Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (Doyle, 1891)

“He put his hand over part of the map. ‘What do you read?’
“ARAT,’ I read.
‘And now?’ He raised his hand.
“Quite so. That was the word the man uttered, and of which his son only caught the last two syllables. He was trying to utter the name of his murderer. So and so, of Ballarat.’
‘It is wonderful!’ I exclaimed.
‘It is obvious.’“
--Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

Leigh: When I first read this story way back three whole summers ago, I wasn't a huge fan of it. It seemed like a really simple case. It seemed like a case that I would see on Law and Order and it wouldn't even be an episode that would stick in my memory. In fact, this was the first one in the canon that I've re-read in its entirety since we started this project. I knew there was a murder and the main suspect didn't do it. I couldn't remember much else. After re-reading it today though, it grew on me. It's still not exciting but there are changes that ACD made to the plot that made it a bit different.

First and foremost, we don't start the adventure in the sitting room at all. In fact, we never even go to the sitting room. There is no moment when Holmes tells someone their entire history because of what shoes they decided to wear that day. Instead we get a little moment with Watson and his wife and then Holmes and Watson on the train together. It's like his editors said, "Hey guy, change it up a bit, will ya?" We still get the instance of Holmes being the most perceptive man ever to have lived but it isn't just to show off his talent and introduce the reader to Holmes' ability but it also is a moment of familiarity with Watson and Holmes. We get to experience the Victorian equivalent of "Bro, you missed a spot," and that tells the viewer where their relationship is. They aren't just acquaintances but they're so friendly that they'll tell each other when they're doing a crap job shaving in the morning. 

We've been talking a lot lately about a balance between mystery and character relationships and I feel that ACD wanted the exact opposite of what the writers of Elementary want. Yes, the story starts with Watson eating breakfast with his wife, but she is only referred to as "his wife," not by Mary or Mary Watson. Their dialog is kept to a minimum and while it is probably more realistic Victorian dialog, it's still a bit rigid for a husband and wife conversation, especially when the husband is getting ready to leave town for a few days in about ten minutes. Sure it wasn't the thing to do at the time, talk about a relationship between husband and wife, but we got more of their relationship when we met Mary in A Sign of Four than we do here. ACD knew when to make it about relationships and when to make it about the mystery and this one is all about the mystery.  

"I would like you all to meet my wife, 'My Wife'"

We get a set of facts that points to one outcome when in fact the solution is something entirely different. Sure, it was a little easy to guess what was going to happen, but there were some facts that threw me for a loop at least. A secret marriage? Stagecoach hold up? Australia? It's another instance where the mystery itself isn't that exciting but all of the clues put together make it more than average. 

And side note, I think that "RAT" that Moffat alluded to about the next series of the other Sherlock Holmes modernization is referenced in this story. Just throwing that out there. 

So what do you think, Austin? Is it just another cut and paste story that we see on other crime dramas or is it better because the clues are odder? What makes this mystery better than an episode of Law and Order? And who will win our bet that we have? 

Austin: Right now I'm sure people are obsessively looking back through the blog to figure out what bet we agreed to. Nope, this is one of those crazy "off-blog" conversations that we sometimes have. To avoid spoilers for something we haven't covered, Leigh and I disagree about the fate of a major character from Sherlock Season Two. When the show returns next year, the one who was incorrect will be recording a speech written by the victor. So look forward to that....in a year or so. (Also, no I don't think "The rat" refers to this story. Giant Rat of Sumatra!!!)

The only problem I had with the introduction was that Watson's wife was basically a non-character. She was the opposite of every wife on TV. I was all ready for "But won't it be dangerous?!" or "But we have brunch with the Featherbottoms that weekend!" but she was fine. She fully understands Watson's mancrush on Sherlock and she is encouraging to see things blossom.

This was more compelling than the one last week. We've had two cases in a row that were a bit low key. Weird silly cases, but nothing like a good old fashioned murder. I wasn't bothered by its typical nature because I thought they did a good job setting up the red herring. Obviously the guy Lestrade suspected didn't do it, but it was thorough enough that it made sense that Sherlock was brought in.

The problem was that there are large chunks of this story of explaining stuff. Some of it was compelling like the typical Sherlock deduction breakdowns, but others felt like a bit of filler. I don't know if Doyle had the Dickens deal where he was paid by the word but this needed to be trimmed down a little bit. Once again we had the bad guy tell us his life story in an attempt to gain sympathy from the audience. Didn't work for me, but it oddly really worked for Sherlock.

The ending led to the most interesting part of the story. Sherlock decides not to send the murderer to prison but held onto his signed confession only to be used if the innocent can't go free. Then the story ends! Once again we have Sherlock being the one to decide justice as he sees fit. He's working outside of the law in a very compelling way. The big plothole for this is, of course, that Watson published this big secret. Silly Watson.

Was Sherlock right to withhold this man from prison? Why wasn't this story is called The Boscombe Valley Tragedy? That's a better title and they even used that phrase!

