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October 19, 2003


The Intricate Machinations of Law and Order: Criminal Intent

lo:ciSince the earliest days of this site, we've regularly taken time to discuss the latest on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. We watch L&O:CI instead of the other L&Os because Vincent D'Onofrio is fun to watch no matter what he's in, the original is a little bit stale, and SVU was too grisly during the first season to capture our hearts. In the last few months, I've noticed something odd about CI: it's gotten better.

The first season was elevated by the performances of Vincent and Courtney Vance, but was marred by clumsy, poorly executed scripts, and soon enough each episode fit a certain pattern which I once took the time to dissect. Nowawadays, the scripts are still influenced by that pattern, but they are also incredibly overwrought labyrinths that combine the stories ripped from today's headlines with a laundry list of improbable criminal enterprises, and the show manages to maintain a forceful energy, mainly due to D'Onofrio, who goes after leads like a runaway locomotive headed down a mountain. In their efforts to keep the scripts orginal and unpredictable, the show's writers pull out all the stops when it comes to plot developments and twists. In recent episodes, the show tends to end up being about a case almost wholly unconnected to the body found in each episode's prologue. While this generally makes the scripts feel like homework from a screenwriting class taught by Christopher McQuarrie, D'Onofrio subliminally convinces you to go along for the ride, irrespective of the far-fetched plot machinations and his character's supernatural deductive powers.

Last night's episode begins by faithfully retelling what's known so far of the Svetlana Aronov story -- the taxi cab, the strange man at the athletic club, the dog walk -- but within fifteen minutes has taken so many turns and introduced so many characters, relationships, and motivations, you can't even remember exactly what case Vincent and his loyal cohort (reliably played by Kathleen Erbe) had originally set out to solve. About three-quarters of the way through, the episode offers an almost self-referential moment as Vance, who plays a district attorney, acts as a surrogate viewer as he attempts to unravel the plot presented to him by D'Onofrio: "I don't know whether to laugh or cry. [He lifts photos of each character as he describes them.] You've got a missing socialite, the grieving husband, an incompetent hitman, a mobster and his son, a dirty cop, a dead cop, the dead cop's widow, a mistakenly-killed lawyer, and a coffee-stained dog." I'm paraphrasing here, since I haven't hooked up my TiVo yet, but all of these characters actually appear in the ep. And D'Onofrio and Erbe establish the links between all of them until they reach the obligatory confront-the-suspects scene back at headquarters and D' works his head-tilting magic until everybody breaks down and confesses. When it's all over, it's hard to believe all that show was crammed into 43 minutes of airtime, but indeed it was.

The negative aesthetic consequence of all this twisting and turning, though, is that every character on the show does nothing but speak in clues. With so many secrets and hidden motivations waiting to be uncovered, the only way to squeeze everything in is to have everyone -- whether it's a waitress on screen for 5 seconds or the lead bad guy -- do nothing but feed clues to Vincent so he can either (a) look meaningully at Erbe or (b) reveal some previously-unknown bit of esoteric knowledge that allows him to connect this new clue to some other clue from 20 minutes ago. It's only through the strength of the show's acting (about 3/4 of each episode's actors are pretty good) that all this forced dialogue holds your interest. On any other show, you would yell "This is ridiculous!" a couple of times and change the channel.

L&O:CI isn't a great show, but since Vincent is about the best actor on TV right now and the show gives you a lesson in elaborate plot construction every week, it's worth watching every now and then.

categories: TV
posted by adm at 10:42 PM | #


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