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The Real Reason Law & Order: Criminal Intent Was Canceled

Through May and June of 2011, Law & Order: Criminal Intent aired eight episodes for its tenth season as a final bow. Premiering in September 2001, Criminal Intent was the most troubled of the three successful Law & Order franchises in terms of production (there are many other attempted spin-offs that never really got off the ground), so getting the opportunity to wrap up storylines at all was a bit of a miracle — and with its original central characters, no less. 

Detectives Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe) and Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) had been missing for almost the entire previous season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Their precinct captain Danny Ross (Eric Bogosian) was murdered and the resulting investigation ended with Detective Eames ascending to captain, firing Goren as a demand from the NYPD brass, and then quitting as an act of defiant self-sacrifice. As extremely cool and badass as all that was to watch, it was definitely a surprise that the final season brought them back on the force. There had been some hope even from executive producer Dick Wolf himself that Criminal Intent might see an 11th season, but alas, come July 2011, USA Network announced there would be no renewal.

Eames and Goren were and still are the thudding heart of the show's legacy, though, no matter the fact that the cast had split episode perspectives since 2005; weeks were initially swapped with Chris Noth and Annabella Sciorra as Detectives Mike Logan and Carolyn Barek, and had had many actors come and go in the years afterward. Nothing could quite measure up to Eames' quiet exasperation and steadfastness matched with Goren's flighty, sometimes bordering on goofy investigational whims. If it had to end there, those eight episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent season 10 were the ideal. 

Let's take a look at why Criminal Intent is the show that lived twice, and why it ended where it did.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent first cheated the ratings reaper

It's fortunate that we ever got to see a season 7 of Criminal Intent, much less a season 10. Once upon a time, Criminal Intent premiered and aired on NBC for six years, just like its mothership and cousin programs, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU. It performed well there for five straight seasons as a starchier, more intellectual offering than SVU with a tighter, more personal cast than the original Law & Order. However, trouble arose when the earliest bloom of the modern TV renaissance came in the form of Desperate Housewives and House M.D.'s earth-shattering arrivals. This put severe dents into Criminal Intent's ratings performance across its fifth and sixth seasons.

For any other television show on Earth, this would have likely meant outright cancellation in such a competitive network schedule. But because this was over a decade ago — at arguably the peak of the franchise's overall strength (largely thanks to SVU as a ratings juggernaut) – NBC chose a different tack in 2007: shipping Criminal Intent off to its sister cable channel, USA Network. The show newly flourished there with less intense ratings competition, and was thus snatched back from the jaws of the cancellation maw to fight another day for a few more years.

A last-minute change of heart with Law & Order: Criminal Intent

Between seasons nine and 10, all bets were off for Criminal Intent once again. Star Jeff Goldblum walked away from reprising his role as Zach Nichols (which he had held since season 8, replacing Chris Noth) and his reasons quoted at the time were doubts as to the future of the show going forward. He was correct: May had turned to June and even July, well beyond the usual timeline for television renewals, with no announcement whatsoever from USA Network as to what Criminal Intent's fate would be. No actor contracts were renewed despite voluntary extensions on the network's behalf to give talent more time. For several weeks, silence stretched on as an poor omen, and that seemed to be it for this branch of the Law & Order franchise.

Then came September 2010 and the surprise announcement that Criminal Intent was coming back — lo and behold, with Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe in their erstwhile roles as well — for eight episodes. Even from the moment of announcement, the powers-that-be couched Criminal Intent's return in terms of a final season, and it all certainly felt like a curtain call.

A coda for the fans

As mentioned earlier, Law & Order mastermind Dick Wolf expressed hope that Criminal Intent would see another year, but that was never up to him. (Were that the case, OG Law & Order certainly would have never seen its sudden final day, either.) Though USA Network never gave much explanation for its cancellation at the time, years later, former showrunner Warren Leight dropped a few tweets' worth of perspective in February 2013. 

Responding to questions asking why Law & Order: Criminal Intent season 10 was the last, he wrote in a thread: "USA gave it every shot, at great cost. I wouldn't blame them [for not renewing]. simply put, USA didn't make enough money on LOCI to justify even the final 8 they did. they felt they owed it to the fans."

While Leight wasn't showrunner for the final season, he was boss of SVU at the time, had been in charge of Criminal Intent in the past, and even wrote one episode of the final Criminal Intent season ("Trophy Wine"). He was probably aware of the network's opinion as part of his job within the whole franchise. On its front, Leight is completely correct: it's part of Law and Order franchise style to film on location in New York for authenticity, which is incredibly expensive for a broadcast network let alone a smaller basic cable channel. It says quite a lot that USA Network was willing to foot that bill to its detriment just to satisfy character arcs for fans' benefit.

Will there ever be a Law & Order: Criminal Intent season 11?

At the time USA Network announced the tenth season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the then-president of original programming for USA (who's now the president of NBCUniversal International Studios) Jeff Wachtel hinted that perhaps the series could live on after its "final" eight episodes. He stated (via TVGuide), "We have been the fortunate caretakers of this legendary series, and we plan to give it the world-class farewell it so richly deserves. Dick and his team promise to create a major event for television with incredible surprises. The plan is for this to be the series finale, but with a Dick Wolf franchise, one really never knows until it's over."

Wolf himself also teased that "only time will tell" if Criminal Intent season 10 would be "a fond farewell or a renaissance for Detective Robert Goren." He even signed the statement off as Brett Favre, who had announced his retirement from the National Football League in March 2008 before asking for release from the Green Bay Packers to play for another football team in July 2008.

Additionally, in his February 2013 Twitter thread, Leight offered the best condolences he could about Law & Order: Criminal Intent coming to an end, giving a wink at some kind of life post-season 10: "I think fans should enjoy the long run we had, and maybe hope for a MadeForTV movie if anyone ever makes those in future."

But is Criminal Intent like Favre, the man who hung up his football helmet only to put it back on down the line? Don't hold your breath. It's been over seven years since Leight's tweet and nearly ten since Wachtel and Wolf's comments, so it feels extremely unlikely that we would ever get to see an 11th season of the series — or any kind of continuation for that matter. If nothing else, there's always DVDs to go back and enjoy again.