Leigh: I’ll just say that of everyone I’ve talked to, more people agree with me than with you. Just sayin’…
I have to agree about the ending. It seemed weird to me that Sherlock not only felt sympathy for a criminal who wasn’t that great of a guy but then kept him out of jail. Sherlock is really good at doing what he thinks is the right thing to do and in this situation it seems that letting an old man die in his home is the better choice than setting a younger, innocent man free. Sure the younger man was set free anyway based on the evidence but still, he doesn’t do what is “right” and does what he believes to be right. This situation adds more depth to our (anti)hero and creates a much more complex character than Elementary has done, so far at least.
Watson waited until the old man had died before publishing the story so that might be why he published it. The dead old guy can’t go to jail since he’s, you know, dead. There are other stories where Watson mentions that he changes the names of the people involved so that could’ve been what happened here, just not talked about. What I’m saying is that you probably totally missed it. Way to go.
A day after reading this one and I’m having problems remembering the details again. It is pretty bland if I’m honest. Yeah there are a few odd clues to throw the reader off the scent but in general it wasn’t outrageous, it wasn’t exciting, it was a very typical murder. I’m sure at the time it was written and published it was a bit more scandalous.  Australia hadn’t been an actual country for too long and even at the time this was written, it was mainly known as a land full of scoundrels and all around bad guys. That would give the audience plausibility that not one, but two pretty terrible people came from Australia.
I almost wonder if this story just hasn’t aged well. What say you? Do you think that some of these adventures are showing their age? That they aren’t aging gracefully? That they’re pulling a Madonna and not a Meryl Streep?

Meryl Streep in an Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher
Austin: And 100% of the people who I've talked to about this agree with me, except for one little girl who takes five letters to spell one syllable...

Oh sure Watson changed the names and whatnot. Lestrade knows what's up. I'm sure he read the Strand and was rather ticked. Friends of the family as well could probably figure the changed details. It would be cool to see if there were ramifications from this, but I doubt we're seeing that sort of serialization at play. Maybe his last story will be a Seinfeld-esque clip show with cameos of all the pissed people that Sherlock has bothered returning.

Aside from Doyle's wonderful consistency with properly representing other countries, I think this holds up rather well. I don't think every mystery needs to be completely flashy with bizarre elements. That could distract from the key mystery at the center. I think this is a better example of what Doyle can accomplish than something like "The Red Headed League" because it shows what Sherlock set to accomplish in "A Study in Scarlet". The power of deduction solving a case without being tempted away by other beliefs.

Still the best documentary we've ever seen about Australia

In fact with Sherlock's odd moral ending, this has best of both aspects of the character. The observing quality of The Terminator with the human element mixed into the how he decides to handle the information. This is a story that may have worked better in his novella length to avoid his long passages of describing what happened off screen.

So I'll stick with this maybe not being the most memorable, but it's a good story done rather well. But what does Leigh say? Here she is with the last word.

Leigh: RAT!

Friday, October 26, 2012

In-Class Movie: "The Rat Race" (S01E04)

“If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross purposes, the wonderful chain of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all of fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”

--Sherlock Holmes, “A Case of Identity”

Austin: I finished the episode two minutes ago and I'm pretty sure I forgot the entire plot. Something something people in suits something something dialog about how they are important people something something the secretary did it.

Twice this week I've thought about one of the best quotes from The Great Mouse Detective. Since I know we are bound to review that I won't say the context, but Basil of Baker Street comes up with the idea "We'll set the trap off now!" My first time thinking about this quote was this week's Homeland where they definitely followed through with the quote and the second time was just me begging for Elementary to use it.

"In media res is fun and all but haven't we established for several episodes that Sherlock is an expert at opening locks? Get out of my office. I'm going to get drunk and rewatch Project Greenlight."

Set the trap off now! Solve the crime earlier! Have the plot go in a different direction instead of going to Suspect X in their office! Do anything! The formula for this show is so dull that nothing is sticking. We're four episodes in. Is this the second or third time, they've found a dead body of what was supposed to be a suspect at the 15 minute mark? Second episode was a person in a coma but it's still the same reveal concept. The formula is so uncompromising that Sherlock has to sit around looking at pictures/documents so the show can stall because he can't do anything too quickly. That would make him...too much like Sherlock Holmes.

Credit where credit's due. This episode did play with structure in a very minor way so that's one change but it lead to nothing. Most of Watson's talk with Gregson ended up being irrelevant because she ended up getting a text without Gregson's help. But Watson revealed all of Sherlock's secrets! Also didn't matter because Gregson already knew them (I forgot he didn't know them) and he doesn't care. The rest of the station (aka Bell) may care, but if they do that's insane. A homicide detective with a substance abuse problem? It's almost a requirement in this genre.

What this show need is some sort of conflict. Any sort of conflict. Sherlock and Watson are cool, Sherlock and Gregson are cool, Sherlock and NYPD is coo, and even Sherlock and Sherlock are cool. A huge improvement to this show would be if Sherlock is secretly still using drugs. It will add a major depth to the character, it will cause turmoil between him and Watson and will give Watson's job meaning. Right now most of her irrelevancy is because she serves as a sponsor to a character we know will never relapse.

What say you Montano? Should Sherlock be using the bent spoon? Should we? It could be an interesting way to eat cereal.

