As over-the-top as Tuesday’s Law & Order: CI could have been — with its straight-from-the-headlines take on the bogus confession in the JonBenet Ramsey case and Liza Minnelli, of all people, playing the murdered girl’s mother — the show actually underplayed things a little.
In fact, the episode made for a pretty effective little Halloween chiller. The first half, especially, was pretty creepy, as Goren broke down the confession of the John Mark Karr stand-in who confessed to the girl’s murder — here a 10-year-old actress named Amber Leigh, not a 6-year-old kiddie-pageant competitor named JonBenet.
That bit of fictionalization made the case less prurient — from the little we see of the victim, she doesn’t give off the miniature glam-doll vibe that the familiar images of JonBenet do. That decision let us concentrate more on the detectives’ rebuilding of the botched case and the psychology of the people involved, which is more interesting anyway.
It was a really well-acted episode on all fronts, with Vincent D’Onofrio largely tic-free and Minnelli being admirably low-key, even in the final scene where she came to realize what actually happened to her daughter. The clear enjoyment her character took in Goren’s attention also hinted at Norma Desmond territory; nice touch, that.
So good was the acting, in fact (and by the way, from what I’ve seen this season, Eric Bogosian is a great addition to the cast), that the not-so-shocking revelation of the real killer didn’t really bother me. I’m a sucker for a well-told mystery story, even when I figure out the culprit ahead of time. And Criminal Intent has always been more about the whydunit than the whodunit anyway. That part was pretty satisfying tonight.