Spinning-off out of control

Preview: `Criminal Intent' stretches the Dick Wolf franchise to the breaking point.

September 29, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Has anyone ever gotten more mileage out of one television franchise than Dick Wolf has with Law & Order on NBC?

The original is the longest running drama on network television, and last season it successfully spawned Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. So, why not keep reaching?

Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Wolf's latest spinoff for NBC, is a reach, and if you watch only one or two episodes, you'll probably conclude that Wolf has finally exceeded his grasp.

Originally, Wolf said the novelty of Criminal Intent was that we would get to see the crime as it's being committed from the criminal's point of view instead of having to try to figure out who did it along with the detectives as on Law & Order.

Bad idea, Dick. There's a reason mystery and detective fiction make up one of the oldest and most durable genres.

But that doesn't mean the series is a bust, because the one thing Wolf did do right was get Vincent D'Onofrio (Men in Black) to play one of the two New York detectives featured in the series. The other is played by Kathryn Erbe, of the HBO series Oz, but she is definitely playing a second fiddle.

The big scene in tomorrow night's pilot comes when D'Onofrio starts working his way into the psyche of a female suspect while he's questioning her. We've seen this before: Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) in The Box with a suspect on Homicide: Life on the Street.

D'Onofrio's Detective Robert Goren is more given to Columbo's circumlocution than Pembleton's in-your-face righteousness, but it's the same idea: television that plays like theater.

That's a good thing in an artistic sense. But it's going to take more than two or three minutes of near-art near the end of each hour to keep this series on the air.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent premieres at 9 tomorrow night on WBAL (Channel 11).

`UC: Undercover'

Give the producer of UC: Undercover credit for trying at least to create a crime drama that speaks to a new generation of viewers.

That is the intention anyway behind this loud, super-violent, low-rent attempt at a made-for-TV knockoff of the feature film Donnie Brasco. Good intentions are not nearly enough to make up for all that's wrong with the series.

In the pilot, Jon Seda (Homicide) plays a Justice Department operative who goes undercover to try to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers. Seda holds your interest, but just barely. He's not yet capable of filling the screen all by himself, and once you get past Seda, there's not much left to this team of undercover agents.

Wolf has been complaining for months about the 9 o'clock timeslot for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which he feels is a decidedly more adult, 10 o'clock show. My guess is that he's going to get this 10 o'clock spot in about six weeks when UC: Undercover goes BB: Bye-bye.

The series premieres at 10 tomorrow night on WBAL (Channel 11).

`Citizen Baines'

To hear the producers and star James Cromwell tell it, Citizen Baines is this really deep drama worthy of comparison to King Lear. Right, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch is really Ophelia looking for her Hamlet.

Cromwell (Babe) is a fine character actor. But, as the lead in this series about a longtime U.S. senator who suddenly finds himself voted out of office and back in his home state of Washington looking for a life, he's a little limited.

The vacuum he leaves is filled by the three actresses who play his grown daughters -- Jane Adams, Jacinda Barrett and Embeth Davidtz. Barrett's resume includes being a member of the cast of MTV's Real World in 1995. I bite my tongue.

One daughter has her eye on a run at Congress, the other is defined by her philandering husband, while the third is a party girl with a chip on her shoulder. And all of them are mad at daddy in one way or another.

These are the kind of characters of which soap operas, not Shakespeare, are made.

Citizen Baines premieres at 9 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

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