Leigh: Growing up, whenever we had a fancy meal that required gravy like Thanksgiving, we would use a bent spoon. We didn't have a gravy ladle. I'm sure we had one at one point but it had gone missing with the myriad of other utensils that seem to disappear in my house. My mom will tell you that I went through a phase when I would throw away silverware. I don't recall this. But instead of replacing the missing gravy ladle, we would just take a tablespoon and bend it so that it would act like a ladle. It works and it matches the silverware you already own! No worries about matching patterns. This aside has nothing to do with Elementary or Sherlock Holmes but I thought it might be more interesting than talking about the plot of this week's episode.
Dramatic reenactment of childhood gravy ladle and now I have a new gravy ladle!. Also, floor isn't that dirty it's the pattern of the linoleum.
I have to agree. The plot this week was entirely forgettable but I think that's how they wanted it. Last week we talked about the writers needing to choose between mystery and character development and I think with this episode they made their choice. They mystery was hardly one at all. Everything could've been solved by the Scooby gang even if they were just looking for some Scooby Snax. The character interaction though was a bit more developed this week. Sure, it's still lacking, but it was more developed. Lucy Liu goes on a date, Sherlock talks to his mentor/father figure?/friend about his drug habits and Sherlock admits to Liu about how lonely it is being so smart. Boring.

What I do want to talk about were two moments from this episode that mimicked another recent modernization all too closely for my comfort. First the line, "No one ever remembers the secretary, do they Donna?" To me this is awfully close to the phrasing, "No one ever remembers the cab driver." This could be me being paranoid and trying to find fault but this really irked me. The second occurrence from this episode is a little later. Sherlock is sitting next to an ambulance and is talking to Watson and says that he's been through a trauma. -pause for dramatic effect- Now to me, this could be a writer watching the other modernization, forgetting about it and then subconsciously using INCREDIBLY similar lines or it could be a direct ripoff. I am leaning towards the former because I have more faith in writers and integrity. Overall though, someone should've caught this, or at least someone should've caught this if CBS cared at all. 

They need to fix things. They need to fix a lot of things. We've mention a lot of them before but I'm really starting to worry about the fact that they are making Sherlock Holmes, Smartest Man in the World, dumb. He would've known from the get-go that the one head guy wasn't the murderer. It would've been how he held himself or how he said things or the way he wore his tie. Something. We know he has fantastic deduction abilities, we saw it in the same episode mere minutes before Sherlock went dumb. By the way, I used fingernail polish remover for 2 hours this past weekend cleaning a robot and my hands look like they always do. There is no difference unless you coat your hands in it then set it on fire or use it every day for your entire life. So if Sherlock could pick that up about one of the male executives using nail polish remover, then he should've been able to tell that the head exec wasn't the murderer. Of all of the problems that I have with this show, this is the one that upsets me the most. They're making Sherlock Holmes dumb and that's not right. 

What does the show benefit from if Sherlock Holmes is dumb? And what about them constantly humanizing him? Giving a couple an expensive bottle of wine as a present for a wedding engagement isn't very Sherlock Holmes. Why are they changing what makes Sherlock Sherlock?

Austin: Is this even Sherlock Holmes anymore? The bottle of wine thing was really weird. Not just weird for Sherlock, but just plain weird. Also since when does a master of deduction become obsessed with motive instead of evidence? His thinking the CEO was the bad guy was based mostly on intuition, not enough facts. Once again, they have to make Sherlock dumb in order to stall so the story can fit in all of its beats. 

I don't think the show knows what separates Sherlock from other detectives. Right now he's just quirky and right. Why people like reading Sherlockian stories is because of the way he deduces. He tries to be like Spock by how he only looks at the facts and lets that dictate his decisions. Looks at clues, observations and the unseen things around him. None of that was in the episode. Worth stating that once again, we have yet to see him be clever. Not giving him the salad thing because that dumb. It was the only prop they bothered to put in the room. The book spine thing was decent, but still was not able to be seen by the audience.

With Eli Stone, at least I was able to sing and dance during exposition. Now it's just...ugh.

Thankfully Jonny Lee Miller is still entertaining as he goes through dull lines of dialog that are probably the same each week, but with different names. Lucy Liu is warming up in her performance, but she is left to do the dumbest things. The cafe scene with a friend that turned into a setup was painful. The dialog after the date was even worse. Then the date being appalled that she would Google him after the date was so....dated. This may sound like a bold notion, but a woman can have a subplot that doesn't involve random dates of the week.

My dad walked in during the 15 minute mark and watched the rest. He chuckled a few times but said "No where close to the British one. Not worth the time." and left. I never felt more jealous of my father.

Leigh, what are we doing with our lives? At what point do we give up thinking the show will change? Why does The AV Club keep giving this really high reviews? Why is this such a big hit? Why can't it just be much worse?!?

Leigh: I'm one of those people that has conversations with themselves. Not in the crazy way, like in the "If I happen to be in situation x, I would respond with y" kinda way. I keep hoping that one day, we'll get an email from the writers of Elementary and say, "You're right, we've mucked this up. How do we fix it?" And then we'd get writer's credits and make money off of the DVD sales and I could pay off student loans and it would be wonderful. This situation will probably never happen but I still think about what my response would be. 

First, I'd fix Holmes. Make him calculating, make him acerbic, make him even quicker witted, make him ignorant about social interactions. Make him the smartest man in the city. They keep hinting at it but failing to SHOW us. The book spine could've been found by any other NYPD detective looking through the room. Not impressed. 

"And you swear this guy isn't married? Pinkie swear? Warning: I do have Google. Yet I will not use it until my client reminds me about it."

Second, I'd fix Watson. Make her strong. Make her a bad ass. Make her have some sort of role other than babysitter and time filler. That's all her subplot was, filler. It didn't advance her character, it didn't introduce a new character (her friend we'll never see again), it didn't give us clues to the mystery. It was filler and stereotypical filler at that. If she had been in a kick boxing class or a creative writing class and uses it as an excuse to get away from Holmes for a while, Watson is already infinitely more interesting. I don't care what the writers have said, Watson and Holmes are going to do the dirty eventually. Her learning how to deduce and then him opening up and explaining that it's a lonely world being that smart was just another stepping stone to them having sex. Ugh. 

