Stuff To Watch: Some Thoughts On Law & Order: Criminal Intent Season 6: Some Advice For Its Creators

Music ‘When The Day Goes Down’ Acoustic Version By The Eurythmics (from the promotional only ‘Acoustic Eurythmics’ CD Sampler released in 1989)

Law & Order Criminal Intent has just finished a horrible season, an ‘annus horribilis’ or maybe more accurately a ‘tempestas horribilis’ and has moved from NBC to the USA Network. In order to make the move go more successfully and to make sure as many viewers as possible watch all future LO:CI episodes, USA just completed a marathon broadcasting of all of the episodes of the sixth season (stretched out over two weekends). So while this gesture of support made by the new network was appreciated, there are old issues pertaining to the sixth season that I feel compelled to address

I call this completed sixth season a horribly rough season because it involved a lot of changes in the creative team, which dictated a lot of changes in the creative decisions that went into making the shows and which affected both the characters and the fans relationships with them.

I won’t sugarcoat the fact that as a fan of LO:CI who was willing to watch the show from Day 1 Year 1 that the show I fell in love with was the Rene Balcer helmed version of LO:CI and that there were too many changes packed into too short a period of time with Season 6 to keep me as ecstatically happy as I was with Seasons 1-5. The characters suffered, the stories suffered and as a loyal fan I suffered along with it. But with the move to a new network and the start of a new seventh season, I have some advice for the creative powers behind the show and although it may be presumptuous on my part, I am acting as an advocate for a certain segment of loyal LO:CI viewers, viewers who may not be as clearly heard as they ought to be.

With much soul searching I have come to the conclusion that those who were responsible for LO:CI’s fall from grace (a ‘sixth year itch’ if you will) are a combination of the network, the production company and the writers. I am certain that NBC which is a floundering broadcast network stuck for the most part in last place in the ratings (which matter far more to advertisers and the shareholders of media companies than to your typical viewer) put the most detrimental pressure on the show to change. Broadcast networks have a long history of doing this fiddling with programming that works reasonably well creatively and artistically in an effort to capture *every* *last* viewer. This kind of narrow-minded thinking has decimated both the news and entertainment divisions of the broadcast networks, making them sacrifice serious, intelligent, steadfast viewers for viewers who are nothing like their core audience and probably never really will be won over as loyal viewers. The core audience however once it perceives it has been abandoned inevitably moves on…in the case of news to the Internet or in the case of entertainment programming to cable networks (and presumably in the future to Internet broadcasting). This is not an amicable parting of the ways as smart loyal viewers once burned generally don’t ever come back.

Getting LO:CI free of NBC, a network that is now helmed by a very immature programming executive who is hailed for his connections to crap celebrity culture that the vast majority of Americans don’t really think or care about and has dubious creative ideas (bringing back ‘Knight Rider’ but changing the car to be Transformer-like is his latest aspiration) was a crucial step for LO:CI’s survival. But it is going to be up to LO:CI’s writers to keep creeping network pinheadism in the name of higher ratings from further alienating LO:CI’s core audience to the point of no return.

To its credit, USA has an excellent track record with how it promotes its shows (heavily if not always accurately or cleverly) and to my knowledge has not imposed too many idiotic demands on its shows creators (one I am aware of is relocating ‘Burn Notice’ from Newark (as conceived by the show’s author) to Miami, presumably so that scantily clad young women and men could be used in a ploy to get ratings from young people…the show’s creative team very shrewdly minimized that sort of footage and didn’t dwell on it, choosing instead to make Miami into a kind of sight gag). But the ratings monster will demand to be fed no matter which network a show lives on and if the writers don’t hold the line, what makes LO:CI LO:CI will be lost.

One other area that concerns longtime LO:CI fans is what Wolf Studios may do. Dick Wolf is in the enviable position of not being dependent on any one of his brand of crime dramas for the majority of his income. Currently SVU pulls the best ratings and has the most recent award winners, while L&O is Wolf’s favored first born series and Wolf is more interested in capturing a longevity record for most consecutive L&O broadcasts rather than capturing the long term respect of viewers to come. The cast of LO:CI, no less deserving of accolades and raises didn’t get them this year and the below the line unsung heros — the LO:CI crew — in many cases took pay *cuts* to keep LO:CI going. As LO:CI is running third in the competition for Wolf’s affection, interest and resources, the writers need to be ready to stand up to potentially detrimental demands from Wolf Studios. I am certain that if the issues are mostly economic, there is some degree of cost containment that can be done and in fact this could improve the creative direction of LO:CI if necessity forces everyone to be more inventive. So I am less worried about how Wolf will influence LO:CI’s creative direction.

