Monday, January 16, 2006

CI Season 2 Review

The odd one out in the Law & Order franchise has its second season come to DVD and rarely has any show been so much about one man. Of course, there are precedents for this - Columbo, Inspector Morse, Cannon and so on rarely gave much screen time to anyone but the titular detectives - but Criminal Intent owes so much to the personality of Detective Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) that you struggle to imagine any of the crimes being solved were he not a member of the NYPD.

Indeed, it is Morse that Goren resembles most - both are extremely bright, although Goren works only in homicide, both bear the greater intellectual burden in their partnerships and both appear to have a certain misfortune in their personal lives. And yet they differ in that Goren has none of the lofty pursuits of Morse, with apparently no love of opera, ale or crosswords. In that sense, he's not particularly well defined - we learn, for example, that Goren spent some time in the Armed forces and that he has a particular fascination for numerology and the flimsy connections between names, dates and places that we take for granted but which Goren often uses to unlock a case. It is, then, often fascinating to watch Goren begin to make sense of the murky world in which a murder has been committed but unlike those cops whose soul often turns as black as the murderers they meet with every case, Goren takes a certain childish pleasure in each investigation. Often this appears as his teasing of the suspect - a winding-up or a getting under their skin as we might say - such as his pawing of the rare and vintage sports cars in Cherry Red, in which he gets to manhandle Ferraris in a way that one never should. Similarly, there's a lot to enjoy in his adoption of a different character to force the suspect to admit their guilt, at times it's a slightly camp confidant to a dear old murderer, occasionally a geek with an interest in wordplay and technology or even a conspiracy nut with a predilection for military uniforms. And yet, when I say 'force', there's never the sense that Goren, despite his size, is particularly threatening, more that he understands that by allowing temptation to fall in the way of a suspect that they will admit their guilt. In the case of Baggage, it's knowing that the suspect falls easily for attractive and successful women, in Chinoiserie, it's Goren's understanding of the suspect's childhood in China that closes the case whilst in Cuba Libre, it's the paranoid fantasies of a man recently released from prison that has the detective realise who's guilty and who has simply been used.

Much like the moment in Petrocelli when the replay of the crime scene within the courtroom would point the finger at the guilty party or in Columbo, when the shabby detective would explain what he knows and how the crime was committed, it's more fun, say, than enlightening when Goren, often in the last five minutes of an episode, pulls the case together. Oftentimes, an episode ends in a location no more glamourous than a police interview room but such is the grounding of Criminal Intent in the Law & Order franchise. Despite it being completely unlike Law & Order (the original series) and Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent is still firmly part of the family, with Dick Wolf's guiding hand being felt throughout. Goren may well be the star of the show and of each investigation but, like the other series, he's supported by a justice system that includes not only fellow police officers - his partner, Detective. Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe) and department head Captain James Deakins (Jamey Sheridan) - but also District Attorney Ron Carver (Courtney B. Vance), who's often as intransigent and as unwilling to go before a judge as his colleagues in Law & Order and Special Victims Unit. Of the main cast, it's Eames that softens Goren's more analytical edge, teasing him a little, as in the episode Probability, as well has giving the show more humanity. Without her presence, it would be like watching Morse without Lewis and as that show needed Lewis' fumblings, his chaotic home life and his often wide-of-the-mark misunderstandings of Morse's intentions, so too does Criminal Intent need Eames. As much as it often appears to be solely about Goren, I doubt if it would be quite as enjoyable without Eames.

Of course, the downside of the show is that by watching it too much, one can see the moment that Goren has the cut of the case all too clearly, almost, but not quite, flagged with the sight of a light bulb going on above his head. In Cold Comfort, for example, Goren's realisation of the motive and the likely murderer comes with a canny question, a pause and a smile so broad that you know he's worked out the case and in giving that much away, that he's effectively named the guilty party to the audience as well. Over the entire season, this does become a little predictable but as much as there's an episode like that, there's also one like A Person of Interest, in which Goren is blamed both by the press and by the courts for the suicide of a suspect before realising that a woman from his past may have set him up following his earlier investigation of her in Anti-Thesis.

Such occasional twists are most welcome but it's not really what the show is about, more that Criminal Intent is simply about Robert Goren figuring out how a crime was committed. There's none of the even-handedness of Special Victims Unit's team, none of the equal emphasis of Law & Order on the police investigation and the trial and none of the personal conflicts felt by the detectives and District Attorney's in both of these other shows, simply Goren figuring out whodunit. If that's enough, and there's been plenty of Criminal Intent on Five over the past year, including this second season, to have whetted your appetite, then this may well be on your To Buy list. Personally, I think that Five tend to show enough Law & Order and CSI to never have to bother with actually buying one of the sets on DVD but that clearly isn't the case for everyone.

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