Third, I wouldn't make it a mystery of the week. I wouldn't make it so that the casual viewer was rewarded with a neatly wrapped up mystery every week. You recommended a great show called Terriers. They have done what Elementary needs to do. We learn about the broken character's past and why he does the things he does, we get a really odd mystery that develops with every episode and we get character interaction that is interesting to watch. The last 30 seconds of episode three was enough to get the viewer interested in the next episode and not have it hint at what was going on. And it didn't jump around and point attention to itself, it was subtle, so subtle that if you had been checking twitter or something, you could miss it entirely. They need to take the subtlety that Holmes is known for and utilize it. We are four episodes in Elementary and there hasn't been anything that carries from one episode to the next except the fact that Holmes had a drug problem and Watson is his sober companion. The first episode of Terriers there is a hint to something that isn't solved until episode four. ELEMENTARY NEEDS this. It needs the overarching mystery that we are missing. It would develop the story, the characters and create a better show. If Holmes is constantly plagued by a murder he can't solve, a mystery he can't crack then we know he is damaged in another way than having a past with drugs. I'm getting sick of this aspect already. I was a fan of it at first but now they're beating it into the ground and I'm afraid it will only get worse. So far the show's message is "drugs are bad, mmk? Oh and even drug addicts can be smart and solve mediocre crimes." I don't know why everyone is such a fan of it. To me it is just another crime procedural. There is nothing special about it except that it stole the names of some fantastic characters and striped the characters of everything they are until they became the blandest, most socially acceptable versions of themselves. 

In the next post we learn that sometimes a solution is more complicated than the clues might lead us to believe and Australia was in fact a prison colony.
And now Austin Lugar with the last word.

Austin: Why?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: "A Case of Identity" (Doyle, 1891)

"My dear fellow," said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, "life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence."
-- Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Case of Identity”

Leigh: It's almost like ACD realized the same opening was getting stale. Last time with all the gingers, we complained about how the opening of every story was getting boring. ACD realized this and decided to change it up. Yes, the story still starts in the sitting room but instead of telling Miss Sutherland what her back story was, Holmes briefly mentioned one or two things then went right into the questioning. It's a great way to introduce a character to possibly new readers but it is succinct and doesn't stumble over the same ideas that we've dealt with in the past. It's a great change of pace when marathoning these like we happen to be. 

Now to the story. It was a very predictable one, in my opinion. The shady step-dad who goes from hating his step-daughter socializing at all do being completely fine with it when he leaves town for a weekend? Shady. The over-eager mom that convinces her daughter to go to the party? Shady. And then meeting a dream man at the ONE party she's allowed to go to? Shady. 

(Sorry, I'm really excited about the new season of RuPaul's Drag Race. Please excuse any references and just go with it.)

And then the this magical dream guy disappears? Rude. And come to find out it's her step-dad all along so that she will give up on love and never want to marry so he can keep using her for her money? RUDE.

The clues that Holmes uses to prove that the step-dad is a shady, no good, (insert bad word) are fun and interesting. A typewriter is this old piece of technology that I've heard people used to use and since they were very mechanized and had lots of moving, easily to break parts, each one was individual in how it put the letters on the piece of paper. Using the collection of letters to see what typewriter they were written on is something that I daresay wouldn't be able to be adapted very easily for a modern day adaptation. (IP addresses, never mind.) 

And we get more of that humanized Holmes that you talk about. He says at the end that he would gladly give the evil step-father an ass kicking before the evil/cowardly step-father runs away like a little girl or an adult male runs away from a spider. This is realistic act of what any human would do is something that we don't get very often from Holmes. So what makes this situation so unique? Why would Holmes want to defend this person of all the people we've met so far? And can we agree that all step parents and probably stepsiblings and half siblings just for good measure, should never, ever, ever be trusted?

Austin: I really appreciate Doyle reading our blog and adjusting to our notes. I think that is very thoughtful and humbling of him. The opening to this one is so much fun, it's almost a bummer when Miss Mary Sutherland shows up because I like how odd it is having Sherlock and Watson hanging out in the house. Their banter was just brilliant.

In fact, I think that Watson is becoming more comfortable with this situation. He's getting a bit judgmental and I like that. He's not always a "yes man". He still serves the role of asking Sherlock how he solved stuff, but I love lines like "I had expected to see Sherlock Holmes impatient under this rambling and inconsequential narrative, but, on the contrary he had listened with the greatest concentration of attention." Watson is bored! I ended up being a bit more too, but I like that Watson was on our side in that strange moment of metaness.

This case didn't interest me entirely, but I was hoping it would have been entirely solved without leaving the house. He was close! I actually felt a bit nostalgic during the typewriter discussion. Not because I ever used this AWESOME looking machine. (Man, I need a typewriter. That's all that's stopping me from completing my novel!) It's because I read a ton of younger mysteries as a kid and that was always a go-to clue. The kid detective would notice that the "c" on this note looked like an "%". They have to find a typewriter that does that very convoluted thing! Bad guy captured.

