"Law & Order: Criminal Intent" kicks off season nine tonight on USA with a few departures - original cast members Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe - and some notable arrivals - Saffron Burrows and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio - within the Major Case Squad of the New York City Police Department. What isn't changing is its ripped-from-the-headlines plots and its special guest stars, including Lorraine Bracco, Tracy Pollan and a soon-to-be-cast big name actor to play Jeff Goldblum's father on the show. Showrunner/executive producer Walon Green told our Jim Halterman yesterday that despite the changes the show has gone through "Criminal Intent" is still the same show fans have stuck by through thick and thin. Green also talked about making the cast changes work for the show, what prompted the quirkiness in Goldblum's character and he didn't mince words about why he's more than happy to not be working for the broadcast networks any longer.
Jim Halterman: With the cast shake-ups taking front and center in the season opener, is it safe to call this season a 'game-changer?'
Walon Green: Inevitably, these are different people playing different characters so, yes, that part of it is a game-changer. The DNA of the show is not any different. It's still a show that's more about the 'why' than the 'how' of crimes and still very, very slanted to the exploration of these apparent behaviors that tend to mystify and upset us. It's a different show but it's the same show.
JH: How did the decision come about for Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe to depart? Was it a mutual decision since they'd been on the show from the start?
WG: It was mutual. It came over a period of time and didn't just land on the end of last season. Vincent had considered moving on prior to this last season and his contract was up. He originally did the show and did 22 episodes. I wasn't on it then but it had to have been a nightmare for him to carry a show like that. Then they split it into two-12 episodes where he shared it with Chris Noth. Then it went to USA and it was eight and eight sharing it with Jeff. I think the feeling was that he had done it. There was also a feeling that doing 16 episodes it could have been two detectives and didn't need to be four and that would be a way to go. They can do 16 episodes and it's hard but 22 is a real killer.
JH: Cast changes aren't anything new to the 'Law & Order' franchise but how did you and your fellow writers/producers approach it?
WG: The only time I did it before was when Jerry Orbach came onto the original 'Law & Order.' I was showrunner at that time and he replaced [Paul] Sorvino but that was done mid-season. It's much easier to do it at the beginning of the season except everyone felt, and rightfully, that you couldn't just open the season and Vincent and Katy would be gone so we thought 'Let's do a two-parter that explains the story.' Their departure is, in fact, the story of the show and they would pass the baton. Then it was just a matter of coming up with a story where you could peel so much of the onion in one episode and there's still a lot left to peel.
JH: In bringing Jeff Goldblum into the show with a character that was more than a little quirky - even Monk-like - it could be seen as making 'Criminal Intent' fit with the USA crime shows where off-beat is a norm. What are your thoughts on that?
WG: I don't know that I agree with that. That really wasn't done by design for USA. Dick [Wolf] wanted Jeff on the show last season when the shows were split because he had seen him, he knew he was doing television and he thought he was potentially the lead in a 'Law & Order' show. Jeff came on when Chris left and all along what he brought to the show right away was some quirkiness. He's Jeff Goldblum! He was different and we thought about going with that and then, of course, there's no question that USA liked that but I can't say it was done by design to make this a USA show.
JH: What kind of dynamic can fans expect to see from the characters played by Goldblum and Burrows?
WG: They're great! Somebody said it's more like Holmes and Holmes than Holmes and Watson. We liked Saffron from the beginning when we read her because we thought she looked very smart and she's one of those people that even when she's not saying anything you can see the wheels turning when you look at her. In the good cop/bad cop stuff she's actually the bad cop more often because Jeff tends to be diplomatic and charming and Saffron can be very tough. We've let them go a little bit more in that direction. You know, [her character is] the daughter of a Marine officer who's grown up in all different parts of the world. She has a blue-collar background but she's very worldly.
JH: What are some of the ripped-from-the-headline stories you're doing this season?
WG: We took some stories that have settings like we picked a story that was set in a place called Broad Channel, which is an Irish/blue-collar neighborhood that is mainly fisherman out in Jamaica Bay. There's an Irish boss and it's kind of a look at the community. The murder was in the community, there was police corruption and it also takes Jeff's character back to someone - a nemesis - from his past that he needs to work with and not against in the show so it offered a good chance for good actors to have a good dynamic between them. We did another show that is set in a performance arts school like Julliard that plays into the competitive world of young dancers; girls who want to be the prima ballerina with all the envy and cruelty that takes place in that highly competitive environment. We did a show set in the magazine world with our version of a Vanity Fair with scandal and a murder and the Upper East Side high-end journalism.
JH: Talk to me about the differences doing the show on cable than on the network. Is there some pressure off now that you don't have to reach broadcast network type of ratings?
WG: I have a lot to say on that, which probably means I won't work on the network again! [Laughs.] It's not only been my experience but a lot of other showrunners who will tell you that it is certainly a more pleasurable environment. USA is the only cable network I've ever worked for but it's much preferable to my tastes than working at any network that I've worked for. One of the main reasons is that the people who run the place actually read and watch the shows so you're dealing pretty directly and not through a whole mid-level structure. I prefer cable to network by far.
The ninth season premiere of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" airs tonight at 10:00/9:00c on USA.