I am a huge fan of the original Law & Order, as well as the first spin-off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It took me awhile to warm up to SVU, but by seasons two and three it grew to become, in my humble opinion, the better of the two shows…edgier, darker and about as unflinching as network TV ever got. And both shows lend themselves perfectly to marathon viewings sessions, making the DVD box sets well-worth the money.
The second spin-off Law & Order: Criminal Intent, while a fine show, simply isn’t as compulsively watchable. It’s well-made, has a terrific cast and good writing, especially in the earlier seasons when Vincent D’Onofrio unleashed his inner-Columbo every single week as Detective Goren. He was always a quirky actor who shined brightest when playing eccentrics, and it’s almost as if the Dick Wolf created Criminal Intent with D’Onofrio in-mind, and it’s the only series in the franchise primarily driven by one character.
This approach is a double-edged sword, though. While Goren is a great character, whose knowledge of even the most mundane facts (I’d hate to play Trivial Pursuit against this guy) plays a huge role in solving cases, he is the only interesting character. Everyone else leaves about as much an impression as Elvis’ back-up band. But part of the appeal of L&O has always been in its ensemble casts, making Criminal Intent an addition to the franchise in name only.
Later seasons, including this one, tried to shake things up by bringing in other characters, lifting the burden of carrying the show from D’Onofrio’s shoulders. Hence, Chris Noth (from the original L&O) returns as detective Logan with a new partner, Megan Wheeler. So some episodes feature these two trying to solve the weekly case instead of Gowen and Eames. The problem is that Logan (although compelling in the original L&O as sort of a hothead), isn’t as interesting anymore. In fact, sometimes it feels like he isn’t the same character. I think it was a mistake to sometimes shift the focus away from Gowen.
Cast notwithstanding, this seventh season boxed set is hit-or-miss. Some episodes knock it out of the park, and are just as riveting as the best of L&O or SVU. Others are simply aren’t all that interesting. For most long-running series, a drop in consistency is to be expected. The first two shows raised the bar so high, and remained great for so long, that I guess it was inevitable that the Law of Diminished Returns would eventually rear its ugly head.
Still, Criminal Intent is a decent show in its own right, and the episodes featuring D’Onofrio are the superior ones in this set. I still think, however, it has little in common with any other series in the franchise.