They never threatened to whip the bad guy though, which was obviously a major flaw in those stories. I found that to be a fascinating character point for Sherlock. I think it did a lot of things really well. It showed that he is not a police officer; he doesn't obey by their rules. That's something that Elementary touched upon this week, but didn't properly explore. Also I think it showed his frustration with the justice system. I talked about how he is obsessed with puzzle solving, but I think his ultimate puzzle is all of society. That is what is the most out of place; bad guys are getting away with bad things and he has to fix it. When he uses his brilliance and there is still no proper justice, he reacts by taking two strides towards the whip.

Is Sherlock trying to fix the world? Or is he just being sassy? (Is sassy a RuPaul buzz word? I've only seen half an episode!)

Leigh: All I can imagine now is Basil Rathbone in drag. Thanks.

I do wish we had more interaction between Holmes and Watson by themselves. I’m a people watcher and an eavesdropper so getting this little moment of them together, being themselves and not worrying about a client is nice. We get it a little in the first book but we don’t get it very often. Scenes like this are a nice way to have character development without being obnoxious about it.
I am always amazed by how Elementary and what we have read tie together so well without us planning it. Elementary showed us another cliché of having someone who breaks some of the rules to talk to the suspect but because he isn’t a police officer it’s okay. In Identity, we have a situation where if Holmes wanted to, he could’ve totally used that riding crop and created some early fanfics, I’m sure. Instead though he abides by the law and just calls the evil stepfather a variety of names. I heard someone say on a podcast once, and of course I don’t remember which one, possibly Comedy Film Nerds, one of the guests said that Batman was Sherlock Holmes in a cape. I have to agree to a point as they are both detectives and willing to go outside of the law to get things done but Batman will kick the butt of whatever bad guy he finds and Holmes is British. He knows that there is wrong and evil in the world but he doesn’t want to become that. He knows the difference between doing good and creating more havoc. We know he’s willing to break the rules, we saw that in Bohemia when he was willing to fake a fire to break into someone’s house to steal something. But there is a fine line between breaking the rules and becoming something he’s trying to beat. I think that Holmes is trying to make the world all better but he is only one (fictional) man and can only do so much. He realizes that he is limited in what he can do and what he can change but that doesn’t get him down. He just keeps on doing what he does.

Do you think we’ll see more of Elementary trying to break the rules like Holmes is known to do or was this a rare occasion? And since we've just had word about Elementary being picked up for a whole season, do you think they might start taking inspiration from classic stories or are they going to ignore them?

Austin: Honestly, it's hard to tell exactly what Elementary is going to do. CBS dramas aren't known for reacting to critics because they can just point to their high ratings and laugh themselves to the bank. So I'm imagining it'll pretty much stay the same. And yet looking at their upcoming episode titles, there is one that I believe will directly tie into a classic Doyle story. In fact, I feel safe to say that we will jump up a story for that week...

What I feel that Elementary and Doyle will continue doing is to keep the mystery in the foreground. Yet what we keep responding is that we want more character interaction that isn't entirely tied to the mystery. With Doyle, the case is curious enough that we want more of that. (Aside from this week's, at least to me.) With Elementary, I'm basically begging for the characters to speak to each other about anything else but what they are trying to solve. Perhaps, it's because there is no chance in my mind that they won't solve it.

With the Doyle stories, he gives you enough pieces to where you think this can't be solved. I feel that Sherlock will be able to solve it, but I can't yet. With Elementary, we're just watching Step One, Step Two, Step Three, Step Four, repeat. There is no drama between the characters or drama in the conflict. It is just routine for the sake of routine. All that does is come down to quality of writing.

Man, I just pumped myself up for Thursday's episode. Ugh.

And now Leigh Montano with the last gif.


Friday, October 19, 2012

In-Class Movie: "Child Predator" (S01E03)

“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identity.”
--Sherlock Holmes, “The Red-Headed League”

“In Just-
spring   when the world is mud--
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles  far   and wee”
--An except from e.e. cummings

Austin: Lately when I've been talking to people, they ask me about Elementary. They are daunted by the lengths of our blog posts and they want the short version. So here's the quick version of my thoughts: This is the best episode of the show. It is still quite bad. I believe it will continue to get better and worse at the same time.

This is the first episode not written by the creator and instantly there's a difference. Sherlock and Watson feel like people. Their relationship actually exists. There is ebb and flow. It's still not perfect, but they have at least acknowledged that Watson needs to serve a purpose. Right now she is a good listener. They still really need to give her a way to help with the mystery, but at least Sherlock likes having her around for a reason. I liked them doing squats together, I was amused by their first dialog together in the cold open and dammit Leigh, I laughed when Sherlock said "You, me, Agnus" at the end.

"How difficult is it to scrapbook, Sherlock" "It's Preschool, my dear Watson."

That said, the rest of the mystery is a complete and utter mess. The case is a bit odder, but still not worthy enough for Sherlock Holmes. They have a villain (a TV clichéd villain, but a villain) who is actively trying to make the case harder to solve which is key. But the quirky elements of the case (The goddamn balloons, the captor twist, avoiding public interviews) were all quirky for Law and Order, not Sherlock Holmes.

On Tuesday, we handled uber-quirky for Sherlock Holmes. Red-headed people being brought in to copy the encyclopedia all to distract people from the real crime. This is still just a standard and often very boring case. During a few moments, I was engaged thanks to Jonny Lee Miller. When Adam asked if he would be forgiven, Sherlock's answer is great. That was a really good (still obvious) moment.

