Law & Ordocki Season 2 #5 (#16): The Jay O. Sanders Show
Jim Gaffigan Month rolls on as we shift shows to Criminal Intent, the program in which Vincent D’Onofrio devours scenery and Kathryn Erbe stands there and occasionally apologizes for her partner’s…well, fill in the fucking blank. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I never cottoned to Criminal Intent when it first aired, preferring the simplicity of Law & Order Classic and the salaciousness of New Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Now that it’s been over for quite some time I’ve made the effort to appreciate it. It doesn’t hold up to quality or lunacy as other programs, but that’s not to say it’s bad. You really have to invest a lot in the focal point that is Vincent D’Onofrio, who’s gone from Full Metal Jacket to playing a fat guy in Daredevil. Fat is something to consider, as if nothing else the show is a wonderful graphing of D’Onofrio from “thin D’Onofrio” to “Jesus Christ, D’Onofrio” to “okay, we’re changing the show’s format so you don’t die, D’Onofrio”. More on that later. The Season 2 premiere, “Dead”, is a ripped from the headlines tale done in the style of Criminal Intent. Those expecting juicy twists on popular crimes will be disappointed, but otherwise they ought to find it enjoyable as I did.
“Hi, really excited to be on your show here!”
All About The Gaffigans: Not only is Jim Gaffigan in the first scene, he’s the first person to speak and the person you see when the camera pans up from two indistinguishable white guys in suits blobs. He remains a presence throughout, although he’s not the ultimate target of the investigation. So Gaffigan is one of those crematorium magnates you hear so much about and there’s a problem with a body that he needs to fix, which he does with the help of the soft pretzel eating, motivation phrase spoutin’ Jay O. Sanders. Mainly Sanders strangles the source of the problem to death and uses forensic countermeasures to stump the detectives. It’s a considerate move because otherwise it wouldn’t take 42 minutes for this case to be investigated and closed. Did you know there are anti-embalming extremists? It’s not just abortion clinic workers that have to be careful, as the guy’s body was covered in bumps that simulated the sixth plague that befell the Egyptians. (See the film Prince of Persia.) Before that there’s a brief window into the world of improving weed highs with embalming fluids; according to Erbe, “wet daddies” sell for $20 each. I love when a show makes a trained actor say ridiculous, stupid fucking slang. “Wet daddies? Really? Jesus. All right…” I’ll give Criminal Intent this: they have a colorful array of false leads before getting down to brass tacks. Other procedurals would do an entire episode about embalming fluid weed and how YOUR KIDS might be smoking it and becoming undead super-criminals. The pot smoking kid they briefly employ is doing a bad John Travolta circa Welcome Back, Kotter impression, so it’s better that thread is thrown out after a minute.
There’s a whole plethora of classic quotes in the next few minutes, when Goren and Eames follow the religious fanatic theory. Goren says “I need to use my most important investigative tool: my library card”, a line that would be fucking stupid if not for the cheesy ownership D’Onofrio has of the line. It makes you think, yeah that dude was serious, he’s not a PBS stooge. “Do you want your anus stuffed with cotton?” asks the religious guy who’s been prank phone calling undertakers with his pamphlet-length belief system. His devotion to his cause has the detectives realizing the religious trappings of the dead body were indeed a countermeasure to fool Lloyd Braun. Before Goren can spend $100 on Chinese gum that’s lo mein-y, they’re off to visit Gaffigan. The man has the poker face of a small dog.
Next: Major Crimes gets help from Ghostwriter. Man, did you read that that character was supposed to be the spirit of an escaped slave who was killed for teaching other slaves how to read? What a shitty afterlife; he has to spend his time helping shitty kids solve word-based mysteries.
A disclaimer opens the episode, saying that it’s based in part by an actual incident. The same year this episode came out, a scandal rocked Georgia, where a crematorium failed to actually ashify the people they said they did, instead dumping the bodies on the property. Now, I’m not a crematorium magnate like Jim Gaffigan is pretending to be, but I don’t see how burying people instead of cremating them saves time or money. The thing is, in this thinly veiled version, Gaffigan’s a victim of his own incompetence. The “ashes” he gives people are just gravel, the crematorium smells like dead bodies and the cops are able to determine “it doesn’t smell like burning” and note that birds are nesting in the direct path of the smoke. If not for the murder at the opening, “Dead” could be an episode of America’s Favorite Comedian getting in over his head, not being able to fix the furnace and getting around that by throwing the bodies in the woods. They can’t trace that shit if it’s in a wooded area. See, Jim Gaffigan was a cockeyed optimist with unbridled enthusiasm who wanted to be an ad exec, a webpage designer, an alpaca rancher, anything but Six Feet Under. Goren doesn’t have to psychoanalyze, it’s all there on his doughy face. But who has not engaged in shenanigans in the pursuit of a dream? If more people considered their post-life body like Frank Reynolds he wouldn’t be in trouble at all. I don’t see those Weekend at Bernie’s guys in prison! So they, along with the ADA, determine Jim Gaffigan’s too dumb and simple to have committed all these crimes, especially the murder, and he noticeably clams up when it’s suggested he has a partner, silent or otherwise. Is someone helping him? Of course there is, you ought to already know that! Haven’t you been paying attention?
