New York Detective Robert Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio), the protagonist of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, has more in common with classic detectives like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, than with the down-to-earth, contemporary TV cops of, say, NYPD Blue. Although never articulated or explained, Goren’s investigative method combines Holmes’ attention to minute details with Miss Marple’s knowledge of everyday human psychology. How many detectives could identify a murderer based on the facts that she is a very ambitious artist and her best painting shows a window at her former roommates’ parents’ house? It turns out that the painting was actually created by that roommate, that years ago the murderous artist staged the roommate’s suicide in order to use the painting to get into art school, and that her latest victim was hanged in a way that copied the first murder.
Goren figured all this out. The world’s smartest, cockiest, and most histrionic TV sleuth, he helps make the latest spin-off of Law & Order just as exciting but also cleverer than either the original or its first spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But Criminal Intent is also more problematic than either of its precursors, insofar as Goren’s impressive powers of deduction, according to the show’s logic, give him much more license to manipulate suspects than the laws of contemporary New York and the United States allow. (Or at least, the laws that were contemporary when the show was conceived—these laws may be changing in the near future.)
CI includes all the basic elements that made the original Law & Order such a popular and long-running show. Two detectives, here Goren and his partner, Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe), investigate murders and report to their boss, Captain James Deakins (Jamey Sheridan), and Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver (Courtney B. Vance) prosecutes the suspect. The previous Law & Order shows kept the main characters’ personal lives outside the narrative frame in order to concentrate on their well-scripted, sensational, “ripped from the headlines” mysteries. But CI tells its gripping stories from the criminal’s point of view. Or rather, the audience sees the criminal mind through Goren’s eyes. So, when Goren forces an admission of guilt from suspects, viewers are led to believe that Goren already knows the suspects’ motives and actions, and all he seeks from their “confessions” is confirmation of his own knowledge and prowess. Because his intellect and intuition never fail, CI‘s narratives never consider the presumption of innocence as a legal (or dramatic) standard. The hell with the law and civil rights: everyone is always already guilty.
Don’t get me wrong. Goren’s brilliance and self-assurance are largely responsible for the show’s appeal. Like Sherlock Holmes, Goren is a relentless investigator. He will research for hours to figure out the meaning of an obscure clue. For instance, Goren figures out that a certain victim was killed by a priest, because the oil on the victim’s face is used in the sacramental Last Rites of the Catholic Church. Again similar to Holmes, Goren is convinced that he is smarter than and superior to everyone else. He never displays doubt or regret and never questions for a moment the validity or ethics of his own actions. D’Onofrio is a great casting choice for Goren, and in CI, his acting is particularly impressive, given that the character is himself something of a performer. When a crazy homeless man speaks in verse to him, for example, Goren rhymes right back. Like a chameleon, Goren can assume on the fly the mannerisms, jargon, and, so the show suggests, the inner psyches of the people he seeks to understand and outsmart. So far, he has yet to meet a criminal personality strong enough to elude his empathic talents.
Unfortunately though, because Goren makes all of the important decisions, he overshadows all other main characters. His partner Eames does little else than act as his girl Friday. She follows him around with admiring eyes and drops lame compliments incessantly, reminding us of his genius (in case we forget). After Goren performs one of his interrogations, Eames toadies up to him by observing, “You were good, talking with Alan.” She also seems intellectually deficient, which makes Goren look all the brighter. She jokes that a victim was attacked by a shark when they find a fish scale on the corpse, just so Goren can cut her off with: “Sharks don’t have scales.” To trap a man who in a short time killed off three of his mistresses, Eames flirts with him in the interrogation room at Goren’s suggestion, while Goren and the suspect’s wife spy on them from next door. This might be a great tactic, to entice a philandering murderer’s confession through seduction, if Eames thought of the trick herself, but as it is she seems little more than Goren’s sexy puppet.
No one—not Eames, Captain Deakins, DA Carver, or anyone else for that matter—is in any position to offer criticism, or even any significant contribution to the investigation, while Goren is on a case. Accordingly, Deakins and Carver come off as more dull and straight-laced than their colleagues in Law & Order and SVU. More interested in this own righteousness and magnificence, Goren often pointedly ignores his boss Deakins, who is often left bumbling around in the great man’s wake.
Goren is also too eager to badger and deceive witnesses, despite DA Carver’s disapproval. At every turn, it seems there is nothing that Deakins and Carver can do about Goren’s flagrant abuses of power, except to chide him lightly and wait for his next transgression. On CI the laws governing justice and penalty, and protecting the rights of the accused, clearly do not apply to brilliant investigators like Robert Goren. And this disregard for basic civil and Constitutional rights is really the most troubling aspect of the show—particularly at a time when such rights are being legislated away by the United States government.