'Criminal Intent' and the Problem of Class



I'm one of those odd creatures who has always liked Criminal Intent best of the Law & Order franchise. I liked the intensity of the crimes, the odd, unstable partnership between Robert Goren and Alex Eames, and in recent years, I thought the casting of Eric Bogosian as Danny Ross was a step forward in the tradition of the show's high-caliber casting and quirky characters. But I'm having a very hard time warming up to the pairing of Jeff Goldblum and Saffron Burrows that's anchoring the series now.

I think in part it's a class issue. Goldblum's character, Zach Nichols, is the son of a Columbia psychiatry professor and his psychiatrist wife. He's estranged from them and dropped out of college to become a cop, but his defenestration from New York's upper-middle class was voluntary, rather than the result of tragedy or loss. Burrows' character has at least a reading knowledge of Urdu and Arabic and spent time in Islamabad as a child. She's not fully sketched in yet, but she's got a fragile, brainy beauty to her.

Together, Nichols and Burrows are intensely cerebral. It's impossible to imagine them heading out to a sad little suburban mental facility to visit an ill mother, or brawling in a New York firehouse and lying about it. They're above it all, and that makes the show a little too clean. A show like that could work, but it's a different beast from Law & Order's Catholic fathers and depressed divorcees, officers who graduated from John Jay rather than Columbia.

And the show's new detectives are little too detached from New York. Nichols has some familiarity with the New York literary scene, which adds a different dimension of the city to the show. But since he doesn't talk to his family, we don't get a sense of his connection to the Columbia faculty, to wherever in New York his folks live, to what part of the city he grew up in and is most familiar with. And Burrows' character isn't from New York at all—she's from Chicago, announcing awkwardly at one point, "I roll with the White Sox."

Maybe place isn't supposed to matter any more, now that the Law & Order franchise has crossed the pond to England and the continent to Los Angeles. But the shows have always been an economic engine for, a Valentine to, and a dissection of the dark heart of New York. The introduction to every episode in every franchise declares of the detectives that "These are their stories." But they've been New York's, too. Even if Criminal Intent cares less about that second part of the equation, it's got to figure out its new detectives.