Thursday, September 27, 2012

In-Class Movie: "Pilot" (S01E01)

“Then, of course, this blood belongs to a second individual—presumably the murderer, if murder has been committed. It reminds me of the cicumstances attendant on the death of Van Jansen, in Utrecht, in the year ’34. Do you remember the case, Gregson?”
“No, sir.”
“Read it up—you really should. There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”
--Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Austin: A lot relies on this blog entry. Not in our lives, our reader's lives or any consequence to the show itself. This entry determines the life of this blog. If we love this episode, our mission statement will dramatically change. If we hate it, then we can cynically pat ourselves on the back before realizing what we committed ourselves to. To make a different type of television allusion, what kind of day has it been?
A Wednesday.

That's my answer: a Wednesday. I know tonight is Thursday, Elementary aired on Thursday and you may be reading this on a Friday. The pilot for Elementary feels like a Wednesday. A low-key day where you go to work and come home and nothing happened. You're right in between the verge of the weekend and being too far from the weekend.

Elementary is not the train-wreck we all morbidly wished it would be. Don't get me wrong, it's still awful. It's just not a "I'm pretending to be pregnant and planning on stealing a cheerleader's baby" kind of awful. This is a show that just doesn't know what it's doing.

We'll talk about the plot of this episode in a bit, but the real reason people are so curious about this pilot is because of the lead characters. (We can discuss Aidan Quinn and Other Cop if you want but I'm not really an expert in analyzing blank space.) We have Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) who is now living in New York City after an incident and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) who is a surgeon working as an addict companion after an incident.

Hand me my shirt. Please?

Their first interaction better be a wink to the fans and hopefully not CBS foreshadowing when Sherlock gives a monologue about love at first sight to her and then reveals he was replicating a soap opera, presumably to practice human interaction or something. Watson responds by looking at him. She later goes with him to a crime scene and Sherlock argues that she has to go in. Why? She has displayed nothing of interest to him. He isn't entertained by her, he isn't curious about her. He just has her join him because there should probably be a Watson. Once in the room, she does nothing.

On one level there is an acting lack of chemistry, but more importantly there is not a single reason in the script for these two to be friends. In fact because their characters are so flat, it further hurts their characters by trusting each other. Since the show doesn't know what purpose Watson can solve with the mysteries, everything she brings up as a clue is something really obvious that Sherlock really should have noticed considering he's Sherlock Holmes. She's supposed to be a recovering guide for addicts, but this episode just shows she's incredibly incompetent at her job by the way she lets this man in recovery control her. Not through complicated manipulation, he just asks kindly for the keys to her car and she gives it to him. Why?

At this point, playing Sherlock Holmes could be the worst job ever. What new can you do with that character? Surprisingly Jonny Lee Miller has something. He plays him like a drug addict. That is a great role because then you can play off his sporadic side while always having a layer of doubt on whether he can function entirely. He's not playing him like a showman, but someone oblivious to his own psychologically and chemically affected behavior. His best moment is when he gets dressed because when he puts on his t-shirt you’re not sure where he’s going with his outfit, until the end here he pulled off a snazzy outfit. 

Sure I bet he predicted the end to the Packers/Seahawks game as well. Topical!

That said, none of this matters because the script gives him nothing to do with this take. His observations are obvious, he disregards deduction majority of the time and goes for humanistic assumptions (Hey I thought he was supposed to be bad at that...). If he's not allowed to earn his clever moments he's not clever. If you had him reading baseball stats at one point, then he would be able to hypothetically deduce the probability of the end of that game. Watching one game without any sense of the team's history cannot make you a psychic.

Watson has a blank face a lot.

Let's just accept that this is going to be a long blog post, everyone. Every week won't be like this but there is so much to cover with first impressions.

Leigh, what did you think of our dynamic duo? Do you think that Jonny Lee Miller has potential? Did Lucy Liu nod off during one of the scenes? What is being said about this crime solving friendship? Also shall you start the discussion about the female elephant surgeon in the room?

