Friday, November 27, 2015

Five Things About Elementary 4x04, "All My Exes Live in Essex"

In this week's episode, Elementary lightens up a bit, and Joan gets more to do, but the show's inability to commit to its guest characters undermines an A-plot with potential.

1. "All My Exes Live in Essex" doesn't hit the emotional depths that great--and even average--Elementary episodes often do, but it's the most straight-up enjoyable episode the show has put out since "One Watson, One Holmes." Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who it turns out wrote both episodes, has a sense for what's fun to see play out. Though this week's episode isn't as laugh-out-loud funny as "One Watson, One Holmes" (it never had a chance, since it doesn't have a character named Sucking Chest Wound), and it doesn't have the quietly delightful one-liners that pepper most Elementary episodes. But from the cold open with the handcuffs, to the quick editing of the five-person interrogation scenes, to Watson and Sherlock discussing departmental politics while sorting medical waste, nearly every scene had something unique and captivating going on. And the little details of Joan and Sherlock's interactions were even better. There wasn't a single conversation between the two of them that was just business; every bit of exposition had an aside, be it about the Baja Men or Joan's past as a suture scissor thief. Joan and Sherlock's partnership is the center of the show, and Elementary does a consistently great job of examining their relationship, but things can get kind of heavy, what with all the addiction and the dead boyfriends and the parental issues. It was great to have an episode where they could just hang out and get on each other's nerves and bug each other about music and, you know, be friends.

2. Elementary has a bad habit of, let's call it, scavenger-hunt storytelling: We start out with one set of characters, who lead us to another set of characters, who lead us to a third set of characters, who lead us to the answer. Writers of procedurals often talk about visiting a different "world" each week. "Murder--at a professional poker tournament!" "Murder--on a cougars cruise!" "Murder--at a beauty pageant!" More and more, lately, Elementary has not limited itself to a single world. Last week's "Tag, You're Me" gave us "Murder--of doppelgangers!" and "Murder--because of fraternity hazing!" The week before, "Evidence of Things Not Seen," gave us "Murder--at a brainwashing lab!" Also, "Murder--with international spies!" And, "Murder--using top-secret government protest suppression technology!" This week's episode has "Murder--in group marriages!" and "Murder--involving stem cell research!" and "Murder--at a cancer support group!" Any of these conceits could have sustained an entire episode all on its own.

It's not necessarily bad that Elementary is breaking out of the worlds-based mystery mold, which is, of course, a crutch. But the way that Elementary has taken to doing it--the scavenger hunt leading from one little world to another to another--makes episodes feels disjointed. It's rare for a guest character to be in more than two acts of an episode. And that's bad enough from a plot standpoint. But in something like "All My Exes Live in Essex," which is trying to pull real emotion from its case of the week, disjointedness is lethal. Nate Campbell's last line--"You have to let me talk to Branford."--should have killed. On something like Cold Case, it would have killed. On Cold Case, there'd have been a montage to 80s music and we'd get to see Nate telling Branford, and then probably Branford would see Abby, and then the Abramoviches would be like, trying on new wigs for Sadie. I'm basically writing fanfiction now, but my point is that on a show like Cold Case, the guest characters are built up enough that Nate Campbell's last line would have cut deep. But on Elementary? We didn't even meet Branford until the 17-minute mark! He was only in one scene, and Nate was only in three! Elementary's failing isn't that it doesn't commit to its conceits; it's that it doesn't commit to its characters. It just so happens that in this case, the characters are the conceit.

3. Elementary walks an interesting political line. The writing staff clearly approaches the world from a liberal place. You could make a pretty great supercut of Sherlock being casually dismissive of conservative policies. ("Ayn Rand. Philosopher-in-chief to the intellectually bankrupt.") And the show works reasonably hard at representation--in addition to the obvious example of Watson, there have been gay characters and trans characters and characters of color floating in and out of the show, including on this week's episode, which includes both a gay Hispanic female detective and a couple of bisexual men. All of which is to say that of all the procedurals on the air at the moment, Elementary is the one most likely to present group marriages in a sympathetic light. And to a certain extent, that's what it does. The tiniest amount of fun is had with Abby Campbell's five ex-spouses, but the show never suggests that Abby didn't love them, or her two new husbands. Sherlock finds the whole thing fairly unshocking--not surprising, since he's previously suggested polyamory as a viable lifestyle for Joan--and nobody makes fun of the characters, or invalidates their relationships.

But a crime procedural cannot, by its very nature, present the healthiest version of the worlds it visits. There's sample bias; we're only seeing the group marriages in which a murder has occurred. To its credit, Elementary does not make the motive have anything to do with polyamory; Nate Campbell would have killed his wife whether she'd had another husband or not. Nevertheless, it undercuts the sympathy when the most successful group marriage in the episode also ends in murder. This is another area where Elementary's refusal to engage with its guest characters hurts it. All it would take would be a few moments--maybe thirty seconds, total--of interaction between the members of the two group marriages to really sell their relationships. Denise leaning her head on one of her wives' shoulder. Branford and Nate comforting each other over Abby. Visual media are efficient in that way. It takes very little to establish that two characters are in a meaningful relationship. But Elementary doesn't give that to any of its guest characters, so it doesn't happen here, so the two marriages at the center of the episode feel empty--which makes it harder to get across that Elementary does, ultimately, sympathize with the participants.

4. Refreshingly, "All My Exes Live in Essex" is heavy on Joan Watson. She gets the big solve all to herself, and the B-plot too. Unless it's a precursor to a longer arc (not impossible), the B-plot was maybe the best example of how much lighter-hearted this episode was than usual. Like most Elementary B-plots, it was about interpersonal relationships, but instead of hashing out deep trauma, Joan is just hashing out some workplace politics. If Cortes isn't a player in the long-term arc, her role here does feel a little out-of-place and abrupt; why give Joan an obsessive antagonist now, and why end it in the way it ended? But it's fun and interesting to see Joan and Sherlock navigating their relationship with the police, and it plays into some stuff the show set up in the pilot, about the unique and sometimes vulnerable role consultants occupy with the police.

5. Random Bits:

  • Usually, when Elementary has a bland case of the week, I don't care; I just sort of tune that part of the episode out, when I think back on it. "All My Exes Live in Essex" is frustrating, though, because the A-plot had so much potential. It's so easy to see how this week's mystery could've been fascinating and gripping and tragic, but instead it was just kind of there.
  • I know a lot of people on Tumblr who are going to be disappointed by Joan ruling out sleeping with women. Joaniarty! Mary Morstan! All our dreams are slipping through our fingers!
  • The cold open was the most endearing scene in an episode full of endearing scenes, very closely followed by the final scene. You don't get a lot of men applying poultices to women's boxing-related black eyes on TV.
  • I will never forgive Elementary for depriving me of seeing Joan and Cortes' boxing match.
  • "There's also a song that appeals to me as a detective. It's a mystery about dogs and who may have let them out."
  • "You just like the parallel. Primitive aftercare for a primitive sport."

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