But what the hell is going on for the rest of the story? A kidnapper steals children and leaves behind a bunch of Thank You balloons. He's been doing this for 7 years. This seems like a standard CSI episode. That's fine! Just take an episode premise like that and turn it on its head when you have Sherlock Holmes leading the investigation. Don't just plug in his character into the formula; have him run around the formula skipping steps and having fun.

At this point, the formula is really showing its problems. The cops serve no purpose. In fact, it's a major plot point that not being a cop is more effective. In a worthless scene of showing their large cop set, Sherlock begs Gregson to let him interrogate Adam. It ends with Sherlock saying he needs ten minutes. Gregson stands in the elevator and says "You get five!" as it closes. Dumb. But it's dumber when Sherlock starts his five minutes and nobody is even watching him. Gregson walks in during it which makes me ask 1) Why the hell did he even go to a different floor? II)  If you were so opposed to him interrogating your subject, why did you let him start without you?

I have many more plot holes that bugged me, but I can save those for later. My question for you Leigh is a big one. What does the show wanting to focus on? Is the Sherlock/Watson relationship their main focus or is it the mystery of the week? From this episode and your choice of the two, could the show be on the verge of improving or getting worse?

Leigh: This is definitely the best episode so far. I think it has finally reached the level of mediocrity that American viewers love. Criminal Minds, Bones, Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, all of these shows tell us that Americans love standard mildly interesting crime dramas.
There are so many cliché moments that I started counting them. Okay I didn’t but I did over-dramatically groaned when they happened. “You get 5 minutes,” an investigator lying about their past to get a suspect to talk, the suspect making a fatal mistake in the end. All of it is clichéd. I feel like if I were playing a drinking game using crime drama clichés, I would’ve been drunk about 1/3 of the way through. (Future note: Make a crime drama cliché drinking game.) While reading Holmes stories, we expect the unexpected. We want to be shocked and surprised. We want to be confused. We want Sherlock to make it all make sense in the end. These episodes so far have been none of these things. They are mediocre and this is not a compliment.
"Our drinking is the drinking game." "Drink!"

I think this show is trying to do too much and doesn’t know how to do it. Other shows have shown us that they can be about the mystery of the week and the character’s relationships. Elementary seems to be trying this but falling short. IT IS GETTING BETTER, before I get yelled at by everyone on the internet, BUT, it’s still falling short. Yes, the interactions with Watson and Holmes are better but I still don’t feel like Watson is needed. Holmes said in this episode that she is little better than a phrenology bust, in more words. He said in the past he used prostitutes to talk to. What makes Watson different? She’s getting paid to be there? –shrug- I got nothing else. She has a wealth of medical knowledge that isn’t used. I could tell that the huge scar on the guys back meant he had massive surgery. Thank you, Captain Obvious. She’s basically there to tell the audience what they can see for themselves or things they already know from watching a myriad of other crime dramas. Stockholm Syndrome is not an uncommon thing for crime dramas. Crime dramas, in fact, LOVE Stockholm Syndrome. Having Watson explain to the audience what Adam was experiencing just seemed like the writers realized she needed more dialog in this episode than what they had given her. And as a surgeon, why is she interested in psychology and past crimes? Why would she follow the Balloon Man (WORST NAME FOR A BAD GUY EVER) story unless she had some sort of connection with it? Make it a friend’s kid that was the second victim or something. Give her a reason to do the things she does!
So three episodes in and Watson is still terrible. Why don’t they fix her? What could they do to fix her? Also, Holmes’ dad has been mentioned in every episode. When can we expect him and who would your dream cast for him be? If you say anyone other than Stephen Fry, you’re wrong.

Austin: If the show made up its mind on what it wanted to be about, I would excuse it for the half its failing on. If it wants to be serious about the relationship between Sherlock and Watson, make that the focus and the mysteries secondary. If it wants to be a mystery show first, they really have to make the mysteries worthwhile. Them being this lazy with the mysteries is not acceptable if they consider the cases to be this important of a factor. It's not just that they are too familiar, but they are taking way too many story shortcuts.

The cops tell the parents about the dangerous deal to get back their daughter? The media is reporting on an immunity deal that isn't even signed yet? Lawyers are that dumb to create an immunity deal that quickly? Sherlock and Watson both happen to have been focused on this Balloon Boy case that he somehow couldn't solve all those years ago? The evidence that Sherlock is looking at in his box is just pictures?

They have to actually be able to tell a mystery. Once again we had an episode of Sherlock not being clever. There is never any setup for his reveals. They are essentially cheating. I'll let them have one wine bottle reveal every once in awhile, but nothing this regular. All of the clues for the affair weren't shown to the audience. We weren't given any information about the old cases. Even when he stayed up all night to find the Balloon Man, his clue (He works at night!) is magically solved off screen. Personally I would have focused on him regularly picking up doughnuts, asked Adam more about that and surveyed the area of who routinely picks up doughnuts in the area that fit the description. But then again, I'm no Holmes. 

This is just a bad mystery show. Terriers was a FANTASTIC show that did a great job with its mysteries of the week because it was a show that knew the genre very well and often surprised the audience by taking the less obvious path. As a show about these characters, I think there was serious progress this week where I actually found Watson to be a person and Liu's performance to be....dare I say it......better.

Oh and Richard E. Grant needs to play Sherlock's dad. Accept no substitutes. Don't believe me, watch Withnail and I immediately. 
One was in Doctor Who, the other is about to be in Doctor Who. That is a statement that applies to every British actor alive.

