Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer of the multiple Emmy-award winning Law and Order, told anyone and everyone who would listen that Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit were not spinoffs in the traditional sense. He claimed that although they shared the same parentage, they were separate and unique entities that bore little resemblance to the tried-and-true template of the original. Both Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unitare intelligent, taut police procedurals, and, as Wolf suggests, their similarities to the original end there. Further, each show has successfully – and admirably – met respectable degrees of success based solely on their own terms.
Criminal Intent's detectives are aligned with the Major Case Squad, a unit that is not generally concerned with run of the mill crimes and is often prone to political pressure. It also focuses more intently upon the process of the investigators since it does not lock itself into the half-hour police, half-hour courtroom template. Lastly, it tracks the criminals and demonstrates their activities as its stories progress, removing quite a bit of the mystery that Law and Order depends upon, which results in a different sort of suspense and dramatic thrust. Criminal Intent's greatest deviation from the Law and Order template is in its casting and presentation of character. Det. Robert Goran (Vincent D'Onofrio) is, in many ways, a one man show and it is his perspective that arguably guides the series. The program's highlights swirl around Goran's curious, probing intellect and his often mercurial interrogation techniques, even though he is partnered up with Det. Alexandra Eames (the excellent Kathryn Erbe; attentive readers will catch that her character is noted as "Alexandra James" on the back cover). This essentially affords Criminal Intent's writers and actors the room to breathe, which lends the show the ability to both surprise and to explore some tricky territory through its characters as opposed to narrative alone.
The Premiere Episode, now released as a stand-alone DVD (as opposed to a Complete First Season), hits its stride instantly. The awkward qualities of discovery and "feeling out" period that often plagued the first year of Law and Order are nowhere to be found – the team behind the franchise is so polished and professional that Criminal Intent is remarkable in both its confidence and it execution. Following a group of criminals through the set up and execution of a safe heist - which leads to three brutal murders - the Premiere Episode ("One") quickly and skillfully establishes its modus operandi and lead characters, including the ever watchful Captain Deakins (Jamey Sheridan) and level-headed ADA Carver (Courtney B. Vance).
Although it is well acted, scripted, and directed across the board, Criminal Intent's greatest strength – and liability – is derived from D'Onofrio's lead performance. One of the great current American character actors, D'Onofrio brings a physical heft and an odd psychology to the role of Det. Goran. Modeled loosely on Sherlock Holmes, Goran explores the psychology of his opponents and imposes logic – and at times illogical conjecture – on the crime scenes and available clues. His performances are uniformly excellent, and as few actors are truly capable, he possesses the ability to surprise (according to the featurette on this disc, this element of unpredictability extends to his co-stars and the show's producers). Always entertaining, and at times powerful, Criminal Intent would be a completely different animal without his presence.
This, as noted above, is the only potential liability in casting a talent as formidable as D'Onofrio's – I do not suspect that this particular program could sustain a major casting change as Law and Order has over the years. Without Det. Goran, Criminal Intent would lose its major asset, and – with all due respect to the production team and its roster of talented writers and actors – I do not think it could recover as effortlessly. Hopefully, the writers will keep things interesting enough for D'Onofrio to stick around and continue needling his character. And, as long as he is doing so, Criminal Intent is highly recommended televison.
Video: Presented in its original full frame, Criminal Intent is given a fine transfer. Flesh tones, color saturation, and black levels are solid, and the aggressive graininess and wear of the Super 16 stock of the original series' the First Year release is not to be found. The show boasts high production values, and it certainly looks good. Although this stand alone release is somewhat confounding, the promise of a box set looking this good is encouraging.
Audio: Criminal Intent is presented with a DD 2.0 stereo mix, and it also generally well done. Dialogue is crystal clear and easy to hear throughout, and the ambient music used throughout adds a nice texture to the proceedings. There is really nothing much to report in terms of surround activity, but the overall representation remains adequate.
Spanish and French DD 2.0 mixes, as well as English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
Extras: Included with this release are a few noteworthy additional features:
Law and Order: Everybody's Favorite Bagman from the First Year (45:00): This is the original episode of Law and Order, presented in its original full frame format. Appearance is grainy and generally poor, although the audio fares a bit better. The pilot, in typically ambitious Law and Order fashion, concerns the shooting of a council member on the take, and the web leads to mob connections, city contracts, and political (including police) involvement. This is a solid episode, although it is marred somewhat by the understandable awkwardness of a first entry (including uncertain characterizations and some atypically cheesy dialogue). The episode features Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, George Dzundza, and Chris Noth, and features guest appearances by William H. Macy, Paul Guilfoyle, and the sadly missed Trey Wilson.
Law and Order featurette (22.01): This featurette includes interviews with original cast members Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, George Dzundza, Chris Noth, and Dann Florek, as well as executive producer / creator Dick Wolf among others. Wolf notes that he sold the program as essentially two half-hour programs since, at the time, hour long dramas were virtually non-existent on U.S. television. Wolf also comments that the show was originally purchased by Fox and CBS before it was picked up by NBC. The format of the show and its tendency to take on controversial subject matter is also discussed at length, as is the fact that it is shot on location (Wolf notes New York itself it the show's "seventh character" and that its "Bible" is the New York Daily News).
Criminal Intent: the Beginning (20:59): Including interviews with the cast, Wolf, and executive producer / writer Rene Balcer, the Beginning notes both the great surprise of the producers in landing D'Onofrio and his conditions in turn for the writers. As Balcer comments, there was "no sound reason" for an actor such as D'Onofrio to assume a television gig since he was already successful in film; D'Onofrio comments that although interested, he wanted to ensure that his character would remain compelling and that he would be allowed "to act" before accepting.
Final Thoughts: Law and Order: Criminal Intent is a solid network program that has the good fortune of featuring an interesting and entertaining lead character played by Vincent D'Onofrio. It is also an intelligent, generally taut drama, always well-produced and never insulting to its audience.
However, I have to take exception with Universal's decision to release one 45-minute episode of Criminal Intent as a stand-alone release, as it places fans in a truly unenviable position. (I have also expressed this concern with the similar releases of the Premiere Episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Monk.) If this release is, as I suspect, a test balloon for a box set, it comes at a spectacularly high – and disrespectful – price. Fans will (presumably) be expected to purchase this as a vote of confidence, which is dubious: buy it now, and if enough units sell, Season One will be released for purchase. Moreover, since many fans may already own the Law and Order: The First Year set, the inclusion of the pilot is less generous that the producers may imagine. So, buy it now and buy it again later, or refuse to at the risk of Season One never seeing the light of day.
As it stands, I recommend this as a rental. I also strongly recommend that those interested in a Season One release e-mail Universal to express their desire, rather than shelling out the funds that would otherwise be used for a box set purchase.