Leigh: A Tuesday. You said a Wednesday, but I think a Tuesday. It’s a boring day at the beginning of the week and similar to a Wednesday when nothing really remarkable ever happens. It isn’t quite the hellishness that Monday is but it’s close enough to the previous weekend that you still remember what it was like to be carefree for those few days.

Before I get too far into my response I would like to take a moment to explain something. I didn’t expect much from the pilot. I was hoping for it to be amazing but I am a realist and expected to be disappointed. It wasn’t because of Watson being cast as a woman. I thought that this could be incredibly interesting…Just not done by CBS. Also, I didn’t like who they got to play Former Surgeon Joan Watson. Lucy Liu, the boring one from Charlie’s Angels? Really? Her best acting role ever is when her head is lopped off by Uma Thurman. My hypothesis for why Lucy Liu is so stale and emotionless is because she’s actually a robot. My guess is they cast her for the part, she mysteriously disappeared or died or something but they didn’t want to recast the role, so they built Lucy Liu-Bot. Someone must’ve watched an episode of Futurama and well…You know the rest.

I would also like to state that I don’t automatically hate this show because it’s a formulaic genre. It wasn’t a surprise when I fell in love with the Sherlock Holmes stories. It was natural. It was fate. It was meant to be. A good portion of my childhood was spent watching Law and Order with my mom. We like to joke that because of all of the episodes we have watched, we could pass the New York Bar. I like to think of Lenny Briscoe as my surrogate grandfather. Police procedurals are apart of my DNA.


This had so much potential. It’s like that friend who was really awesome and could do anything they wanted in high school then you don’t talk to them for five years and when you do catch up, they’re on their 3rd kid with just as many women and divorced twice. That’s the level of disappointment I had with this show. It had so much potential and then…ugh.

I’ve been told recently that because of my love of Sherlock Holmes, I’m anti-feminist. I do not think this is the case at all and it will be further discussed when we get to “A Scandal in Bohemia”. (Hint: Irene Adler is my Victorian Era heroine.) People are giving the producers of Elementary a lot more credit than they deserve. Sure, they cast a woman to play a traditionally male role. It has been done before. If they want to blow me away with their advancement of sexual equality, they wouldn’t have made Joan Watson the weakest Watson ever. She is Joan Watson, FORMER SURGEON. One could make some Sherlock Holmes type assumptions and assume that she is used to seeing blood and dead bodies and limbs laying about the place. And yet, when Sherlock Holmes says to the investigators, and Watson who is needed but it isn’t explained why she’s needed other than the fact that she “must follow him where ever he goes.” Later he basically says ,“There’s a body behind this door I’m about to open!” and then opens the door, Lucy Liu shows the most emotion she’s shown in the entire show when she gasps and leaves the room.

Let me reiterate the important facts here. Former surgeon. Warned about the dead body. Runs away like a little girl seeing a dead body. This is not writing an equally dominant character, this is writing a woman character like television has written women characters for ages.  They could’ve given her more power and exerted her dominance over her watch but, nope, she’s foiled by a simple unplugging of alarm clocks. The most assertive thing she does is when she swabs Holmes’ mouth. This is also when she shows a lot of emotion for the second time.  And yet the drawing of Lucy Liu I did has more emotion than that

Stick figure of Lucy Liu as she watches that one ASPCA commercial with Sarah McLachlan singing about abused animals.

I think that Johnny Lee Miller did a fantastic job with what he was given. To me this episode really did seem like it was written with the Wikipedia article about Holmes open the entire time. “Bohemian? Uh, we’ll have him smell his clothes before he puts them on. Bees? We got bees! Um, drugs? OH! Drugs! He’ll be an addict! PERFECT! Alright boys, lets call it a day.” And then there were other things that they wrote that seemed to be a blatant “BUT OURS IS DIFFERENT!” jab. The main one that sticks out to me is the vast amount of sex that Sherlock has/claims to have. –eye roll. – This combined with the introduction between Watson and Holmes where Lucy Liu shows the 3rd most emotion for the whole episode when she is caught off guard and blinks a couple of times when he professes love at first sight or some such nonsense and him commenting on how he loves her perfume later in the episode, I predict by the end of the season there will be at least one awkward sexual encounter between the two, at which point, I will projectile vomit at the TV. [I apologize and realize that that’s one hell of a sentence. I might be enjoying a Woodchuck right now. Woodchuck, the freshmaker!]