Leigh: I think the biggest plot hole that I had a problem with this episode was the FBI. Early in the episode, Sherlock mentions that the FBI was on a trail when they looked at the exterminator employees. Why didn’t the FBI show up again when there was another child missing? I don’t know if this is protocol but I do know that it is TV Police Drama protocol. That’s what happens. A serial killer starts killing again? A kidnapper starts kidnapping again and opens an old case? The FBI busts open the NYPD doors and piss off all of the cops working on the case and eventually fumbling it up so badly that they lose the bad guy. This is what TV crime dramas have taught me to expect. The FBI is mentioned but that’s it and for something as serious as a serial kidnapper/killer getting another victim, I expected them to show up. Also, the FBI could’ve solved that case. Maybe that’s why they were purposefully left out.
My mom brought up a good point about Elementary. She said, “The problem is Sherlock isn't as special anymore. There are too many imitators, The Mentalist, Psych, etc. There has to be a great plot, fantastic acting and enough hints for viewers to get it after the big reveal.” Of course these are all things I’ve said before but the first point is the one I’m gonna focus on now. This Sherlock isn’t special. He isn’t super intelligent. He isn’t four steps ahead of the audience and the police and a step ahead of the suspect. In this episode he is almost beaten by the suspect. I feel that this show could be made better simply by changing the characters names. If it were Steve Howard and Jenny Washington solving crimes and kicking a drug addiction, I think the show would work much better.
I feel though if this show stopped trying to develop the mystery aspect (because I am HOPING that they’re trying at least) and just made it about the characters, we would end up with something that neither of us wants. Sherlock Holmes is about solving mysteries no matter how frivolous or off the wall they are, we saw that earlier this week with the Red Headed League. If we take away the mysteries from Sherlock Holmes we end up with a jackass and his best friend talking about how the jackass should stop doing drugs. If we took the mystery out of Elementary or just didn’t make it the focus, it would be about Sherlock Holmes and his sober companion, who might actually begin to be growing on Holmes, talking about being an addict and eventually having sex. Yuck. That just isn’t a show I want to watch. That’s why I stopped watching Bones. It stopped being about the mystery of the week and started being about Bones and Booth boinking. Unlike the rest of the population that seems to be enraptured by even the slightest mention of sex, I am an adult and understand that it’s something that people do sometimes and that it doesn’t make for very good plot points in a series, unless one of the people dies during and it is happening in Edwardian England.
The new original Booth and Bones

In the next book review we discuss that it isn’t always step-mothers who are evil and that all step-parents should be treated with suspicion because what's family without a little suspicion? Also! If you want to read a long but don’t have access to a copy of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, NEVER FEAR! Thanks to the wonderful website, Project Gutenberg, it is available to you fo’ free!
[Project Gutenberg link: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1661] So now you don’t have a reason to not read along! Go! Educate yourself!
And now Austin Lugar with the last word.

Austin: Squats

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book Review: "The Red-Headed League" (Doyle, 1891)

“As far as you are personally concerned,” remarked Holmes, “I do not see that you have any grievance against this extraordinary league. On the contrary, you are, as I understand, richer by some £30, to say nothing of the minute knowledge which you have gained on every subject which comes under the letter A. You have lost nothing by them.”
--Sherlock Holmes, “The Red-Headed League”

Leigh: So this week we tackle the Curious Case of the Ginger We’re Supposed to Care About. Or The Adventure in Finding Out if Gingers Have Souls. Or something else attempting to be witty and pithy and falling short.
This short format is something that I really like about ACD’s writing. We have a short, easy to digest, easy to read story that really doesn’t take that long to get through. It’s perfect for a child to read if they are interested in mysteries or it’s great reading before bed. You don’t have to worry about losing your place because if push comes to shove, you can just read the whole thing over and you haven’t really lost that much time, not that I have any experience with this. It’s a fun little adventure that doesn’t feature a life-threatening case or anything too thrilling. And it’s a fun little story with little odd clues. Gingers? Who really wants to hire a ginger, I mean willingly, of course, let alone put out an ad specifically for gingers.
We get a classic story with a bit of a twist with the Red Headed League. We have a bank heist but not one that is SUPER easy to predict. It’s even mimicked by real life theft attempts such as the Baker Street robbery. COINCIDENCE!? Probably… That was later depicted by Jason Statham with some pretty lackluster ‘70s sideburns. The reveal at the end is a bit unbelievable, I mean, why would a bunch of people want to hide out in a basement if not for a fantastic surprise to the crooks? Over all though, it’s fun and not too strenuous and when it comes down to it, that’s all I want in a book. That and more pictures.
So you're saying if I pull this off, I am not obligated to say "yes" to The Expendables 3?

Now to the bits that I don’t like about this story, besides the lack of pictures. It really has to deal more with format. I understand that ACD was constantly hoping new readers would read the stories in the Strand and discover Sherlock Holmes but having a situation at the beginning of every story where Sherlock tells someone their entire life history just by looking at their clothes is a bit tiresome. I know that these were serialized and one almost has to do that at the beginning of every adventure, but it would be nice for it to not be so formulaic. Throw a wrench into the mix every once in a while, don’t have everyone meet in the sitting room and Holmes tells them what they had for breakfast in 1890, but have our heroes meet someone on the street or in a pub or something. Change something about the situation to make it seem less repetitive. I know I’m generalizing but that’s what I do best, that and complain.
 What do you think, Austin? Do the adventures seem a bit cut and paste or am I being too picky?  And what was with all the gingers? 

