NEW YORK — When the cast and crew of “Law &Order: Criminal Intent” found out last spring that their show was being moved from NBC over to its sister cable network USA, the initial reaction was relief that the drama hadn’t been canceled — followed quickly by wariness about the change.
But these days, the team behind the third installment in the “Law &Order” franchise talk about their new home with an optimism long missing from the set of the crime procedural, now entering its seventh season.
” ‘Reinvigorated’ is a good word,” said Warren Leight, the executive producer and show-runner. “Last year was awkward because NBC was going through a lot of changes, and we were not a priority, it’s fair to say.”
The move to USA, he said, is “like getting adopted by a really rich family.”
After experiencing what Leight called “benign neglect” at NBC, USA has showered the program with attention, including a large-scale promotional campaign advertising “Criminal Intent’s” debut tonight.
“It was nice that they had a really fresh energy toward the show, that they were enthused and inspired, something that we really didn’t feel that much over at the network, frankly,” said Chris Noth, who plays Det. Mike Logan. “USA has really bent over backward to show us that they care.”
Executives at NBC, which plans to air reruns of “Criminal Intent” after episodes premiere on USA, rejected the notion that they gave the series inadequate support.
“NBC has always considered ‘Criminal Intent’ an important part of our schedule for many years, and we hope that it’s a big hit on USA,” said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. “By definition, you have to prioritize when you’re a broadcast network in a way that cable networks don’t.”
The move to USA is the latest twist for the youngest of the surviving “Law &Order” shows, which explores the psychology of criminals, often letting the viewers in on the motives of suspects before the show’s Major Case Squad detectives discover them.
The episodes revolve almost entirely around the investigators, who are in nearly every scene. The pace was so intense for Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays the eccentric Detective Robert Goren, and Kathryn Erbe, who portrays his stoic partner, Detective Alex Eames, that the producers brought Noth on in 2005 to reprise his role from the original “Law &Order” and split the workload.
The show’s unique approach made it a solid player for NBC and sought-after in syndication. But the show, up against “Desperate Housewives” and “The Sopranos” in its early years, often seemed overshadowed.
Producers now hope that the move to cable, rather than marginalizing the program, will help showcase it.
This season’s first episode deals with the murder of a police officer, a case that forces Eames to dredge up memories of the death of her husband, an undercover officer who was killed during a drug buy. While Erbe had always known it was part of her character’s back story, it had not been explored on the show.
“I relish it,” the actress said. “I’ve got years with just the gumshoe story lines, and there’s only so far you can go with that stuff.”
This season, Logan, the squad hothead, is forced to adjust his approach when he gets a new partner with her own impulsive tendencies (Alicia Witt, temporarily replacing Julianne Nicholson while she is on maternity leave).