‘Elementary’ (Season 5): A Most Dangerous Game

Over a Barrel

As fans know, only a couple of episodes of “Elementary” have aired since my last article, due to various “event” programming (i.e. the Superbowl, the Grammys), so not a whole lot of ground to cover in my latest review- though the same cannot be said of the episodes themselves- especially last night’s episode. Space concerns keep me from going overboard with too much detail, so we’ll hit the highpoints.

The first episode was entitled “Over a Barrel,” but it was actually a bit of a “bottle” episode- see what I did there? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) in other words, it mostly took place in one location, as Watson found herself held hostage by a man (Isiah Whitlock Jr., “The Wire,” “Veep”) in a diner looking to avenge his son’s wrongful death by a particular deadline- or else.

On the plus side, this episode had some great moments, notably the always welcome teaming up of Holmes and Bell, including a priceless bit where the former had to convince the latter to bend the rules in order to illegally enter a location they needed to get into to help solve the case at hand. The look Bell gave Holmes at his suggestion was hilarious, and I love these two working together, especially now that they’ve mended fences after their brief falling out.

Over a Barrel

Also noteworthy was the fact that the entire case coming to a breaking point was something that could have easily been avoided: the man in question had been after Holmes and Watson for years trying to get their help with it, as we saw in an affecting montage that opened the show. It’s rare for the show to acknowledge the fact that some people slip through the cracks of getting justice, but this was exceptionally well-handled and showed that, despite all the good that they do, Holmes and Watson are hardly perfect.

Granted, it’s not like we didn’t know that to a certain extent, but this particular way of showing that was quite effective, and bolstered immeasurably by a strong performance from Whitlock. Thanks to him, even though you knew all would be well in the end for Watson, you still had to wonder just how badly things would end- not in the least with that (notably white) SWAT sniper guy outside the diner looking to end things simply so they could “go home” already.

On the negative side, they almost let the entire episode go by without alluding to the fact that Watson had been held captive before- something one assumes she’d have a considerable amount of PTSD from, but, unless I blinked and missed it, was barely acknowledged by the show, save at the very end, when Cpt. Gregson offered up a comforting hug to a visibly shaken Watson.

Over a Barrel

Even then, though, the previous incident was never brought up, to the best of my knowledge. (Let me know in the comments if I somehow missed it.) That’s unlike the show, and I could reason that it was something that slipped through the cracks because of a new writer, if it weren’t written by a longtime writer/producer/story editor: Jeffrey Paul King; and directed by a recurring presence on the show, Guy Ferland.

Note also that the incident in question was something that occurred over a series of episodes, not just a one-off scenario, which would be more understandable. I mean, it’s not as if I myself, even after reviewing the show for years, can recall off the top of my head what happened on every episode, and it’s kind of my job- but it’s REALLY their job. Just saying.

That said, it was nonetheless a solid episode, and avoiding the cliché of having Whitlock’s character meet an untimely demise via death by cop was a welcome development, and Liu was pretty rock solid throughout the episode, even if the actress herself might have brought it to the creative team’s attention that maybe she should be a little more on edge due to her past experiences. Still, it’s long been a character trait for Watson to be cool under fire, so maybe it was a choice on the part of all concerned.

Over a Barrel

Another point worth making was that it was the rare case in which Holmes and Watson essentially failed. Sure, Holmes eventually got his man, but he did so after the proposed deadline. Granted, this was a bit out of character for him, given all that was potentially at stake- as in Watson’s well-being- and you’d think he’d have been that much more mindful of the deadline given that, but it’s so rare for Holmes to fail, it’s always a welcome development when it happens, and even better when he’s able to find a way around it in the end, as he did here.

All in all, the episode benefitted enormously from being focused and not overstuffed with too many details, which is more than I can say for the following episode. Yes, the maple syrup thing was a little silly- though, astonishingly, based on a real case, making it another “ripped from the headlines” endeavor- but remarkably, I’ve seen it used as a plot device elsewhere, though I can’t recall where off the top of my head. But overall, it was easy to follow and pretty straightforward.

On the other hand, last night’s episode, “Rekt in Real Life,” was filled to the brim with plot points- so much so that it overwhelmed the story as a whole, which is really unfortunate, as there was the makings of a great episode in there- or several, really. Taken separately, the e-gamer thing was interesting enough- though “Bull” did an episode about it not too long ago, and “CSI” did one a while back, so it wasn’t entirely unprecedented- and with the recent developments with online gamer Pew Dee Pie, couldn’t have come about at a better moment in time.

Over a Barrel

In addition, I dug the notion of a rogue Eskimo looking to save his village through the power of gaming, and how it connected to an animal rights activist (guest star Kathy Najimy) and her lawyer (Ben Stiller’s better half, Christine “Don’t call me Marcia Brady” Taylor). But boy, was this a lot to take in, and the problem was, there just wasn’t time enough for it all, which has been a recurring problem with the show as of late.