We know it isn’t the source material that’s at fault here, so, Austin, who’s to blame for the mediocrity that I just endured? Will the Elementary pilot have a similar effect as A Study in Scarlet where it sets up the characters but has a completely different format? And how many episodes do you give the series before Irene Adler shows up?

Austin: Yeah, but I hate Tuesdays. That's the worst day of the week because we've been predisposed to hate Mondays. Yet Tuesdays are just as bad being so far from the weekend, it's basically Monday Part II but we don't have the societal warning like we have about how much Mondays suck. I don't hate Elementary; I just think it's lazy and boring.

Before I start in on my next rant, I want to say that you're dead right about Watson's characterization as a surgeon and I think that we should be sponsored by Woodchuck. Also if this show gets picked up for a back 9 episodes, they'll cast Irene Adler this season or that is what they'll use to excite people for Season Two. No later than that.

Now I believed everyone is accustomed to recognize that pilots for TV shows are going to be rough. They often haven't found their voice yet so you're really tuning in for potential. Very rarely do you get something like LOST or The Shield where the pilot could be in consideration for one of the Top Ten episodes. So I'm optimistic (because what else can I be? We're covering this show every week.) that they could have a better understanding of how to treat Sherlock and Watson. 

Or they can continue being really lazy and that could very easily happen seeing how they treat the mystery in this pilot. Pilots are filmed separately than the rest of the series so the network can see if it works and then pick it up for a season. It's a wonderful way to waste a lot of money. So this episode had the time to really come up with a story unlike when they're going to be in production where they have to get several scripts ready to shoot.

One of the joys about the Sherlock Holmes stories is that since he is the smartest detective of all time, regular cases are too easy for him. He needs murders that are so strange, they need to be named. "The Case of the Speckled Band", "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons". Even House M.D. only covered the crazy cases.

Tonight's episode of Elementary could be called "The Case of the Murdered Woman." 

This is such a bland and boring case that I really felt that my computer zapped to a random episode from the 149th season of Law and Order. It was by the books for everything. I even kept waiting for the opening scene to take a twist like she would write RACHE on the wall or find an eggbeater under her bed to use on her attacker. ANYTHING. Nope. Everything about this was bland bland bland even down to interviewing the suspects and the motivation for the killer. 

I just met you. And this is crazy, but......we should be best friends who solve mundane crimes for no reason.

If this is what they came up with enough preparation before hand and a case to hook new viewers, this is pitiful. I would allow it to be a weaker story if the real plot of the episode was the introduction of Sherlock and Watson, but that didn't happen. This had a few scenes devoted to their introduction and then way too many scenes that were just copy and paste procedural scenes. I watched this Tuesday (thanks to time travel) and by Thursday I've forgotten most of the details.

I'm fine with episodic shows. They're not my favorite, but their mystery of the week has to be done with care. I think The Good Wife does a great job with making a creative logline for each case. White Collar is pretty good with that too most of the time. This is just an awful beginning.

Especially considering it hurts the character because it's so routine. None of the detectives need to bring in an expert for this case. Every "brilliant" discovery is something that should be found by a regular detective, especially the glasses and the pictures. The only thing worthy of Sherlock's talents seemed to be the discovery of the safe room. Following the marble was my favorite part of the episode because that was such a great visual reveal, especially as it stops in its path in the blood. Of course, why was the safe room even in the episode?

Did the plot frustrate you as much as it did me or is it completely wiped from your memory? Do you have a lone stick figure summary for the mystery?