Now I come to the difficult area…the fans. Old school fans like myself have to some degree been placed at odds with newer fans, largely by the networks insatiable ratings growth demands and to a lesser degree to satisfying Wolf’s quest for increasing profitability of his shows. While we can accept that things change over the course of the production of a series — actors leave, writers seek to advance their salaries by taking on more roles than just writing, and networks and production companies want more money and ratings first, then some awards, and all for a decreasing investment — we longtimers have endured a lot of changes in a very short period of time.

To give you a fair analogy of this old timers overall evaluation of LO:CI Season 6 stands, think if you will for a moment about the brilliantly funny 1984 mockumentary movie ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. There is a scene in which the band’s lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) shows off his collection of guitars and stage equipment to the film’s director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) that goes something like this:

“Nigel Tufnel: [pointing to a customized Marshall amplifier head unit] This is a top, to, uh, you know, what we use on stage, but it’s very, very special, because, if you can see…

Marty DiBergi: Yeah…

Nigel Tufnel: [pointing to the control dials] …the numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board: eleven, eleven, eleven, eleven…

Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it’s louder? Is that any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most… most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up… you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty DiBergi: I don’t know…

Nigel Tufnel: …nowhere! Exactly! What we do is if we need that extra… push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel Tufnel: …Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty DiBergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder, and make ten be the top… number, and make that a little louder?

Nigel Tufnel: [pause, blank look and snapping chewing gum] These go to eleven.”

While it is one thing for a band to “put it up to eleven” for the occasional solo or the big finale of the concert, it probably isn’t the brightest idea to set the amplifier and the volume as high as it will go and leave it there. It’s hard on the equipment, it’s hard on the musicians who can wind up with hearing loss and tinnitus and frankly it’s exhausting for the audience too and loses its desired impact if the maximum is sought for any significant length of time (probably more than five minutes in the context of music). And note that this scene doesn’t go on forever…nor is this joke repeatedly referred to…the concept is played for it’s optimal level of humor and then the story moves on rather than killing off the joke through overkill.

And now I’ll summarize LO:CI’s biggest problem in Season 6: certain elements of the show got permanently turned up to and stuck on eleven.

Before the change in creative direction, there were slower gentler less intense main character development arcs, a mostly indiscernable series evolution arc and well paced but interesting individual episode arcs. It is fair to say that Seasons 1-5 were somewhat formulaic, but the cases in each episode were more varied and the main characters were developed cautiously, thoughtfully and subtly. The cases investigated drove the character development and the crimes explored gave the guest characters interesting lives of their own. Also no one episode spent its entire 44-45 minutes at the absolute dramatic apex such that it foolishly squandered the energies of the guest characters, the series regulars or the audiences.

This all changed in Season 6. I can’t give a reason for certain as to why but my guess is that the ratings monster drove a lot of the radical creative departures.

Take the season opener for Goren and Eames “Blind Spot”: Goren reunites with his profiling mentor (and apparently his sole reliable father figure), sees his partner Eames kidnapped and tormented, is himself anguished by the prospect that not only has he outgrown his mentor, but that the man is really a bad father, that Goren should have somehow foreseen that the profiler’s daughter would become a serial killer, and that his new boss Ross hates and distrusts him. We also see that Ross is uneasy in his new role as the commander of the Major Case Squad, doesn’t understand that as a commander his job is management and not direct investigation, and is pushing Eames to ‘control’ her partner, the ‘overthinker’. Of course Eames is captive to this illogical Ross versus Goren conflict (and not to mention to the whims of a serial killer).

You can get away with running *all* of your characters on eleven for the entire length of *one* 45 minute episode, and to some extent trivilize the crime and investigative procedure that viewers expect from a show billed as a ‘crime drama’ or a ‘police procedural’ but you can’t make a habit of it.

