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Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes – “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”
"In New York City's war on crime, the worst criminal offenders are pursued by the detectives of the Major Case Squad. These are their stories."
If those words ring familiar, then you must be a viewer of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The popular Sunday evening show first debuted in 2001 and is a spin-off of the long-running Law & Order.
Fans of Law & Order: Criminal Intent know the program often portrays characters battling severe mental illnesses. Yet, regardless of the storyline, the roles are portrayed with dignity and respect, making a clear distinction between the individual and the disease state. That is in no small way due to the input of script consultant Park Dietz, MD, PhD.
Dr. Dietz may be familiar to those who track famous cases in the news. He was the forensic psychiatrist who gave expert testimony in the trials of Andrea Yates, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Betty Broderick (to name but a few). He originally began consulting on the original Law & Order program several years back. “¼more years ago than I want to remember,” he jokes, “but I have not been involved in all 300 episodes. However for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, I have been involved since the very first episode – helping to shape the role of Detective Bobby Goren, as well as some of the characters who are woven into each week’s scripts.”
Actor Vincent D’Onofrio plays Detective Goren (pictured at right), the driven inspector who seems to have a vast working knowledge of the DSM-IV (i.e. the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association), invariably providing him a keen insight into the perpetrator’s modus operandi. While Goren is of course a fictional television character, he could, in a way, be considered Dr. Dietz’s protégé. “Goren is always carrying a big three-ring binder – have you noticed?” asks Dr. Dietz. “I added that to the character because I always carry a similar binder for my day-to-day work, and it adds to the quirkiness of the character.” Dr. Dietz also gives credit where it’s due; many of Goren’s trademark personality eccentricities are solely the actor’s inventions. “I can’t take credit for the entire character. For example, D’Onofrio came up with the habit of standing too close to people when interviewing them and holding his head to the side during interrogations – he’s great.”
Perhaps even more interesting is how over the past few years the personal history of the Goren character has been revealed. Viewers have learned that Goren’s mother battled schizophrenia when he was growing up and that she now resides in an assisted living facility. This would account for some of Goren’s knowledge of severe mental illness, but, more importantly, it explains his sensitivity and respect for the weekly characters that are struggling to deal with their own mental health issues.
Dr. Dietz takes several different approaches to his consulting work depending on the producer’s needs. “Each week I speak with the producer, Rene Balcer,” he says, “and we take one of two approaches. Either he asks me what types of behavioral patterns would likely fit a certain diagnosis, or he walks me through the plot and asks me what would cause a person do ‘X’ because we need this in the story.”
When asked if he ever fears that the program is putting forth the wrong messages about mental illnesses, Dietz answers quite candidly, “It does concern me that too many crimes on television are being committed by mentally ill people. When I review these scripts or discuss plots with the writers, I have two primary concerns: First, I don’t want to contribute to any episodes that could create more crime; and, secondly, I want it to be a realistic portrayal of the criminals’ conduct or psychopathology.”
Dietz acknowledges that most prejudice attached to mentally ill people undoubtedly stems from inaccurate portrayals of mental illnesses on television or in movies. When speaking of the television industry as a whole, he wryly acknowledges, “No doubt, I work in an industry that gives mental illness a bad name. But, on the other hand, it is a television show. It has to have captivating plots each week where a crime is committed and solved. It needs to have a variety of characters and roles, otherwise, we don’t have a show. Mental disorders simply give us more to work with in terms of the scripting, giving us more ways to keep the plots new and interesting. If every case were simply a robbery it would be a pretty boring program. My job is to help these shows present mental illnesses in a responsible way.”