Leigh: I feel like Tuesdays though there is some sort of expectation because it’s NOT Monday and therefore there should be something shiny and new about it and yet there never is. Tuesday is just a day full of disappointment. That’s what I feel this pilot is.
The key to a formulaic show like Law and Order or House is that you have to give the viewers a reason to watch. They know at the end of 42 minutes that the bad guy will be caught, we’ll find out it’s not Lupus, or in worse case scenario, we’re obligated to watch another episode when those sometimes frustrating words, “To be continued,” pop up. We know that the case will be solved like we know that the sun rises in the east and that baseball games will always interrupt our Primetime lineups. It’s fact. As an audience, we have accepted this and we’re okay with it. But why do we continue to watch shows that don’t shock and surprise us? Because of the characters. You have to make the characters interesting. You have to make the audience want to watch and see what’s wrong with Detective Stabler’s marriage this week or what new addiction House has or what quirky thing Bones is going to do next. The characters make us want to endure 42 minutes of predictable television. Based on the pilot, I don’t know if Elementary can do that.
We know that pilots can set the tone or just introduce us to the characters but what Elementary did was briefly introduce us to these two people like we were meeting them in passing at a conference or at a Starbucks. We know as much about these two characters as you would know about an acquaintance. Yes, it’s the pilot and I understand that we don’t want to give away all the plot points at once, but we should at least see some of their personality. I don’t really know that one girl who was in a group project with me last semester but I know that I liked her personality and I got that from the way she held herself and presented herself. Lucy Liu stood almost motionless on screen for 42 minutes. There were moments when I didn’t think she actually moved her mouth to speak. I would like to revise my theory. She wasn’t replaced by a Lucy Liu-bot, they just used a promotional cardboard cut-out instead.

We at least get some personality from Miller but I don’t think it’s enough to keep me interested as a viewer. One of the fantastic things about Sherlock Holmes is that he is constantly surprising Watson whether that be in his disguises, his hidden talents, his acting skills, what have you. As an audience, we don’t get that surprise. Oh, he’s an addict. Okay. He does and says things that TV audiences have come to know as the norm for addicts. Nothing surprising at all.
I took notes when I first watched this episode and looking back on them, I honestly didn’t remember what some of them were referring to. I’m sure they were important at the time, but right now, I couldn’t tell you what “rubber gloves?” means. Everything about this plot was, as you said, bland.
A husband who looks too much like Val Kilmer for my liking, wants to kill his wife, gets some crazy person to do it for him. –eye roll- Like you, I was expecting SOMETHING, someone to jump out from behind the couch, an odd voicemail left from an anonymous source, Lucy Liu cutout to fall over, anything! And instead we get nothing. As an audience, we aren’t rewarded for our viewing. I’m gagging as I’m typing this, but we aren’t even rewarded with lingering eye contact between Miller and the Cardboard Cut-Out.
While I don’t have a stick figure to sum this up, I think this picture will.
Bland showing more emotion than Lucy Liu

Maybe we'll be rewarded for tuning into the second episode or maybe we'll continue to forget what it was about. Maybe it's all part of a secret plot to make Americans forget things. Now THAT would be an interesting episode. But next installment, we'll actually see what a real drug addict is like. 
And here is Austin Lugar with the last word.

Austin: Her?


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Sherlock Holmes was always an addict, in the written version I mean. There are many episodes where he's using some form of opiate because he's just so terribly bored with it all. Therefore, even their attempt to make something new isn't. They just cribbed the right notes from the right story. But I'll bet they don't even play it up as an escape from the monotony of "real life" and they're just using it to explain his oddball behaviour, instead of, you know, actually using it for more character depth; instead, it becomes a formulaic tarnish on a character that some supporting character gets to gently and eventually rub away to reveal the shining squeaky clean ideal we're supposed to swallow.

    My Holmes is brilliant, so brilliant that the mundanaties of the world threaten to drive him out of his mind. My Holmes should play the violin; conduct weird experiments to document what happens; and document 137 different types of cigarette ash to be certain he *knows* which one is which. He's eccentric, and weird, and standoffish, and snobby, and unconciously rude, and he turns to drugs when nothing else will hold his entertainment; when nothing else can keep his intellect in check so that he *doesn't* then turn to crime just to show people how to do it *properly*. From everything you've said, this version of Holmes we're presented with is like a dry, cold chocolate chip pancake: bland, flat, mostly uninteresting, but with tiny bits of darkness inserted into it to try to tempt you to take another bite.

