As much as I've always enjoyed the Law & Order franchise, I've never actually sat down and consistently watched any of the shows on a week to week basis. The few episodes of Criminal Intent I was able to catch on tv were enough to catch my attention. Still it would be a couple of years before I finally decided to pick up the first season on DVD. I regret taking that long to add it to my collection.
This incarnation of the Law & Order franchise is different in a few ways from the others: More time is spent on the criminals and their motives, less time is spent in trial, and the main detective characters are much more quirky and interesting.
This different format is very much an acquired taste. Particularly the character of Detective Robert "Bobby" Goren. From the beginning you get the feeling you're in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes mystery simply from the way Goren approaches the investigations. His intuition and observations display a depth of knowledge that hadn't been touched on yet in other characters in the Law & Order universe. His partner, Detective Alexandra Eames, is a much more by-the-book investigator, at first displaying a subtle discomfort with the way Goren works both on scene and off. As they spend more time working together, Eames becomes the Watson to Goren's Holmes.
The first season is a perfect starting point to observe the shifting partnership between these two detectives with very different investigative styles: Goren as the cerebral pseudo-psychologist, Eames as the more conventional senior partner.
As with the original Law & Order, very little about personal lives is alluded to in the early years of Criminal Intent. This is a show very much about the crimes, the criminals who commit them, and the two detectives who ferret those criminals out. This is a show strictly about NYPD police procedure within the Major Case Squad and the motives that drive criminals.
Admittedly, this can start to feel somewhat formulaic. A crime is committed and you know that by the end Goren will have come up with an off-the-wall confession that will slam the barred door shut on the suspect. But I would hazard against writing the series off because you would miss the depth that is added to the characters over subsequent seasons, particularly beginning in season 6.
I will admit, running through five seasons to get to meatier character development may seem like a waste of time and you may want to skip right to it. I can't tell you how much of a mistake that would be just simply by virtue of the fact that you will miss minor details that are fleshed out in season 6 and now in season 7. I've been going back and watching episodes I've already seen two or three times and am still discovering clues to the two main characters I didn't see before but help make sense of later episodes and seasons.
This is the season where it all starts. I highly suggest you give this series a try, particularly if you enjoy a good cerebral approach to the investigation and solving of crime. And even if you don't, Eames' wicked one-liners should be enough to get you through enough episodes to be hooked.