So what happens to this investigative team in their second episode ‘Siren Call’? How about more irrational conflict between the boss and his detectives, the need for Eames to seek psychological counseling thanks to the previous case’s kidnapping, the revelation that Goren’s mother is dying of cancer and so his time and energy are spread thin amongst his investigative duties and his fillial piety, and oh yeah, we end with a seemingly preventable and gratuitous cop’s suicide witnessed by Goren, Eames, the cop’s remaining daughter (his other troubled stepdaughter was his very own homicide victim) and his terminal cancer stricken wife.

Stuck on eleven, I tell you. And for Goren and Eames and Ross we stay this way all the way to their season finale “Endgame”

Under the old regime logically, Goren and Eames would have been put on leave or desk duty and permitted to step away from the emotional brink, to have some catharsis (and through them some vicarious catharsis for the viewers). But this is not where the writers went (presumably because ‘high drama’ equals ‘high ratings’…a classic network pinheadism that needs to be shown up for what it is: a fallacy).

I find it utter unbelievable and reprehensible that most every case that came up for Goren and Eames to investigate generally had somewhere in the background a clueless, oblivious and/or delusional male who inflicted injury either deliberately or grossly negligantly on his spouse and/or his children. But ‘Blind Spot’, ‘Siren Call’, ‘Bedfellows’, ‘Masquerade’, ‘The War At Home’, ‘Privilege’, ‘Albatross’, ‘Brothers Keeper’, and ‘Rocketman’ all fit that pattern, a pattern that does a heck of a job angsting Goren indirectly and by association Eames and Ross and the viewers. As much as I disliked ‘Endgame’, at least the suffering was openly and directly inflicted upon Goren by the perpetrator, and frankly ‘Silencer’ becomes the exceptional episode where the source of familial distress leading to the motivation behind a crime is a female sibling who abandons her brother. Of course the case in ‘Silencer’ could also remind Goren of how he has been abandoned by his brother as their mother lies dying, but at least it’s a different kind of case with different emotional implications for Goren Eames and Ross. Still the writers beat the ‘bad family stuff’-as-criminal-motivation horse into oblivion. For ratings and new viewers. At the expense of old viewers, rational thought, good storytelling and giving the actors the chance to play more broadly and creatively with the scripts.

So what about LO:CI’s other investigative team Wheeler & Logan? Well here things are less a case of ‘Law & Order: Detective Angst’, but there is a case pattern into which the writters fell that frankly was also lazy and overdone. From their season opening case ‘Tru Love’ it was clear that Logan was going to be stuck playing the now ‘old guy’ detective who is utterly befuddled by modern culture and people under a certain age and needs his youthful partner Wheeler to explain it to him (as if poor Logan had suddenly and inexplicably lost his ability to think like a young person). While this could have been a rather pointed clever and amusing play on how as the young Detective Logan used to give his mothership partners Greevey, Ceretta and Briscoe grief and now had to take a bit of what he used to dish out, frankly it insults the intelligence, wisdom and intuitiveness that are rightfully Logan’s now that he is decidely ‘middle aged’. Whether it’s adult women stuck in adolescence (‘Tru Love’, ‘Bombshell’), the music business and rap/hip-hop culture (‘Country Crossover’, ‘Flipped’, ‘Players’), other youth media (‘Blasters’ Weeping Willow’ ‘Bombshell’) or the clash of the rise of homosexuality (‘Maltese Cross’), or multiculturalism and freer female heterosexuality (‘World’s Fair) against more traditional sexual and ethnic mores, Logan was often made to look unnecessarily dumb or helpless against young hip and improbably ‘always in the know’ Wheeler. The two exceptional cases ’30’ and ‘Renewal’ angsted Logan with the loss of a friendly career ally in the former and a potential romantic partner in the latter. And of course we had Ross interfering with the Logan and Wheeler led investigations as well, angsting Logan with his assertions that Logan is still in Ross’s eyes an ‘overreactor’ or a hothead while championing the unproven Wheeler. Talk about an unnecessary age war.

So here we long time fans are as befuddled and exhausted as our heroes. Now we surely are familiar with all of their inner conflicts and emotional issues but that came at the expense of the crimes and the cases. Some of them were too easy for us to solve and some of them we just didn’t really care who did it (although upon reflection we missed getting glimpses of criminality in all its myriad forms and with a variety of motivations that the ‘Criminal Intent’ name implies). It was something of a minor victory to still be watching a sixth season LO:CI episode at its conclusion, but it wasn’t a lot of fun or something that made you think much because you were overwhelmed by the emotional heroin of full metal melodrama.

