By Ken Tucker
Updated April 14, 2010 at 03:45 PM EDT

Last week, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe, and Eric Bogosian were ushered out of Law & Order: Criminal Intent with all the finesse of a bouncer at a cheap nightclub. In a lumpy hour that forced D’Onofrio’s Goren and Erbe’s Eames to act as supporting players to Jeff Goldblum’s Zach Nichols and Saffron Burrows’ Serena Stevens, Goren and Eames had a brief farewell scene together (Bogosian was in a body-bag by then), and the new era of L&O: CI began.

Last night, we saw the first full-fledged Nichols-Stevens edition of CI, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio taking the position of their new captain, Zoe Callas. It was an ungainly hour. Guest stars Kevin Conway and Marin Hinkle starred as residents of an Irish enclave of Queens involved in a murder that was so easily solved, extra air-time had to be given over to long close-ups of Goldblum looking soulfully into space, and all of it was framed by a perfectly awful song sung by someone with a gravelly voice meant to convey a grit that wasn’t present in the script.

If I’m being hard on Criminal Intent, it’s because I feel a little cheated — I’ve always liked this Law & Order franchise. D’Onofrio became too much of a self-conscious showboater as the seasons progressed, but Erbe was never less than first-rate, always undervalued and kept in D’Onofrio’s big shadow. CI also, over its run, has featured some of the best female characters in the L&O franchise. Julianne Nicholson and Alicia Witt were terrific in the show. At its best, CI has possessed the leanness of the original Law & Order‘s crime-solving first half, and without the blubbery emotionalism that makes Law & Order: Special Victims Unit almost unwatchable for me.

Last season, Goldblum’s Nichols was introduced as a smart-alecky bohemian police detective. The character seemed suited to Goldblum’s hip-giraffe physicality and smokey-voiced wryness. Last night, none of that backstory hovered over a grim, humorless Nichols, which makes me worried for the actor and his role. It’s impossible to pass judgment on Burrows yet — other than establishing last week that she can speak many languages including Urdu, it’s difficult to tell how her character will evolve, or not.

But the fact that excellent actors such as Conway and Hinkle were squandered on a melodramatic tale doesn’t bode well. I fret about Law & Order: Criminal Intent. It’s long been the poor stepchild of the L&O shows, moved off from network to cable when its ratings fluttered. In theory, the show should flourish on USA, where, you know, it’s “characters welcome,” and who’s more of a character than Jeff Goldblum?

So I ask you: Are you missing Goren and Eames? What do you think of the new Law & Order: CI? Are you going to give Goldblum and Burrows a chance to prove themselves on the Major Case Squad?

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