to White Collar‘s) is not the playground of art smugglers and con men, but of murderous rich and famous people.

    • Charlotte Howell

      I had a feeling I could expect a reply from you, Noel. Thanks so much for adding all of your excellent points! I agree that the show really wants to place Goren in line with Holmes, but I thought that looking to a more recent antecedent to that line–Columbo–was particularly fertile. But CI’s differences from Columbo get to your point that the “blue skies” feel didn’t stick. On the surface, Goldblum’s casting was an attempt to bring the show more in that direction, but the actual character and scripting didn’t seem any more or less “light” than within the range of Law and Order detectives.

      You make an interesting argument about the mothership becoming the outlier, but throwing Law and Order: UK in the franchise mix may complicate that. Granted, I’ve only seen about ten episodes of it, but the balance of work/personal seemed more in line with the original Law and Order than the other spin-offs. Then the question becomes where the emphasis of the franchise lies: with the original canceled is it now the most popular (in terms of viewership) version that becomes central (SVU)? What happens if the franchise loses the centrality of New York (if LA and/or UK get more seasons and CI really ends after this year, SVU would be the only NY-based version)?

      • Noel Kirkpatrick

        It’s true. I can always be relied upon to discuss L&O. Now if only I could an anime version made…

        The odd thing with Goldblum was that when he was alternating with D’Onofrio in S8, Nichols was quirky and off-kilter, pushing at the boundaries of the franchise’s formula, which made it both interesting to watch and a nice fit with the USA brand/genre. But once he took over the role, the show seemed to temper Goldblum’s innate Goldblum-ness (for lack of a better word) and made him a pale version of Goren. The season was murky and not as engaging as his earlier episodes hinted they would be.

        If we throw UK into the mix, I must point out that the scripts aren’t originals, but rather slightly tweaked versions of the best episodes from the mothership’s earlier seasons, hence the balance between personal/work. This could be part of the reason why I like UK, but I also think that UK uses locations better than SVU or CI, and FAR BETTER than LA, which gives the series its 7th, and frankly, most important character.

        I think SVU has been the franchise anchor for a while now. Its ratings are consistently higher and its fanbase is more engaged. (Compare the TVTropes page of SVU to the other flavors.) Also consider the lengths SVU goes to to keep Meloni and Hargitay. One of the benefits of the original was that Dick Wolf could eliminate a troublesome actor any time he wanted; he can’t do that with either of the leads there, lest he ruin the show’s profitability.

        And there are other L&Os floating about. France has one inspired by CI and Russia has its own SVU. I haven’t seen either of these, so I can’t speak with authority, but I suspect that culturally L&O and NYC will always be linked, regardless of where the franchise spins off to (My fingers are personally crossed for L&O: Mars with Jason O’Mara as the lead detective. 😉 )

  2. Great post Charlotte, and thank you Noel for plugging it on Twitter.

    I’m glad you mentioned the USA of it all and since I’m writing my thesis on this topic, I couldn’t resist commenting. Anyway, I wonder if the disappearance of the “Order” side and the increased focus on the superb abilities of the detectives is actually a way to align the series more with USA’s singular “Characters Welcome” brand/formula/genre. This in-text transition to the focus on less characters and the emphasis of those character’s “special-ness” certainly aligns Goren with Monk, Michael Western, Shawn Spencer, etc. and separates from the L&O “teamwork” vibe. I dunno, just a thought.

    • Charlotte Howell

      Thanks for the response, Cory. Yes, I think that the figure of the exceptional lead male investigator fits with the other exceptional individuals that make up the “Characters Welcome” brand. Thanks for foregrounding that connection that I guess got lost a little in the post.

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