Interview: ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ Executive Producer & Showrunner Chris Brancato

Posted on June 28, 2011

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This past Sunday, after ten seasons of solving crime, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the second spin-off of the now cancelled mothership series, said farewell. The series brought back original leads Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe as Major Case Squad detectives Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames for an eight episode season that was advertised as the series’ last. Although USA Network (the network airing the show) maintains that as of now there are no plans to renew it, decent ratings and fan support indicate there could be more life in the decade old series. No stranger to the L&O franchise,  Chris Brancato was tapped to executive produce season ten while also working as the showrunner for the final eight episodes. In this exclusive interview Brancato talks about his time on the show, constructing a final season, and the chances of LOCI returning to the small (or big) screen.

Chris Brancato

Saunders: This past Sunday marked the series finale of the show, but fan support and steady ratings show there’s still interest in it continuing. Is there a chance the show could come back?

Chris Brancato: When the show was picked up for this season it was agreed upon, or it was understood by Wolf Films, that this would be the last eight episodes of the show. To my understanding that was a decision that was made by the programmers, by the network, etc. What I’ve always liked in regards to Dick Wolf is that he never really views a series as having been over no matter what the network thinks. So do I think there will be efforts made by fans and by the production company alike to bring the series back if possible, yes. I don’t know what USA’s intentions are; certainly the season turned out good from a ratings standpoint and from a fan appreciation standpoint.  But again, it’s a numbers game so I can’t tell you for sure either way.

I know for sure on the part of the filmmaking team which is Dick Wolf and his whole organization, myself, and Vince and Katie all of us would like to see it come back. We’d do episodes for USA Network or any other network that would broadcast us.

Saunders: Are there possible movies you would be interested in doing?

Brancato: There’s nothing that I’m aware of specifically related to the continuance of Criminal Intent on a movie level or any series or short order. That said the desire there, and I think we all do, is that this would be eight and it would be over for now. I don’t think any of us thought it would be immediately picked-up as it was running; we just weren’t geared writing wise to continue immediately. So I always thought it would take a while for dust to settle, quote unquote. In terms of what you could do with these characters from the series would be well poised to be a series of movies. Another short order series of episodes, again, those are decisions made by the programmers, not the showrunner.

Saunders: Goren calling Eames by her first name in the finale. Was there any significance to that? If I remember correctly that was the first time Goren ever spoke to his partner on a first name basis.

Brancato: It was kind of amusing. Initially it had been scripted when he comes out [of therapy] he says Eames! So we were actually sitting there in the editing room and we were looking at the theme in its entirety and came to the conclusion that after being team members and partners for all these years it would be more likely for him to refer to her on a first name basis. We weren’t thinking about the subtext. We weren’t trying to address anything other than the characters know each other so well at this point and I think that Goren in that moment is extremely touched that she is there to wait for him, or to see how he’s doing, or to see how  it will all work out. So that was what occasion of us having him say Alex instead of Eames.

Kathryn Erbe & Vincent D'Onfrio in Criminal Intent (photo: USA)

Saunders: There was a more personal element to this season, specifically with Goren having a season-long arc of attending therapy. When I think of Criminal Intent I don’t see it as personal with its characters like the other two series before it. Was it a case of the show being in its final season that you wanted to make things feel a little more personal?

Brancato: Well, a couple of things dictated for that development. One was that it was either Dick or the network who when I came aboard to run the last eight episodes told me that they wanted to have an arc where Goren sees a shrink. Now, my first reaction was well, we’re sort of familiar with that kind of move from The Sopranos or In Treatment and on other shows. And ultimately at the beginning of the season, we had Warren Leight write the shrink episodes and Warren is a former showrunner of CI as you know, and showrunner of In Treatment and we thought he was the perfect guy to do the specific psychiatric writing as it related to Goren’s character. So I entered into it with no doubts about Warren’s producing talent, but some doubts as whether the idea was valid for this show.

I’ll never forget when we were filming the very first scene with Julia Ormond and Vincent. The minute they started to talk I leaned forward in my seat and was just interested beyond what I expected. I thought to myself from the moment they started, wow, this might be really something interesting. I think it worked. I thought Warren did a great job working it out in a very–you know, the show isn’t about psychiatry nor is it about simply cloning Goren’s soul. So we obviously had to do the murder mystery every episode as CI‘s always done.  So, I think as a brushstroke at the edge of the canvas for the final season it really worked out quite well. I was very, very pleased with the way it came out.