So with the new network and the new season here is this fans small plea to the writers: dial back the emotionalism already. Pretty please, just simply give us all a break.

We have graciously let you into our most intimate and vulnerable spaces; our living rooms, bedrooms, media rooms…wherever there is a television, your characters have been given our permission to be eagerly welcomed guests in our homes. For six seasons we have largely enjoyed your company, chosen it over the company of other shows and other activities (most notably such as spending time with our families and friends). We are well invested in both what happens to the characters personally and what happens to them professionally and care about both the process *and* the outcome of each of the episode, series and character arcs. Our homes for the most part are supposed to be havens from a world that increasingly seems ‘stuck on eleven’ thanks to complex and difficult economic and political issues our country faces, the ever-increasing presence and dependence upon technology we as a society are confronting, and increasing change in just about everything you can imagine. Forgive us for sometimes wanting to take things a little slower and experience them less intensely but remember that we want you to entertain us with your stories, not exhaust us with drama kings and queens the way most other forms of media want us to. Intense feelings in characters are not unappreciated but not if to experience them we have to sacrifice the logic and quality of storytelling.

Running at eleven is simply not sustainable, certainly not for us old timers and most likely the new viewers will eventually burn out from the excess of spectacle and angst chosen over storytelling and progressive judicious familiarity with characters of depth rather than volume of feeling. We long time viewers have few ways to communicate this exhaustion directly to those in charge other than online or in old fashioned letters to production companies and more indirectly by changing the channel and not buying the products and services your artistic endeavors are meant to promote. As it is your typical viewer old or new is running all kinds of debts: too little time, constrained financial resources, being pulled in many directions by friends, family, community. We are willing to give something of ourselves to you in terms of time to work out these intense emotional phases for our main characters but not if you keep exceeding the limits of believability or the bounds of emotional restraint.

Let me give you one other piece of advice (and this goes for everyone on the creative team, not just the writers). Always remember that you are the professionals and we are the amateurs. If we all wanted to as fans, we all could write fan fiction which I can tell you from personal experience usually involves pushing characters’s emotions to eleven and often loses sight of context and good storytelling until you learn to do better. It is hard to restrain one’s self as an amateur writer, to learn about the dramatic arc of storytelling and follow the conventions set out by a genre and adhere to it rather than to indulge in flights of fancy and amuse one’s self to the exclusion of everyone else’s enjoyment. Whether you choose to read fan fiction or monitor online fan discussions of how the shows are progressing is your decision, but please don’t let yourselves be seduced into exchanging your visions of where the characters, crimes and series should go for ours. Not all of our ideas are good ones and you shouldn’t chase ratings or universal public love and approval or professional accolades through us. While your characters speak for victims living and dead, and their friends, families and loved ones, you ultimately speak for your characters, or more accurately, your characters speak through you to us. We don’t expect you to be perfect, but we do expect you to be the characters’ advocates, their champions. You don’t have to do everything we say we’d like you to do, just do the things that make sense for the characters and the stories. In the same way you would reject bizarre or inappropriate ideas from those above you like the network or the purse-string holders in production (or get creative when forced to labor under an idiotic edict), be strong and reject our silly and stupid notions and be true to your own artistic judgment. Even us stuck in the mud old timers can be brought around on many of your new ideas (not all of them as you have made mistakes too…welcome to the human race), but it is up to you to woo us back.

We are looking forward to being surprised and delighted…what a welcome change that would be from the larger world we live in. May you rise to the challenge, tackle it with aplomb and deliver television destined to become timeless entertainment.

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One thought on “Stuff To Watch: Some Thoughts On Law & Order: Criminal Intent Season 6: Some Advice For Its Creators

  1. jenjadeeyes

    Goodness – you were certainly able to sum up my issues with season 6 succinctly! And I thought season 7 was headed in exactly the same direction when I watched Eames’ continual “11” during “Amends”.

    However, “Smile” gave me hope. Not only did it seem as if Eames and Goren got back to INVESTIGATING the case, but they were less emotional about it. Granted, still some emotion, but not the continual “11” that season 6 was. It was also nice to see Goren pick apart a suspect and get them to admit guilt, although I miss this happening in the precinct, where you can really focus on Goren and the person being interrogated – watch the dance, as it were.

    Looking forward to seeing quality LO:CI on USA.

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