‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ Final Season Premiere

Near the beginning of “Rispetto,” Law & Order: Criminal Intent‘s 10th season premiere, Detective Robert Goren (Vincent d’Onofrio) sits down on a bench in a Hudson University quad. In a wide shot, he looks up at the first suspect in a young woman’s murder, her boyfriend of two weeks, and taps the seat beside him. The paternalistic gesture captures all of Goren’s complexity, his genuine fascination and flirtation with criminal minds, and the ruthless exercise of his own power. As the camera moves closer, it reveals the detective’s graying hair and plumper face, signs of age and vulnerability, but also markers of life lived and conquered.

The return of Detectives Goren and Eames (Kathryn Erbe) to Law & Order: Criminal Intent denotes the end of USA’s attempts to domesticate the show and returns it to its earlier, eerier incarnation. Goren’s capacity to inhabit the psyche of a killer illustrates the fine line that separates the hunter from the hunted. The new episode fully exploits that ambiguity, through fine acting, a fast-moving script, and a central paradox drawn from Greek tragedy. Still, the plot that sparks this dramatic energy, as happens too frequently with the ageing L&O franchise, is humdrum, trusting too much to fans’ loyalty and anticipation of the closing spectacle, when Goren flays the murderer into confession.

The success of that closing psychological battle depends on actors who can hold their own against the towering d’Onofrio, who brings a stage actor’s physicality and a Method actor’s deliberation to every performance. In the course of a short telephone call to entrap the murderer, he morphs from serious, fidgety detective to a garish fashion luvvie whose blandishments the killer cannot resist, utterly convincing as one or the other. It’s a joy to watch. And, as murder closes in on the family and friends of coke-, heroin-, and hooker-addicted runway genius, Nyle Brite (Jay Mohr), those other key performances open up. Mohr, with puffy face, pale skin, and receding hair, dominates almost every scene in which he appears.

As much as Nyle oozes charm and animus, and also delivers some scorching invective, Teddy (Neal Huff) is equally compelling. A buttoned-down nebbish, he looks more like a Midwestern professor than the New York City consultant he is. Where Mohr is flamboyant, Huff is contained, his movements as neat and unobtrusive as his character’s buttoned-down shirts and limp jackets. At the same time, Teddy exudes supreme confidence, as befits a man who is both the drug and prostitute connection for his boss, as well as the sounding board for his creative ideas.

The script captures this relationship from the early moment Nyle turns to Teddy, in the midst of celebratory party after another stellar runway show, and calls him the “Houdini of hedonism,” an observation capturing Teddy’s simultaneous dependence and influence. The show satirizes, in quick succession, the intensity of new relationships, the incessant texting of the always-on businessman, and the voracious appetite of the New York Post for petty scandal, salacious gossip, and parochial scandals. But it cannot hide the wanness of the storyline, which dutifully throws up and eliminates suspects, as Goren, equally predictably, pokes and prods their not-so-secret secrets from them.

All this formula makes the central dilemma seem more mundane than tragic, as it might have been. The episode considers hubris, as have many of the installments in Criminal Intent. Shorn of its window dressing of a lost daughter turning up as a prostitute at her father’s party, and a lesbian twist to the hackneyed love triangle, “Rispetto” zooms in on the “if onlys” of frustrated aspiration, the shortfall between ambition and circumstance, and the arbitrary disposition of talents between two boyhood friends.

Also familiar is this focus on the unfair division of charisma and capacity showered on the weak-willed and unfulfilled ambition gifted to the nerd in the corner. Only at the very end, as Goren crowds the about-to-confess killer into the corner of an atelier, as sadistic as any killer, does the plot catch fire — as it is recounted and explained by the master storyteller, Goren. As the wailing culprit is dragged away, all animation drains from the detective’s face, as if, in surrendering his prey, he has surrendered life itself.

Subsequent episodes — indicated in trailers over closing credits — promise more of the same shallow sensationalism. Why would we want to see Goren undergo a psychiatrist’s session, apparently designed to constrain, or worse, rationalize, his outrageousness? Despite the network’s promoting of “Return of Goren and Eames,” this hints at an unfitting end for a once groundbreaking show.

RATING 7 / 10