A detective with a past that includes mental instability and difficulty connecting emotionally, a professional woman assigned as his partner/handler, and a female arch-nemesis.
It sounds like the recipe for Elementary, but I’m referring instead to Law & Order: Criminal Intent. If you’re a fan of Elementary and pining for more, I highly recommend binging on Criminal Intent this summer.
Like most of the L&O franchise, Criminal Intent is on daily all over the cable channels, making it easy to record and watch at leisure. I always liked the show, but I’ve now acquired a newfound respect for Robert Goren, his partner Alexandra Eames, their arch-nemesis Nicole Wallace, and the show’s writers.
**Caution if you're spoiler-sensitive, because this post contains information about the larger character arcs over the series with this set of partners.
Goren and Eames may be just the best detective team of Not-Holmes and Not-Watson since writers were first inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle. Perhaps because the show is far more plot-focused than character-focused, watching is a similar experience to reading Doyle’s short stories.
Though he’s nowhere close to the whippet-thin Holmes, Vincent D’Onofrio as Goren uses his large body in a similar way, as an outward extension of his razor-sharp mind. Goren is well-known for his sideways head tilt when interrogating suspects (so much so that when Eames appeared on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, she used the same trait), but the head tilt is only part of how Goren gets into suspect’s personal space. He looms over them, leans down to put them at eye level, and then attacks verbally, either catching them in a lie or deducing something they want kept hidden.
Goren’s body language is extremely discomforting, as much as Holmes’s intent glare or his dismissive hand gestures, and Goren delights in using his whole self as a weapon.
In one particular incident, he interrogates a suspect, a rich newspaper publisher, at a public lunch, and uses the publisher’s arrogance against him. Afterward, when his temporary partner remarks that it was no fun for her, Goren replies that “Eames would have loved it,” a statement neatly encapsulates why their partnership works.
Like Watson, Eames is a professional, though in this universe, she’s a police officer like her partner, rather than a doctor. Being in the same field of work, Eames could have been lost in her partner’s shadow, but Kathyrn Erbe succeeds in making Eames as important to Goren as Watson is to Holmes. She has complimentary skills, a knack for diplomacy and the Watson-like ability to synthesize what her partner is doing, why he’s doing it, and to keep his darker and more socially-unacceptable skills in line.
Eames only becomes resentful at being seen as the secondary member of the pair when Goren himself doesn’t acknowledge their partnership, as when he doesn’t let her know he’s working undercover. She also never expects anyone to rescue her, and in a memorable episode, when she’s held captive by a serial killer, she escapes on her own.
It’s a partnership so solid that Goren disappears with his own mental demons without her, but later Eames refuses a promotion if it means firing Goren for one of his transgressions, an act she considers a betrayal.
Goren’s ongoing arch-nemesis, Nicole Wallace (Olivia D’Abo), is—like Moriarty—a dark reflection of the detective. Wallace misses nothing about people and uses that knowledge to manipulate them as Goren does, but she puts her intelligence to use for selfish means. Yet underlying it all is her need for a home, for connection, as her first murder is to preserve her place at a university where she’s fallen in love. In her last appearance, she’s not even the murderer, but her reputation as a killer has preceded her and the actual murderer is using her to deflect attention from his crimes. Like Goren, what she wants is emotional connection and stability, but Goren convinces her she’s not capable of it. It’s an open question, even at the end of the series, whether this emotional connection is something Goren himself is capable of. The final show seems to hint that it’s Eames who is his true window to the world—either romantically or platonically—and he’s okay with that.
Stand-out episodes include the four with Nicole Wallace, “Frame,” “Grown,” “Great Barrier,” and “Anti-thesis,” the two-part episode, “Blind Spot,” where Goren tracks a killer with the help of his unbalanced mentor, Dr. Declan Gage, and one with an overly religious man who’s gone over the edge, ala John List.
Criminal Intent ran for ten seasons, something that surprised me when I looked it up, as I thought the series run was shorter. Part of this was due to the rotating detective teams used in later years, after D’Onofrio asked for a lighter workload, but part of it was the show’s shift to USA Network for original episodes. It got hard to find.
The repeats have also opened my eyes to the consistently well-written mysteries and the tight pacing. The antagonists are generally shown committing the opening crime, but that only deepens the question of how they’ll be caught, very much like Colombo. It definitely fills the need for crime drama during the summer wait for the fall season.
Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom Blog on Wired.com (www.wired.com/geekmom) and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.