The cache of motivational items Gaffigan festoons on his office is traced back to his cousin Jay O. Sanders/Harry Rowan and fuck you if I’m going to believe Jay O. Sanders and Jim Gaffigan share any DNA. CI doesn’t load the deck, by the way, and only shows Jay O. Sanders sharpening a lawnmower blade as he’s interviewed, the sharpening getting faster and faster as Goren weaves a tale of rotting flesh and desecrated bodies. We knows he’s the killer, don’t overdo it. Sanders uses the corpse yard to take DNA from people who died normal deaths and place it on those selected for mob execution. That DNA doesn’t connect to any criminal in a database, the case remains unsolved. Boy, lucky thing no one Gaffigan ever had to cremate was ever busted for weed once or twice. In the scenes that follow the criminal, it’s a lot of sub-Stepfather type shit, like he’s in the garage and his daughter asks for some ice cream from the freezer and oh shit there’s a dead mobster underneath the chocolate. The brutality of his crimes contrasts with the sunny tedium of suburban living! Some hitmen have totally insulated their lives from any blowback created by their professional activities, some have barcodes on the back of the neck and are Timothy Olyphant. Jay O. Sanders does a great job playing against type even if that type’s novelty has been exhausted by now.
Note to Chubby Chasers: the dough quotient for this episode is 80.
Rowan frames Jim Gaffigan for the frozen hitman’s murder, and Gaffigan won’t testify to anything. “Harry’d kill you and wash his hands in your own blood.” The body having a freezer burn has Goren still looking in Rowan’s direction, so they stir the pot by freaking out the guy’s wife and intimating there’s a missing porcelain tooth cap that he didn’t dispose of with the rest of the body. Cut to Sanders destroying his fucking garage, looking everywhere for it. His wife realizes he’s not innocent when he yells at her, his hands covered in grossness. The next morning the police return to the garage, and Rowan insists the cap is not there. That of course means the cap exists, sealing his fate, and D’Onofrio reveals the cap never existed. He was too good, and the cops only succeeded by triggering his paranoia. It’s a nice twist that works well the less you think about it. “Dead” proves instructive that the cops can lie to you about evidence they may or may not have, evidence that may or may not exist, but Jay O. Sanders obsessively searching for the porcelain cap rather goes against what we know about him from the episode. Best not to think about it and leave the episode as a case of a killer’s fastidiousness being his undoing. Not often does an episode of Law & Order end on the criminal incriminating himself after a detective’s suggestion eats his brain alive, so good on “Dead” and Criminal Intent for doing something different.
Now that I’ve gone through the episode’s progression, I may as well delve into elements that double as general series criticisms. Like, I don’t care for the Criminal Intent theme; too many guitars going everywhere, and hearing it more often hasn’t lessened my distaste for it. They tried too hard. It’s no wonder that when Criminal Intent switched networks it borrowed Trial by Jury‘s theme. The ADA character is another vestige of the first few seasons, and seeing “Dead” you’ll understand why they never replaced Courtney B. Vance. The man’s great, but he’s given nothing to do with here, and cutting him out of the episode would do no harm. The same goes for Jamey Sheridan as the captain; the most he contributes are a couple of one-liners, such as knowing undertakers have to remove silicone before cremation, because apparently he’s friends with a cop who married a stripper who then died? I don’t fucking know. The wisecracks clash with D’Onofrio’s absurdly earnest performance. You know the character isn’t too good when the biggest thing I remember from Jamey Sheridan is that in some episodes he wore a badass eyepatch because of the opposite of badass Bell’s Palsy. Otherwise the supporting characters operate as filler, something you’d never say of the original series.
