Don’t call Dick Wolf’s money-spinning detective series a "franchise" – he doesn’t like it. Oh no, unlike McDonalds, Pizza Hut or ratings rival CSI, Law and Order is a "brand" – hopefully, as Wolf puts it, “the Mercedes-Benz of television”. Whatever that means. Law and Order, along with CSI and The Wire, continues its sustained crime drama assault on our The Bill-loving nation, with the third series DVD release of spin off Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
The series, as narrator Steven Zirnkilton kindly informs us on the opening of every episode, follows New York’s Major Case Squad in their investigation of the city’s worst criminal offences. Each instalment introduces a different high profile murder to be solved and tied up with a confession by detective duo Eames (Erbe) and Goren (D'Onofrio) and other than Eames’ brief barely-mentioned absence to become a surrogate for her sister, and a few vague running references to Goren’s schizophrenic mother, is basically self contained. Complete with familiar suspense-inducing "doink-doinks", Wolf’s formulaic recipe for Law and Order success steers clear of detectives’ extra-curricular dealings to focus on the investigation at hand.
Not too challenging, then, Criminal Intent’s neatly packaged chapters provide short bursts of entertainment more comic-book than novel, characterised only by the presence of flawless pair Eames and Goren. While Eames is happy to follow Goren about, quipping sarcy remarks to suspects and surveying the scene with a well-executed pun, the case-breaker is usually down to some intuitive hunch felt by her prodigious partner. With an extreme attention to detail, from the trajectory of a blood splatter to a few suspicious toast crumbs, Wolf's super-intelligent Goren represents a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, unlike Holmes and Watson, Goren and Eames' relationship is pretty flat; D'Onofrio'sedgy, facetious smart-alec may be a genius case-closer but is, to be honest, a bit distracting.
Still, Criminal Intent delivers viewing that's engaging enough for an evening on the sofa. Unlike other Law and Order series, CI's openings feature cut-scenes leading up to the murder, implicating at least one often innocent character, although leaving clues for those of us possessing Goren's observation skills. For the rest, we are lead in pursuit of a seemingly guilty party, only to discover in a final twist that the perpetrator was lurking on the sidelines all along. Nailbiting stuff, you might say. Certainly well-acted stories, fleshed out by dubious characters spanning the "guilty" spectrum are enough to get your mind working, and death by bomb, poison, screwdriver ... as well as those based on real events (Harold Shipman's case is evoked, amongst others) will satisfy the blood lust in us all. But, perhaps best in small doses, any more than one episode and Wolf's well-used format becomes a little predictable - from the initial misguided chase to that sudden realisation the murderer has been under your nose all this time (cue Goren's brow-furrowed moment of revelation) and finally, Goren's finger-jabbing, in-your-face outing of the culprit.
With the ever-increasing popularity of the police procedural, Criminal Intent lacks the meat on its bones that other series' use to their advantage. While absorbing in an easy, cheap-thrill kind of way, without any real story-arc to follow throughout the series, its easy to lose interest. Best watched on DVD though – this is where episode selection comes into its own.