    I'm also completely with you Leigh, on Watson. There are many, many intellectual theories out there that Watson truly was a woman, and we, ignorant readers, only assumed she was a man because that's how gender stereotypes were way back when. I'm all for Watson being female, but you're right: if she's going to be a woman, let her be strong. We don't need a Xena Warrior Princess type in a crime show but really? A Doctor afraid of Blood? A Surgeon no less? I can suspend my disbelief pretty far (sure okay, Holmes gets the honeys, interesting take, fine I'll roll with it), but a formerly practicing surgeon frightened of blood? What did she do surgery on? Hangnails? Bunions? Did she cut off corns so she wouldn't have to see the icky red stuff? Come on. I smell a big pile of malarky right there, and I will *not* stand for having my intelligence insulted like that; and that's what it is, an insult. We're expected to believe Surgeon -> Woman -> frightened of blood. Please. If you have to give Watson a phobia to allow those people who don't like strong female leads, then please make it something believable, like claustrophobia, or heights, or, heavens forgive me for suggesting this, spiders/mice/vermin.

    What say you two?

    1. I apologize for the confusion. I meant, Jonny Lee Miller found a certain trait of the character to really highlight. Basil of Baker Street was a braggart who was secretly sweet. Cumberbatch focuses on the "highly functioning sociopath." Basil Rathbone was more of a gentleman type. At this point, Miller really plays the character like someone in recovery more than any other take I've seen on it. His quirks are from a different type of imbalance, that could also come from this emotional past of his.

      Love your pancake metaphor.

    2. The reason why portraying Holmes as an addict is a new thing is because it's usually hinted at but never fully explored. The Holmes stories were written when you could go down to Harrods and get yourself a "My First Opiate" kit and it was perfectly legal. Everyone at the time was on drugs. After the first World War though, drug use fell out of fashion and so having a hero be an addict wasn't as great of an idea. Elementary is the first time that Holmes being not only an addict but a recovering addict, has been really explored on a large scale. So while it's not a new idea it is a "new" idea.

      Austin and I talked about writing for Holmes when we first started discussing this project. One thing we agree on is that to write Holmes, you have to be as smart as or smarter than Holmes is. That is REALLY hard to do, especially with writers who are coming from a very formulaic (I really need another word) background already. While Dexter is different, it still has that feel of police procedural about it. (I've only seen through season two, things might've changed.)

      We have some icons for strong female characters in crime dramas even! Detective Benson from SVU is an incredibly strong female character and kicks ass. I want my Watson to be like that. ACD Watson was former military. Why not make Elementary Watson former military? Why can't she be a former field surgeon? Make her kick ass. Take Lucy Liu's character from Charlie's Angels where she was a kick ass bitch who didn't give a shit (it's been a long time since I've seen it, forgive me if I'm overlooking something) and just make her Watson. Change her name from what ever it was to Watson and you already improve the character.

      And I'm sorry, the few seconds of (really badly acted) excitement over a baseball game at the end of an episode doesn't constitute as emotional depth.

    3. Austin: 1) Thank you for the clarification. Didn't quite mean to go off the way I did on that one, but it makes much more sense now. 2) I had to go back and actually re-read my response to figure out exactly what I had written. Thanks again. Apparently I was on good form that day and so "in the zone" that I had no clue what I was actually writing, but at least it made sense

      Leigh: 1) You're totally right about the opiate use. I certainly recall how popular those dens of excess were (at least I assume popularity for how often they crop up in literature). So in a time when just about everything is illegal, I suppose exploring addiction like that is "new". 2)Yes, she should kick ass. But I discussed it with TOH last night and it worked out like this: I mentioned the blog and what it was about and the purpose of it; He was interested; I got into the details of the post/episode starting with Sherlock; He made some intellectual counters; I mention Watson being a female and that they cast Lucy Liu; He immediately perked up and made some equivalent of a "yowza" noise. So there you have it. She's just there as eye candy to encourage male viewership. Right from the horse's mouth, as it were. He even said he'd watch the show just to see the eye candy, quality notwithstanding.