The big, figurative and literal, thing to talk about in a review of Criminal Intent is Vincent D’Onofrio, as he is synonymous with it, at least for the first few seasons. D’Onofrio plays him as so weird and vulnerable that every line of dialogue is a step away from him casually mentioning he was molested as a child. By the beginning of Season 2 he looks like Mark Ruffalo if you put him in a glass bottle and watched day by day as he grew, like those little dinosaurs I wasted my pocket money as a kid. Goren’s got two skills as a detective: he cocks his head more than Michael Myers does and he’s all about invading your personal space. He’s like Judge Reinhold on that episode of Seinfeld! (Drinking game: shot per head cock. You will be dead before the first act break.) His presence will keep you off guard, and that’s a valid means of extracting a confession. That becomes kind of the problem with Criminal Intent, that D’Onofrio’s performance crowds out all the other actors from doing anything. How many times have I mentioned Eames/Kathryn Erbe? She’s given nothing to do besides stand next to D’Onofrio and say cop lines too generic for the character of Goren. They could rewrite the role from “partner” to “caretaker from Goren’s home, The Institute” without many problems. Anyone who’s seen her play the deliciously demented Shirley Bellinger on Oz will know it’s not an issue of lack of acting talent, so I blame either the writing or D’Onofrio literally sucking in all of the air in the room, thereby leaving Erbe lightheaded and incapable of seriously contributing to scenes. A lot of the time it seems she’s there to make sure Goren doesn’t go over the top and crowd the suspect/interview subject so as to cause hyperventilation or sexual assault complaints. Law & Order was a show that very deliberately beat any sort of individual will or drive out of its cast members, so it interests me to see the opposite occur in this show, in that a performer is possibly subconsciously warping the show around his will.
It’s worth mentioning, because we’re now in the era where “women” “want” “things”, that the creative team behind “Dead” is 66.6% female. Stephanie Sengupta did the story and co-wrote the teleplay with Quebecois separatist Rene Balcer. Darnell Martin directed, she of the pilot for Oz and Cadillac Records fame. She also holds the distinction of directing for all three main Law & Order shows and Homicide. I thought it was worth mentioning because, although this isn’t the program that routinely rapes and murders women, female-fronted television is still a rarity outside of, like, The L Word and This Old House. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the direction, but Criminal Intent definitely is brighter, with more open spaces and quicker editing, more closeups. Beyond there obviously being other actors you wouldn’t mistake this show for any other Dick Wolf-fronted program. “Dead” is also a case of a guest star going on to become a cast member; in the final season of the show Jay O. Sanders returned as the new captain. Different character, I think. It’d be weird if a mob hitman became a police captain after several years in jail, but only in New York. The city that never sleeps. Home of the non-Japanese Godzilla.
I like to believe in the L&O Universe the New York Post is a respectable, milquetoast newspaper whose headlines are dry and informative.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent was a valiant effort to bolt the Law & Order formula onto the “gifted wanker” procedural that became much more popular several years after Criminal Intent’s debut. It’s no coincidence the show eventually ended up on USA, Characters Welcome. Robert Goren belongs in a support group with Theodore Monk, John Psych, Detectives Common and Law from Common Law, not amid the boring exposition robots from NBC. The clash in the establish formulas created a Frankenstein show that satisfied neither Law & Order partisans (me) nor fans of the “what if Sherlock Holmes wasn’t Sherlock Holmes but _______” subgenre (not me). That’s not to say it’s sans charms. Indeed, Criminal Intent is the overlooked youngest child, when mom and dad have largely checked out of parenting and just lets shit go. SVU gets into more trouble with school officials and the pigs and Law & Order‘s off at college somewhere in Ohio, learning about but not putting into practice lesbianism until graduation. Criminal Intent has to make dinner via the microwave and get homework help from creeps on the Internet, but goddamnit it’s playing with the hand dealt. Does that metaphor work? Don’t know anymore.
tis beauty killed the beast, etc.
“Death” may be the greatest treasure given to us by the Jim Gaffigan Month, as not only does it offer a reasonably good showcase of Jim Gaffigan’s acting, it features the crime he’d most likely be busted for committing. Well, other than “stolen valor” for pretending to be a colonel on television. Murdering his wife to get on a reality show with his cadre of retarded children? I doubt it, first that he’d have a wife, second that he’d get a reality show, and third he could adopt any children. However, crematorium hijinks sound right up Gaffigan’s alley. He’s got the sad sack persona prevalent in the silent era and I could definitely see and watch a two reeler about Gaffigan trying and failing to keep a crematorium up and running, eventually resorting to something ridiculous and he has to run away from an advancing mob when things inevitably turn pear shaped. Poor guy, he just wants some hot pockets and not to be harassed by a different voice coming out of his own mouth.
Next week: Jim Gaffigan Month Ends, And Someone May Die!