Let's talk Vincent D'Onofrio and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. You say showboat. I say unfairly maligned delight. After dialing it down to an 11, D'Onofrio along with some creepy stories is turning CI into the best of the L&O franchise. CI has its own unique, filmic aesthetic: In an Andrea Yates-inspired story, a shot of a cul-de-sac captures the looping anxiety of the murderous housemom who lives there; in another episode, a Bobby Fischer-like prodigy is surrounded by police, who close in on him like pieces on a chessboard.
Sure, D'Onofrio's Det. Robert Goren is still a know-it-all. This season, he diagnosed emphysema, confidently discussed antique silver even disarmed a gang of killer prison guards using only psychology: ''You belong to your church choir...you were in the Navy...'' Goren's still written big, but the actor has toned down his tics while maintaining a low-heat oddness refreshing in L&O's reserved world. (Although his partner, Kathryn Erbe, so mesmerizing as a baby killer in Oz, deserves more to do.) A guest appearance by Chris Noth, reprising his role as roguish Det. Mike Logan plaid tie and foxy grin intact was a surprising treat. That's key, since next season Noth will share the CI caseload with D'Onofrio. Here's hoping for SVU-style flashes of the detective's haunted background. (Dig up ''Indifference'' from season 1 of the original L&O: In a few violent sentences, Logan creates a deeply disturbing portrait of his never-seen mother.) Perhaps Noth, with his doting Sex and the City fan base, can help revive this low-rated Law & Order. It deserves a second look.