A few of my favorite shows had their season premieres last week. Two of them, ratings stragglers Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock — both given second-season orders that lesser-quality shows wouldn’t have warranted — didn’t disappoint, even with elements that clearly betrayed efforts to hook more eyeballs. The Jerry Seinfeld appearance on 30 Rock was whatever, but that didn’t stop my wife and me from singing the hilarious snippet from Mystic Pizza: The Musical for days afterward. And Friday Night Lights steered its small-town tension engine into the swamp of melodrama with the self-defense killing of Tyra’s first-season sexual assaulter. But even then, actors Jesse Plemons (as Landry) and Adrianne Palicki (Tyra) are so good that they’re playing the charged, confusing intimacy of the situation rather than its soap-opera trappings.
The show I’m worried about, though, is Law & Order: Criminal Intent, saved from cancellation on NBC by moving its original episodes to cable sister USA network. I’d always defended this Dick Wolf spinoff as primetime’s most enthralling procedural because it was simply the most baroque, from its byzantine psychodramatic plotting to the killer yin-yang teaming of Vincent D’Onofrio’s invasively weird Sherlock to Kathryn Erbe’s all-business Watson. But last week’s seventh-season debut indicated an emphasis on a wrenching private-lives backstory that threatens to undermine the show’s core strengths: puzzle plots and twisted villainry. The murder motive was as straight-arrow dull as something from Dragnet, and it was painful to see D’Onofrio stem his near-autistic analytical loopiness to show ho-hum partnerly compassion, and Erbe forgo her believably tough cop fortitude for thin scenes of this-time-it’s-personal vulnerability because a case questioned everythingshe thought she knew about the long-ago murder of her cop husband!
If I want emotionally tortured cops, I’ll watch reruns of NYPD Blue. I hope this edging-off-the-rails stalwart isn’t going to require a name change to Law & Order: Criminally Different.