Elementary, My Dear Eames. Goren is Sherlock: An Appreciation of Law & Order: Criminal Intent

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.

Read all posts by Corrina Lawson for Criminal Element.


  1. Katy Cooper

    One of the things I always loved about the show is how, over time, Eames and Goren bonded. They became true, deep partners. Eames knew it long before Goren, but Goren got there. I thought that was what the very last moment of the series was all about.

    What is it about our fascination with brilliant if socially awkward people solving crimes?

  2. sell

    Translate portuguese in Google.
    Eu amei esse show e até hoje assisto suas reprises. Definitivamente a melhor dupla de detetives de sempre. Tanto que, depois da estreia deste show, passaram a ‘chover’ detetives com as mesmas caracteristicas peculiares de Goren. A era dos policiais durões, sem cérebro, havia acabado. Surgiria a era dos policiais inteligentes, perspicazes. Depois que o show terminou, simplesmente não tive mais ânimo de acompanhar qualquer show que seja. ” Elementary” deve ser bom, mas não quero saber de assistir porque, pelo que pude notar, o protagonista parece ser uma cópia de Goren e a saudade de meu show favorito começa a apertar meu coração. Me ressinto que, de todos os L&O franquia, apenas a apelativa SVU tenha ficado. Simplesmente não a suporto. Se alguém que estiver lendo este artigo e ainda não assiste Criminal Intent, eu recomendo fortemente. Vai ficar viciado.

  3. Karen Terry

    I love Law & Order CI so much that I watch episodes on Saturday and Sunday as often as I can. It is a great show. I think that Nicole, in a weird sort of way, was in love with Goren because he was her equal.

  4. Clare 2e

    @sell– really appreciate your thoughtful comments, but rather than asking each reader on each post separately to have to paste your comment into Google translate for ourselves, would you mind doing it and pasting it in? That way, you’ve already made your comment available for all of us English-speakers to be able to read? I’ll give people a sample of what they’re missing below, and it’s good stuff from another serious crime fan:

    I loved this show and still watch their reruns. Definitely the best pair of detectives ever. So much so that, after the premiere of this show, started ‘raining’ detectives with the same characteristics peculiar Goren. The era of tough cops, no brain, was over. Emerge in the era of police smart insightful. After the show ended, simply had no more courage to follow any show whatsoever. “Elementary” should be good, but I do not care to watch because, from what I could tell, the protagonist seems to be a copy of Goren and miss my favorite show begins squeezing my heart. I resent that, of all the L & O franchise, just appealing SVU has become. Simply can not stand. If someone is reading this article and still do not watch Criminal Intent, I highly recommend it. ‘ll Be hooked.

  5. Manda Collins

    I’ve been a Criminal Intent fan almost from the beginning and like you really appreciate the sharp writing. I hadn’t thought of Goren and Eames as Holmes and Watson but it fits. And Nicole Wallace is definitely as evil as Moriarty. My favorite moments are the ones where Goren reveals his empathetic streak–I’m thinking of the Dahmer-esque episode with Neal Patrick Harris. It’s his ability to empathize with criminals that makes him so great at catching them, but it also means he sometimes disagrees with the punishments doled out by the criminal justice system.

    Great essay! I’ll be watching the reruns again this weekend with the rest of you!

  6. hww

    It is always gratifying to find another Criminal Intent fan. I watched this show for years through all the original episodes and then onto reruns. Goren and Eames were always marvelous. It was really food for the mind watching them. Thank God for reruns.

  7. JoAnn Hancock

    L and O, CI my fav of the three, very sad that none to date has been able to compare. I always find at least one thing I overlooked each time I watch the reruns. The writing stayed crisp over the ten seasons. I’m surely missing Goren and Eames.

  8. Kimberly Gould

    I just discovered CI this year and only watch the Goren and Eames episodes because the others just aren’t good by comparison. Goren is what hooked me on this series and it is hard not to fall hard for him. His character was so believable to me. It is an amazing show. Never cared for any of the other Law and Orders

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.