Goren works as a detective (detective investigator first grade) for the Major Case Squad in the New York Police Department (NYPD). As created by executive producer René Balcer and interpreted by D'Onofrio, Goren is an intense, intelligent, and imposing man who uses his intuition and insight into human nature to size up suspects and pick apart the details of crimes. Goren's diverse background frequently supplies him with information he uses to solve cases.
His early life was troubled. His father gambled frequently on horse races and was a serial adulterer (René Balcer, CI's executive producer, describes Goren's father as "a rake") and his mother Frances first started showing symptoms of schizophrenia when Goren was seven years old. Goren’s father left his mother four years later, making little attempt to stay close to his son.
After college, Goren served in the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Germany and did a six-week tour in South Korea. Although a specific timeline for his service has not been established, he was in Germany during 1987.
While Goren was with CID he met Dr. Declan Gage, one of the first criminal profilers, who was on loan from the FBI to offer advice on a South Korean serial killer. Gage became Goren’s mentor in the field of criminal profiling, a relationship which continued even after Gage was discredited following a particularly tense and unsuccessful hunt for a serial killer. Both Gage's daughter and Gage himself have considered Goren a son to Gage.
After leaving the military, Goren joined the NYPD and spent four years in the Narcotics Division. He was responsible for three sting operations that resulted in 27 arrests and 27 convictions.
As an investigator and profiler, Goren is uncommonly skilled at sizing up suspects and picking apart the details of crimes. Thanks to his diverse background and commitment to research (he called his library card his most important investigative tool), he is frequently able to recall pieces of information that may seem obscure but prove to be incredibly relevant to the case. Additionally, he has an acute sense of smell that discloses details even a forensics investigator might miss.
During interrogations, Goren has the habit of cocking his head at odd angles while talking to people – a "side talking" method he uses to distract and unnerve them. D'Onofrio invented this kind of habit from a scene where a suspect he was interrogating would not look him in the eye. It is such a strong identifier of his character that in the episode “The Gift” a woman who, while describing a psychic dream she had, labeled Goren as being "the man with the broken neck."
Additionally, when questioning people, Goren will attempt to agitate uncooperative suspects by exploiting a weakness of theirs which he has noticed. For example, if he believes a subject is a "neat freak" he will deliberately move the subject's possessions around to create clutter, appearing to do so out of clumsiness or lack of respect, in order to rattle them. These tactics, while occasionally useful and legitimate, more frequently cross into the realm of being manipulative. The character is frequently portrayed as using details from a witness' life that are irrelevant to the case at hand in order often reveal a suspect's true motivations for committing a crime (such as a man murdering to obtain classic cars, to make up for his father's lack of interest in him) to create enormous emotional distress in that individual. Goren then utilizes that distress to elicit a confession. A further method is to find a weak link in the relationship between two or more suspects in a crime, and utilize the relationship to make one implicate the other.
While Goren is typically able to outwit a suspect, he has occasionally met his match; the foremost example is Nicole Wallace, a sociopathic con artist and murderer with a keen eye for detecting and exploiting weakness. From her introduction in the episode "Anti-Thesis", Wallace has been able to pierce Goren's emotional armor by confronting him with details of his unhappy childhood and unresolved emotional problems.
While Goren has never crossed the line into open insubordination, he does occasionally push professional boundaries, either because he feels it will solve the case more effectively, or because empathy leads him to believe that the most extreme punishments are not warranted. Eames once said that his willingness to test authority stems from his days as a "lapsed altar boy." This attitude has pushed him into conflict with superiors before, particularly with Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver and Captain Ross as they are concerned with due process and regulations.
Detective Goren is suspended and sent for a psychological fitness evaluation. While waiting for his reinstatement, Goren decides to go undercover to take down a high-level drug-dealer. He never told Eames of his plans, leading to a sizable rift between the two detectives which is still in the healing process.
Goren and Eames both tend to discuss the other, and call each other, by their last names alone. However, Eames does address him by the more intimate "Bobby" (the name by which he is known to his family) when it is clear he is under unusual stress; while Goren refers to Eames as Alex infrequently. Goren often takes the lead, although he is actually the junior partner in their working relationship.
Early in their partnership, Eames petitioned the department for a new partner. She later withdrew the petition. Letting her know that he is not offended that she once thought him erratic and unstable, Goren admits he is "an acquired taste."
