I suppose that I am somewhat unusual in never having liked the lead characters of the crime drama Law and Order: Criminal Intent, nor thought the performances of lead performers Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe particularly appealing or praiseworthy. D’Onofrio, of course, was known for his excessively exaggerated performing style in his portrayal of the show’s lead character, Detective Bobby Goren, and in my opinion Kathryn Erbe did a good but unimpressive job of depicting an essentially unappealing and uninteresting character in lead detective Alex Eames over the course of the show’s ten seasons.
Both characters annoyed me in essence, I suspect, because they were such perfect specimens of a particularly common and grating type of contemporary American: the Priggish Urban Liberal-Progressive Busybody Knowitall Pseudointellectual Snob. And in doing so, the show conveyed a point of view firmly based on authoritarianism, exemplifying the contemporary worldview that the political writer Jonah Goldberg calls liberal fascism.
I imagine that the unappealing character type at the center of Law and Order: Criminal Intent hardly requires any further description for most readers, as it thoroughly infests current-day TV news and talk shows, newspaper columns, Slate and the Huffington Post and other fashionable politico-cultural websites, contemporary art shows, your neighborhood Starbucks, and other such locales made repellant by their presence.
Sunday night’s episode on the USA Network, the last in the series, had a story line typical of the show’s ten-season run. Several people fighting over profits from a highly popular website are the suspects in the murders of two of the parties in the legal dispute over ownership of the site. Once again, that is, the culprits are big-business bigwigs, which makes for more interesting settings than the usual domestic violence or street crimes that most murders result from, but it is of course ludicrously fanciful for a show that has been fairly realistic in its depiction of police procedures (and which the producers seemed to take a good deal of pride in). In that way Law and Order: Criminal Intent was a thoroughly conventional example of the mystery-crime genre.
The show’s distinguishing feature was Det. Goren’s interest in pursuing each case through an unsystematic but highly intense amateur psychological examination of the various suspects, as suggested in the show’s title. These motives typically showed all Americans outside the East Coast elite as being infected with a variety of irrational and dangerous thoughts.
Chief among these, the show made clear, is religion, and by that they meant Christianity, not religion in general. From the very first season, this was established as an important element of the show. Episode four, “The Faithful,” dealt with a financial scandal in a Catholic church, and in episode eleven, “The Third Horseman,” both Goren and Eames explicitly state their pro-abortion views. (The assistant district attorney, played by Courtney B. Vance, briefly states that he is anti-abortion, but this is quickly dismissed, and one can see that the producers are giving him a free pass for occasional political correctness because the character is black. The racist implications of that free pass are interesting, by the way, and would have been unusual and valuable for the show to explore, but of course that was unlikely given that they are clearly the producers’ own attitudes.)
The progressive-authoritarian political agenda was strongly evident in the story lines and dialogue throughout the run of the series, but D’Onofrio and Erbe added much to the effect by conveying it continually through their facial expressions, gestures, and vocal inflections. The smug looks they passed to each other during their interrogations of suspects were downright insufferable, given the enormous power these detectives were given to detain people, subject them to intense questioning, and manipulate them psychologically in the attempt to send them to prison for felonies. The unfairness of the situation must strike most people as appalling, but it seems perfectly natural to these urban progressive-authoritarian prigs, and evidently to the producers. (I suspect that audiences’ discomfort with the Goren character is one thing that kept the show from attaining consistent popularity.)
And in accordance with contemporary progressive-authoritarian shibboleths, the thing that most powerfully offends Goren and Eames is hypocrisy. They accept degenerate behavior as none of their business, except when engaged in by people who claim to stand for decency and righteousness. Of course, Goren and Eames stand for decency and righteousness while abusing their authority, but that’s never brought into question. Hypocrisy is not a flaw when progressive-authoritarian prigs engage in it.
Speaking of intimidation, throughout the run of the series D’Onofrio was notable for his habit of looming into an individual’s personal space by edging ever-closer to the person, using his size (he is tall, bulky, and pudgy) to intimidate them. This was something Goren seemed particularly inclined to do to wealthy, successful people. The poor, by contrast, didn’t usually get that sort of treatment. Of course, since the latter were seldom actual suspects and had little sense of personal power, he had less desire to intimidate them, as he seemed well aware that the crimes he was chosen to investigate were always committed by the rich and powerful, and in particular those from the private sector, not government.
This season, D’Onofrio brought the physical intimidation to a new and even more disturbing level. In each episode he would at some point or another grab, push, or lean against a suspect, progressing from mere looming to actual physical contact. He would use just a little extra but nonetheless noticeable excessive force in shoving a person into a chair or through a door. In every instance, moreover, the person thus ill-treated is not under arrest but merely a “person of interest.” Tellingly, Goren always stops just short of actions that would be clearly identifiable as police brutality. This strikes me as even more sinister, cowardly, and unjustifiable. In not one case does the suspect protest against this mistreatment. This I find especially revealing of the producers’ intent, as it suggests to the viewer that this is to be taken as perfectly normal and acceptable behavior.
And although Goren often got into trouble within the department during the course of the series, it was a result of his battles with his superiors, not his intimidation of suspects. Here too, the show indicates a thoroughly authoritarian point of view: you answer to your superiors, not the public.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that Law and Order: Criminal Intent had a good many appealing characteristics. The New York City settings were usually interesting, the plots were often somewhat engrossing, and the guest characters introduced in each episode were frequently quite astutely observed and portrayed. The show was often very effective television, though it was never very popular. In addition, the central characters of series often stated a laudable, liberal appreciation for diversity, freedom, and other such ideals. Unfortunately, this comes off as little more than cant, given their authoritarian behavior. Yet the statement of the sentiments has some value, I presume. Moreover, the central characters clearly are trying to do good, to bring criminals to justice and help strengthen the social order.
In addition, it’s important to remember that the depiction of an action or personality trait in a work of art or culture does not in itself prove that the creator approves of it. In the case of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, however, the consistency of the behavior of the lead characters and its conformity with the choice of story lines and villains makes it clear that the show is conveying a particular mentality. Other detectives occasionally featured in the series, played by Christopher Noth and Jeff Goldblum (when D’Onofrio’s personal problems forced the producers to remove him from the lead role), were not quite as obvious in conveying this smugness, but it’s notable that the producers always returned to D’Onofrio as protagonist and kept him in place for the entire final season this spring. (In fact, Noth’s character was not a priggish urban progressive-authoritarian at all, but that was because his character had been brought over from the show’s parent series, Law and Order.)
In all, then, I think it’s clear that the show sends a consistent and obvious message, conveyed through the central characters’ continual physical, psychological, and legal intimidation of people not convicted of any crime or even under formal arrest.
It is this: we are living in a police state, a society in which the government has unlimited authority over the individual. And this, the producers appear strongly to suggest, is a good thing, as it results in the restoration of order at the end of each episode (albeit with the occasional cheesy irony or fashionable ambiguity), as mysteries tend to do. The fact that this “order” involves the reduction of citizens into subjects, of taxpayers into servants of a privileged elite through the continual threat of violence by police, seems of little consequence to the producers, as it is never dealt with fundamentally and critically in the show’s story lines.
It is an implication evident from any reasonably attentive watching of the show, as the analysis here suggests, and there are only two ways it can have happened. One, the attitude is so ingrained in the producers’ minds that they did not notice it, or, two, they consciously intended it. I think that the former is probably the case, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. In its essence and despite some surface claims of approval of liberty, Law and Order: Criminal Intent is thoroughly authoritarian in its implications. I, for one, am not at all sad to see it go.