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Why Law & Order: Criminal Intent is Awesome

The Law & Order franchise is not what it once was. The original series (plain old L&O) has gone through cast shake-up after shake-up, and just had one of its weakest seasons. Special Victims Unit is full of superstar talent -- America's sweethearts Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni, plus their cranky back-ups Ice-T and Richard Belzer -- but each episode of that show finds a way to ignore their special victims mandate. Only Criminal Intent, exiled to the USA Network, has continued to do what it does so well with the same two leads it's always had. It's the best show in the franchise, and it's only going to get better with this season's changes. If you didn't watch Sunday night's Season 8 premiere, here are our reasons for you to tune in for Episode 2.

1. Vincent D'Onofrio D'Owns It
D'Onofrio, who plays Det. Robert Goren, has been the face of CI since its start, and while "highly perceptive investigator" seems to be the new black (see The Mentalist, Lie to Me, Life), D'Onofrio has been playing the brilliant, well-read, multi-lingual Goren for seven years, and his mannerisms make him a fascinating character to watch and/or listen to. Goren switches from dropping subtle physical cues to screaming in a perp's face with ease, and if we're lucky he'll slip into a character to draw out a suspect. (Goren dressed like a mailman and dancing with headphones on was a fixture in promo commercials for a while, and is still endlessly entertaining.) And whether it's intentional or utterly coincidental, D'Onofrio/Goren's let himself go over the years, expanding horizontally and shaving rarely, which makes the size difference between himself and his shorter, tidier partner/handler Eames (Kathryn Erbe) even more dramatic/hysterical.

2. The Rest of the Cast is A-List
It may seem like sometimes Erbe doesn't have much to do, with Goren doing the heavy dramatic lifting, but she plays Eames like Goren's diplomatic envoy, as if Goren was a king, or perhaps an entire nation-state, who isn't as familiar with protocol. She used to be the snarky one, but after seven years (and the rise of David Caruso on CSI: Miami) she's not as quick to make pithy comments as she once was. The other pair of detectives on the case has been a bit of a revolving door, with both Annabella Sciorra and Alicia Witt briefly playing partner to Chris Noth's Mike Logan, whose sly "just between you and me" demeanor was a refreshing contrast to D'Onofrio's intense focus. But this season keeps Logan's last partner, the smart, tough Megan Wheeler (Julianne Nicholson) and trades Noth in for A-lister Jeff Goldblum as Det. Zach Nichols. Whether his character will be a more suave version of Goren or a quirkier Logan remains to be seen, but if his turn on the short-lived and underrated Raines is any indication, cop Goldblum will be worth watching. Round out the cast with a tough, smart captain Ross, played by actor, playwright and novelist Eric Bogosian (!), and you've got a pretty pedigreed bunch of cops... as long as you ignore Erbe's turn in Mighty Ducks 2.

3. Major Cases Only, Please
We mentioned how much SVU's lack of focus bothered us -- cases would start out looking like sex crimes, or would seem to involve a child, but would often turn out to be something else. In the Major Case Squad, they only get involved if someone's been killed, or a lot of money has been stolen, or a work of art or if there's someone famous involved. It's a wide net, but the detectives are always in their comfort zone, although it may be simply because of the detectives' implied talent at their jobs. And the show's title comes from the fact that the viewer sees the criminals and the victims first, so we get to catch a glimpse of the people involved before the cops even find them. It adds a fair amount of suspense to the show, as we see the police getting closer to knowing what we know, even as we wait for them to show us the final piece of the puzzle.

4. They Won't See You In Court
The show's assistant District Attorney, Ron Carver, disappeared a couple of seasons back, and nobody really noticed, because the show's cases stopped making it to trial. By focusing on the investigation side of things, and showing aspects of the criminal's point of view, the full hour is dedicated to the solving of the case, and usually culminates in Goren tricking someone into confessing. Good thing, too, because it seems like every single case the SVU division takes to court seems to die under a judge's withering glare, usually because Benson and Stabler coerced a confession, or didn't knock, or it was entrapment, or Stabler beat somebody within an inch of their life. If the Major Case Squad's cases fall apart in court because of an excessive use of quirkiness, we mercifully don't see it. We're not sure what Goldblum's finishing move is yet, but here's hoping he musical theaters perps into confessing.

5. It Doesn't Drop the Soap
While Original Recipe is still the prototypical crime show, and SVU sometimes plays like a wacky sitcom, CI regularly embraces the strange developments, and plays out like a soap opera sometimes, especially when it comes to its characters' long-term story arcs. Eames' cop husband was killed on the job, and she was a surrogate mother for her sister's baby at one point. And for years, "Bobby" has clashed with British black widow Nicole Wallace; he's also occasionally caught up with his half-crazed criminologist mentor, who was revealed to have killed Wallace in last season's finale. Plus, Goren's brother was a meth-head before he died, and Goren's father was revealed to be a serial killer, a fact more or less admitted by his schizophrenic mother before she died. Of course, with most of Goren's extended family dead or incarcerated by the end of last season, and a new writing staff in place, it remains to be seen how much of that soap opera we'll see this season, but Goren's still got a missing nephew out there somewhere...

Catch Law & Order: Criminal Intent Sundays at 9/8C on USA. Discuss the show in our CI forums, and check out our interview with D'Onofrio and Erbe here!

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