What could have been an effective storyline- or storylines, rather- was compromised by slighting its characters on the whole, including the regulars themselves. In particular, the character of Tendu (Connor Johnston, “Grimm”), who was fascinating on paper, given what all we knew about him and what he was trying to accomplish, between helping his village and rescuing a “game model” from her human trafficking/prostitution background, was a bit of a letdown in the end, as he barely even spoke a word in the end, if that.

Granted, I get that the design of the plot itself required that, but it would have been nice if there had been a short scene with even Holmes and Watson reflecting on the case and all that Tendu did after the fact, even if there wasn’t time to hear Tendu speak for himself. Likewise, both Taylor and Najimy fell prey to the “obvious suspect” issue, which arises whenever a name guest star is involved.

Over a Barrel

Though, to be fair, James Kyson, of “Heroes” fame, as the “game team leader” Joey Ng, was also a pretty recognizable face, so maybe they were going for the whole “Let’s make ALL the suspects known actors so that viewers don’t know who to suspect” gambit. That said, there was an awful lot going on here, so much so that when Holmes proclaimed that the OG gamer was killed over global warming, I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. You can’t fault the show for being ambitious in its scope, at least.

The episode fared better when it focused on Shinwell (Nelsan Ellis), however, who got to directly interact with his daughter for the first time in ages when she “hired” him to get rid of the unwanted advances of a local gangster who had been stalking her. Naturally, Shinwell was tempted to take the “low road” when it came to handling the situation, but thankfully, he was able to control himself enough to seek out the advice of Watson before he did anything rash.

In the end, he accomplished his goal through compromise, leading to a heartbreaking moment at the end when he realized that, rather than being the first step in a reconciliation between himself and his daughter, it was simply her using him as a means to an end. This was by far the most affecting moment of the episode, and the effectiveness of it proves how valuable a quick moment with Tendu might have been if the show had taken the time to give him one, after all the insanity that preceded it.

Over a Barrel

On the plus side, Ellis is really settling into the role, and like Kitty before him, the show is getting good at brief allusions to him throughout the episode in the exchanges between Holmes and Watson, showing that he has integrated himself into their minds enough to discuss him even when he’s not around and express concern over his well-being. All of this is definitely a good thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I get that a trademark of the original stories is complex plotlines and lots of fake-outs and dead ends before Holmes and Watson get to the truth. The problem is, those are written stories, so there’s plenty of space to give the plot breathing room. Not so much in a forty-five minute or so episode. As a direct result, we’re losing the character moments that make a difference for “Elementary” in the long run, and which separate it from the pack of more “typical” crime procedurals.

In other words, we expect that sort of thing from say, a given episode of “Law & Order,” but not so much from this show. I fear that, in hopes of getting the show renewed, the writers are losing sight of what made it stand out in the first place from the pack. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an easy enough fix, and the fact that the show routinely pulls off a solid episode on a semi-regular basis proves they can do it when focused, so all hope is hardly lost. But if they don’t watch it, they may lose the viewers they already have, and that will be the final nail in the coffin.

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The constant on-again-off-again status of the show in any given week doesn’t help matters, either. To wit- the show is off yet again next week, for the Oscars. I get that there’s no point in airing an episode in a week that most people will be watching something else, but I’d rather the show be on extended hiatus and then come back with several episodes in a row uninterrupted than for it to randomly pop up here and there like an ongoing game of “whack-a-mole,” you know?

Or maybe I’m just overreacting and frustrated because the show seems to be digging its own grave and viewership is sinking over the years. It happens to the best of shows. But I still think this one is worth fighting for, and that it has a lot to offer. I’ve heard more than a few people say they prefer it to the BBC’s “Sherlock,” which I still haven’t seen, so that’s something, given the pedigree of that show.

Maybe CBS should look into doing the mid-season thing like certain shows are doing more and more of lately, where a season runs for half the amount of episodes, but much more consistently, over a briefer amount of time. That might go a long way towards saving the show, as it would be cheaper and less time-consuming, opening up the playing field for the cast to work on other projects, as is becoming more and more common with certain multi-tasking actors (witness Sarah Paulson, Michael K. Williams, and Alison Brie, to name but a few).

Elementary new 2

More importantly, it would free the writing staff up to focus on making individual episodes more tightly written and concise, with room for character development and the like. As a fellow writer, I get that having a deadline isn’t easy, and often leads to a lot of compromise in the act of getting things done on schedule. By cutting down on the workload, perhaps the show could benefit in the end by delivering the goods in more satisfying way. Just a thought.

What did you think of the last few episodes of “Elementary”? How about the state of the show on the whole? Do you like my idea of a more limited run approach? Or are you okay with the way things are? What do you think of Shinwell? Is he a welcome addition? Let me know what you thought down below and see you next month!