Saunders: Getting a talent like Julia Ormond is a success in its own right. She’s wonderful and her scenes with Vincent worked very well.

Brancato: I totally agree with you. We didn’t cast for her until the last minute and she was spectacular and a very classy addition to the show.

Saunders: What was so appealing about doing a Social Network-esque storyline for the finale?

Brancato: Well, I’ll be honest with you. It was one of a number of ideas that I had talked to Dick about doing, a range of ideas.  I think it was Dick’s feeling that we should just do the best murder mystery he heard out of my mouth. I don’t think he wanted to do a murder mystery that circled back around and tied up all loose ends or was particularly personal to Goren or a mystery involving his family. He felt that we should do what the show has always done which was take you into some kind of a wall and do a good ol’ murder mystery, that the shrink stuff in our finale with Goren and Eames driving away would suffice to close out the season. And, if you ask me, this is not Dick talking, I think it’s because Dick has hope that in some or other reincarnation come back. I don’t think that he wanted a finale so to speak. I don’t think he wanted a murder mystery that was going to tell everybody we’re done now. Instead, I think he wanted a good, solid story that would cap off with Goren and Eames driving off to solve crimes somewhere else.  Hopefully, in the vicinity or on your TV screens someday.

There wasn’t a great deal of calculation on our part about ooh, this is the final episode and we better do something on the murder mystery level to hark into that. We felt like we were taking care of our responsibility to the season with the arc that suggested Goren would continue to see a shrink, would continue to try and get himself better psychologically and mentally and the partnership with Eames would continue.

Saunders: When writing ripped from the headlines stories, does the network ever say you’re taking it too far with the similarities, or perhaps not taking a story far enough?

Brancato: [laughs] Well, the network told me the last episode was too much like the circumstances involved in the Facebook story and the movie The Social Network. And I said, well, it’s similar except Facebook didn’t have a murder. [laughs]

I’m a believer that [the ripped from the headlines story] worked pretty effectively with our “Icarus” episode and our “To The Boy In The Knit Blue Cap” episode. It’s not something that I would choose for every single episode of the show. In other words, it’s funny to see some of the stories we did this season that weren’t ripped from the headlines but were sprung right from the writer’s minds.

Cynthia Nixon guest-stars in "Icarus"

Saunders: Well, 2011 has definitely provided enough ripped from the headlines fodder for you guys…

Brancato: It sure did. [laughs]

I think you have to find a balance, if you ask me personally. I think my favorite episode on a story and quality level would be “The Last Street In Manhattan,” which brought us back to Eames’ neighborhood. But I enjoyed all of the episodes this year. I think that Vince and Katie were excited to come back to the show and you can see that in their performances. They were really excited to see each other again. I personally didn’t want to dwell on a lot of the oh, where have they been the last year?. I felt like we had to move forward and I think that it gave the show a shot in the arms in terms of getting back to business.

Saunders: Was it challenging constructing a final season when it was your first year working on the show?

Brancato: Challenge would be an understatement. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. The show is extremely intricate and way more difficult to write than to watch it. Dick had warned me when I took the job, he said don’t think it’s that easy, it’s just not an easy show to write. Not only was he my mentor and my guide, it would be impossible to do a decent season without his involvement. He understands the show really, really well.  But it was a really fun job. I couldn’t imagine it being more fun.

Saunders: What’s next for you?

Brancato: For me? Well, I’m actually working on a feature film script and also developing new television shows mostly from the cop genre. I look forward to going to networks and cable networks this coming summer and fall. I have something that I hope would make an interesting, iconic type of cop show. I would love the chance, if it ever presents itself, to do CI again. I would thank my family that if they came and told me that they were gonna renew the series til the day I die, I would sign up right away. It’s such a great group of people; from Dick, to people in Los Angeles… they are all just unbelievable great people. The crew was fabulous. Most of them that worked on the show were holdovers.

Any chance to reprieve this show in any way would be one of my main priorities.

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