  2. Hey, I happened to come across this post from a review on Tumblr, and I was wondering what you thought of their opinions? They seem pretty against what you're saying.

    1. Everyone will have their opinions. That's what makes this world so great. It's also great because we are allowed to have our opinions. We don't personally like this show. They really do. Que sera.

    2. Well that was a lovely review. Haven't been called an ignorant little shit for hours now. I am sorry we upset her in such an apparently personal way. I'm glad she thought the pilot didn't have a single moment of imperfection, which is very rare for television.

      I will note that we never brought up BBC's Sherlock once in our review. Yes, Leigh and I are fans of that show but I think we are both bigger fans of the character and wish not to be grouped into any of this violently feuding fandoms.

      In many ways I do feel bad for the Elementary fans. There is a lot of negativity going towards this show and I have been part of that. To be a fan seems like you have to go upstream. Yet as a fan of John Carter and Prometheus, I don't start berating the majority that are against me. It is often said that once said that once insults are flung, rhetoric is dead. Sure we poked fun at Lucy Liu's performance--NOT Watson being a woman, just the performance--but we like to think that we backed up our opinions first.

      It seems that a lot of Elementary fans are repeating a lot of points, which makes sense if the "haters" haven't seen majority of the argument. So let's get a few things out of the way:

      --Sherlock is automatically better; No, we don't think that. So far from episode 1 to episode 1, yes we like Sherlock a lot more. Elementary can surprise us. Two shows can exist. We are just cynical of CBS and how they wanted to remake the show and I am just cynical of the corporate philosophy of American network television with a focus on longevity instead of quality. Once again, we like multiple incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. During off weeks, we'll probably discuss them.

      --Watson can't be a woman; Sure Watson can be a woman. That's fine. It worked really well in a movie I love called They Might Be Giants and they even fell in love during that movie. Why I wouldn't want a romance on Elementary harkens back to my cynicism for network procedurals where the male and female detectives always have that will-they-or-won't-they. (They will.) Sherlock and Watson could be a way around that easy sexual tension hook, but casting a woman made me think they were going to fall back on a very familiar type of show.

      --You're high; I wasn't.

      --The writers said "this"; Awesome. That's great. Writers lie. Plans change. The network can give notes. That's awesome they have this intention now but I've seen plenty of shows I like shift focus once the ratings go down. Even for the shows I adore, I can't always take the writers in interviews as gospel. Especially when we're here just to review the 42 minutes.

      --We went in wanting to hate this; Yes. Ultimately we didn't hate this. We said that several times. We found it disappointing. Glee is a show I hate. The Newsroom made me hate it several times throughout the season. I do not hate Elementary and that is not because dozens of Tumblr folk continue to insult Leigh and myself. I kinda hate Tumblr if that means anything. The closest I went to hating Elementary was the final scene and that's just because I have a decent understanding of how baseball works. I'm still tuning in next week; I'm not getting paid to do this blog, I want to tune in.

      I probably shouldn't be responding this much. I believe the phrase is "feeding the trolls." Yet since you see our blog as trollish, I think it's only fair to have an actual discussion. I look forward to these words being dissected and more profanity directed towards me.

  3. I have only one thing to add. I enjoyed the phone-in-the-rice-bag. That was different.

    1. I have to agree. The rice in the bag is possibly the only moment of actual intelligent writing. As someone with food allergies, not as bad as the character supposedly had them, I know that I wouldn't have bought a bag of rice that big or at all. And usually if you have a really severe food allergy to one food, you are also allergic to others, i.e. I have a gluten intolerance and a lactose intolerance. Also the rice trick only works if you do it almost immediately after dropping it in water. It was a smart bit of writing but there are flaws with it.