Austin: I'm going to give Doyle a little leeway on repetition at this stage in our marathon. He released these stories to the Strand and I don't think he had any plans right away to put them into a collection. Even though he does the client assessment a bit too many times, at least it still has little amusing things in it. Like how Sherlock knew this guy was a Freemason...he was wearing a Freemason pin. Sometimes it's easy.

This case is a very interesting one because it's a realization that Sherlock Holmes is in the mystery genre out of convenience. It doesn't have to be a murder; he's not a homicide detective. Sherlock Holmes is a puzzle solver. It's not necessarily about helping people, but figuring out what the hell is going on. In this story, Sherlock has him repeat all of the details of "The Red-Headed League" that may not be necessary to figure out what's the next step, but he just wants to hear how weird it all is.

And it is weird! I'm still not entirely sure this story makes the most sense. It is definitely convoluted and not the most satisfying. But those odd bits are entertaining enough. What I did like about this story is that Doyle seems to be trying to make London as exciting as the other parts of the world. He's making an adventure story in the reader's backyard. That works better in "Bohemia" with all of the fire and disguises that could all happen on a nice street. This story requires more coincidences to pull off, but it still involves a (soulless) average Joe getting into the middle of something more exciting.

I didn't hate this story, but it's easily the weakest of the four we've read. Now the important question, to tie into the point of our blog, are we being too nice on it? We've been ripping apart episodes of Elementary. Should we be doing the same to this plot? Or what makes an average Doyle story more effective than the typical episode of Elementary?

Leigh: You bring up a very good question, one that I’m sure our readers have also pondered. Are we going too easy on Doyle here? Are we too enamored by Sherlock Holmes to look at the flaws of the stories? I think there are multiple parts to the answer for this so I’ll try to answer the best I can.
Should we be ripping this plot apart like we have with Elementary? The problems with Elementary aren’t just with the plots of the episodes. Yeah, the plots are terrible and a bit pointless, but that isn’t the only issue we’ve found with Elementary. The Holmes and Watson that the show has presented us are two-dimensional, half developed characters attempting to be something that they just aren’t. Hopefully this will change. I still have a glimmer of hope for the Elementary writers getting their act together and fixing the mess they’ve made. (I would like to add a note here that for this blog, I have cleaned up my language considerably. I should get a prize for that, dammit.)
What makes an average Doyle story more effective than the typical episode of Elementary? “Red Headed League” is by far the weakest we’ve read so far but it is still an enjoyable read. It’s so silly and ridiculous that it’s fun. All of the gingers being rounded up, I mean, applying for one job position? Sitting in a room and copying the Encyclopedia? And then the job just disappears? These are weird clues that make the reader interested and want to read more. The audience for Elementary isn’t presented any clues and they’re all rounded up at the end for a big reveal. There is no audience participation and that is what all good mystery/crime procedurals need. If they audience at home can’t play along, they’re gonna get bored. If the writers don’t want them to play along, give them something else to pay attention to like characters or even red herrings. Not even presenting the clues is like telling the audience that they’re too dumb to understand so why bother trying to tell them what’s going on. Personally, I don’t like it when my intelligence is insulted.
So long and thanks for all the freckles

So are we going to easy on Doyle? We can forgive him when he makes mistakes because he has shown us with the first few stories that he can do better. We know that Sherlock has some amazing adventures and that they are some of the greatest mysteries ever. Much like Bohemia though, not every one can be remarkable.  There are going to be some that are a bit more ridiculous and goofy and kinda lame, but we forgive that because Doyle has earned it. The writers for Elementary haven’t earned that yet. They haven’t shown us that they can be fantastic and show these characters doing remarkable things and solving seemingly impossible mysteries. They’ve shown us mediocrity at it’s finest.
I have my serious pants on today, if you can’t tell, so you get to try to answer me this: Why gingers? Why an encyclopedia? Is copying the encyclopedia the equivalent of scanning every page of a book, page by page?

Austin: Criticism is basically the articulation of a personal emotional response. I have fun with Doyle and I don't with Elementary. (Not yet anyway.) To me, the big strength with Doyle is still the warmness of his lead characters. Thanks to our discussion of Dressed to Kill last week, I read this story with Basil Rathbone as the lead. Especially the way he was very kind to Watson; how he was happy that he was able to take part in this adventure. Elementary doesn't have that because as we've discussed, we're not sure they even like each other.

I like your series of questions. Why gingers? Why are they copying the encyclopedia? The answer is obviously: Why not! There is fun in the absurdity. I enjoyed the short story more when it was just a bunch of weird things. It didn't tie together perfectly so the ending wasn't as great, but it's still fun to stumble upon the weirdness that is there for the weirdness. In LOST what was more fun: Having Sayid being surrounded in the woods by whispers or dryly finding out what they were? 

Doyle was wisely set up a mystery series that is only interested in handling the goofiest cases because anything conventional would be too dull for the smartest man who ever picked up a magnifying glass. Watson is allowed to react like a normal person by saying this is all insane, but like the audience he's completely along for the ride to see what's behind the next mysterious door.

And now Leigh Montano with the last word.

Leigh: Gingers

Editor's Note: Thursday is the Opening Night for the Heartland Film Festival and Friday is a really big screening day. Expect a slightly later review for this week's Elementary because Austin's not sure when he'll have 45 free minutes. If all of you buy tickets, I'm sure he can manage something during his lunch break...