Eames is practical, while Goren is often portrayed as intellectual, yet there is little evidence of conflict between them. Indeed, they display mutual respect and friendship. Goren himself said they have "complementary skills": Goren is portrayed as having extensive "book knowledge," while Eames is portrayed as more computer and politically savvy. Contrasting with the instability of his family, Eames is a steadying, and perhaps calming, influence.
Goren was temporarily partnered with Det. G. Lynn Bishop (Samantha Buck) in 2003–2004 while Eames was on maternity leave. They functioned reasonably well as a team, and Bishop seemed more intellectually curious than Eames, but their personalities were not as compatible; Goren often compared Bishop to Eames, to Bishop's detriment. Although she respected his ability to close cases, Bishop did not appreciate Goren's extremely aggressive—though never physically abusive—style of questioning uncooperative witnesses. It was implied that she was aware of being compared to the partner that Goren very obviously missed.
Eames was abducted by Jo Gage, the daughter of Declan Gage, Goren's old mentor. Jo set up the crime in such a way that her father was a suspect for most of the episode, placing Goren in the difficult position of choosing between his partner and his teacher. Goren's somewhat violent treatment of his old friend, coupled with the clear angst he was suffering over Eames' possible murder, left the viewer with little doubt as to who he ultimately chose.
Goren's childhood contributed to his ability to understand criminal psychology and to empathize with the victims of crimes. In the episode “Suite Sorrow,” he states that he knows what it is like “to have your judgment, your sense of security undermined by your parents; because they were hiding a truth or denying it to themselves.”
As a result of his father’s infidelity, Goren harbors a disgust for men who abandon their wives and/or neglect their children. When blindsided by Wallace, Goren comments, "She picked a man I already didn't trust. I already didn't respect. ... She, uh, picked a man like my father."
Goren’s mother is an in-patient at the Carmel Ridge mental facility. He calls her every day and visits her once a week, saying that she has been slipping away from him his whole life but he can’t let go. She is diagnosed with lymphoma and undergoes major surgery. Goren is known to flinch openly whenever his mother is mentioned, another vulnerability Wallace frequently exploits, but he has been able to turn that reaction to his advantage at times. One such instance occurs when a judge suspected of rape and murder hires a private investigator to impersonate an NYPD officer and question her until she has a psychotic break. Goren subsequently rages at the judge, needling the latter into admitting his role in the crime.
Goren is also estranged from his older brother, Frank, who has a gambling problem. Goren's mother apparently favors Frank, and describes him as a "scientist,” and seems to believe that Frank could take better care of her than Bobby did. In reality, Frank is homeless on Manhattan’s streets, dependent on charity to survive. In the episode "Brother's Keeper", Goren gives Frank some money, his overcoat, and his business card. They agree to meet the following Sunday (Frances' birthday), but Frank fails to appear at the appointed time. In vain, Frances waits for Frank to appear, sure that he would never forget her birthday. Bobby did not give her any details about Frank's condition.
Frank approaches Bobby to request that he find a way to help his son, Donny, who is in jail where inmates were being abused and dying. Bobby decides to sneak into the jail to help him. He confronts his brother about Donny's whereabouts, and Frank claims ignorance; the brothers fight, physically and verbally, over the issue. Frank then further infuriated Bobby with the unexpected inquiry, "Why don't you take Eames to a motel and get it out of your system?" To cap it all, Goren then discovers drugs in Frank's apartment. He proceeds to disown his brother, telling him "If I get a call you're gonna jump off a bridge... I'm listening for the splash."
Several months later, Frank relaspses into drug abuse. While high on drugs, he is murdered by Bobby's arch-nemesis Nicole Wallace (under the persuasion of Bobby's mentor, Dr. Declan Gage).
In a death row interview room, Goren learns that Brady was on leave around the time John F. Kennedy was elected — the month that he would have been conceived – leaving Goren with the horrible possibility that this serial killer might be his father. Goren confronts his mother, who reveals she does not know for sure who his father is. Both Brady and Frances die that night, leaving Goren alone in his mother’s empty room.
It is revealed that Goren asked for a DNA test to see if Brady was his father a year after his death. The test shows that Brady is in fact his biological father. Goren notes he knew Brady was his father when making sense on how his legal father and mother seemed to neglect him emotionally.
The citation style for specific episodes is Season # : Episode #, " Episode Name ".