Cop Out

Law & Order: Criminal Intent subs in the pinch-hitting team.

On Sunday nights (NBC, 9 p.m. ET), Law & Order: Criminal Intent will undertake a season-long experiment in split personality. For 11 of the show’s 22 episodes, Chris Noth and Annabella Sciorra will alternate with the original team of Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe. A few times during the season, beginning in November, both teams will unite for special two-hour episodes. Ten years after he left the original Law & Order, Noth is returning to reprise the role of Det. Mike Logan, who was previously seen getting demoted to a post in Staten Island after punching out a politician in the fifth-season L & O finale. *

Who’s Mr. Big now?

Noth, who left the original series when his contract wasn’t renewed by executive producer Dick Wolf, has compared the rigorously impersonal Law & Order format to “Sherman’s march to Atlanta.” Because of its structure, Criminal Intent is even more draining for actors than its two brothers in the L&O franchise. Where Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU both split their stories between the criminal investigation and trial phases of a case, CI stays with the cops the whole time, requiring twice as much screen time from its leads. No wonder D’Onofrio collapsed twice last year from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized for two weeks in November (giving rise to the false, but irresistible, rumor that he had fainted from despair at the re-election of George W. Bush).

In a phone interview with the press (after heading off Sex and the City-related questions with the gleeful pronouncement, “Big is dead!”), Noth talked about the unique challenge of acting on a show that restricts its concerns to the realm of the police procedural: “The danger comes when you try to force character into it, to get attention, where maybe it’s not warranted,” Noth observes. “It’s hard for me to even look at the first six episodes of Law & Order I did back in 1990. You see a young actor desperately trying to say, ‘I’m a character.’ ” Though the two actors appear to be mutually thrilled at the chance to share the notoriously burdensome task of filming a weekly hourlong series, it’s hard not to see in Noth’s words an implicit jab at D’Onofrio’s acting style: His Detective Robert Goren is nothing if not a character, and an outsized one at that. D’Onofrio brings a Method-actor intensity to the role—he studied at both the American Stanislavski theater and the Actors Studio and worked on the New York stage for many years before his breakthrough film role as the lumbering, unhinged Pvt. Pyle * in Full Metal Jacket.

At 6 feet 4 inches and over 200 pounds, D’Onofrio tends to dominate any and all available screen space, especially when standing next to the minuscule fireplug that is Kathryn Erbe. He plays Goren as a flawed but intuitive genius, a manic-depressive Sherlock Holmes with a seemingly endless cache of useful trivia and a heart-tugging back story: Goren visits his schizophrenic mother every week and evinces a tortured compassion for even the most heartless of criminals, even his arch-nemesis, the elusive psychopath Nicole Wallace (Olivia d’Abo, in a recurring role). D’Onofrio’s performance is a patchwork of Method tics. There’s much cocking of head and furrowing of brow, each bit of business pointing toward a rich but lonely inner life (as Peter Birkenhead observed in Salon, Goren is one of the new generation of TV cops with no lives outside of work).

D’Onofrio’s overheated, scene-hogging style couldn’t be a sharper contrast with the cool, sly suavity of Chris Noth. Det. Mike Logan is a throwback to an older school of TV cop, less Gil Grissom than Jim Rockford; he gives the impression not only of having a life outside work, but of occasionally phoning it in at the job so he can get back to the fun stuff. In a guest appearance on CI earlier this year, Logan was brought on to help the CI team solve a case involving his girlfriend, a nurse at a federal prison; the implication was that, like Sex and the City’s Mr. Big, Logan might have more than one lady friend on tap.

I like both actors (though, unlike D’Onofrio’s legions of swooning female fans, I’d rather spend an evening with the laid-back Logan than the overwrought, soul-searching Goren). But it’s hard to imagine the same audience switching faithfully back and forth, each Sunday night, between what are essentially two completely different shows. It seems more likely that L&O fans from the glory days of Mike Logan and Lennie Briscoe (may he rest in peace) will tune to CI, perhaps for the first time, to watch Noth, while diehard D’Onofrio junkies will boycott the Logan episodes and hold out for their hero. As for Annabella Sciorra, she was brilliant as the needy Mercedes saleswoman who trapped Tony into a Fatal Attraction-esque affair in Season 3 of The Sopranos. But she’s colorless in this Sunday’s episode of CI; her line readings sound flat, and her chemistry with Noth is curiously off. Maybe she just needs time to adjust to the rigors of the Dick Wolf  ”brand.”

Chris Noth has called CI’s new alternating schedule, which was dreamed up by Dick Wolf as a way to keep D’Onofrio on board, “a very civilized way to do a series.” But will civilization be enough for the CI fans who have been tuning in for four years mainly to watch D’Onofrio strut and fret his hour upon the stage?

Corrections, Oct. 17: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a Full Metal Jacket character as “Lt. Pyle.” He was called “Pvt. Pyle.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)  The new season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent began Sept. 25, not, as the story implied, on Oct. 16. Also, contrary to what the story implied, Chris Noth has appeared on Law & Order shows since leaving the original series in 1995. (Return  to the corrected paragraph.)