Earlier today, former A.V. Club contributor Noel Murray posted an essay proposing to “Ban The Backstory.” It’s a compelling piece, and one that felt particularly relevant as Joan Watson’s life story was put into greater focus in “Corpse Du Ballet.”
Television procedurals rely on the backstory to differentiate between different people completing the same job. To keep a detective from being a generic detective, you make them a tortured genius with a drug problem. To keep the detective’s partner from being a generic partner, you make them a former surgeon who left the job in disgrace. It helps in Elementary’s case that the writers are also building on existing literary characters, but the show still uses backstories as a way to distinguish their versions from others in procedural franchises like NCIS and CSI.
The benefit of television, though, is that characters get to move beyond their backstories. One of the best things Elementary has done is develop an evolving history, allowing Sherlock’s addiction or Joan’s time as a surgeon to become part of their story rather than their entire existence. Noel’s essay is primarily concerned with moments of revelation in which withheld back story becomes an emotional anchor for a film, but those moments are only a small part a season of television; yes, we got an episode where we learned what led Sherlock down his path to addiction and what caused Joan to leave medicine, but the show can expand the characters after that moment, and add dimension to make such details only a small portion of who they are over the course of an entire series. Although the series started by establishing backstories as mysteries for Joan and Sherlock—and the audience—to solve about one another, those mysteries were subsequently cleared up, and new mysteries have been proposed, ones that rely less on backstory and more on episode-to-episode characterization.
And yet I thought of Noel’s essay as Elementary unspooled what may be its weakest episode to date, as its B-story exists solely as a vehicle to deliver a detail about Joan’s past that completely fell flat for me. Showrunner Rob Doherty said at the recent TCA Press Tour that the writers room broke procedural stories before determining what character stories the writers could tell around them, but Joan’s work with the homeless feels like an exception, a blatant and manipulative outlet to reveal a new part of Joan’s backstory. As Sherlock wonders why Joan is so insistent on helping find a friend of a homeless man suffering from schizophrenia, she reveals to Sherlock that her birth father is a homeless man suffering from schizophrenia who was divorced by her mother when Joan was a newborn. He has lived mostly on the streets ever since—Joan hasn’t seen him for two years, and he only occasionally recognizes her, and resists her efforts to help him get off the streets.
The reason this piece of procedural backstory doesn’t work is because it is asked to generate interest and deliver resolution all in one episode. Joan has shown no specific interest in homeless men with schizophrenia or PTSD before this to my recollection, nor has she spoken of her father in a way that would suggest it was central to her character (although it’s been a while since I’ve watched the episode where we meet Joan’s family). The reveal doesn’t give Lucy Liu any interesting material to work with, relying instead on a monologue that uses the basic facts of the situation to drive interest rather than the character’s emotional connection with the subject at hand.
Although long, drawn-out backstories are a cliché that I—like Noel—agree can be overused, at least then their impact can be felt more acutely. In this case, Joan’s backstory only served to explain why Joan had suddenly gained a new—and, admittedly, worthy—personal interest. Facts don’t make a character more engaging, and the search for Frebeaux—and the reveal he was being held hostage for his Veteran Benefits with two other homeless people—ended up feeling way too engineered to generate a carefully calculated backstory. Joan is a better character than this storyline allowed her to be, and reducing her to an emotional backstory was a step backward on a level I found incredibly frustrating to witness.
The same goes, unfortunately, for the case of the week itself. Even if we accept the pervasive “Hey, so I watched Black Swan over the weekend!” vibe of the ballerina murder storyline, it struck me as a rather odd collection of unlikable characters whose motivations were wildly unclear. While small details like Sherlock fanboying over Iris were enjoyable, the storyline struggled under the weight of the lawyer’s scheme. When the curtain is eventually pulled back to reveal that the lawyer murdered a young ballerina and framed his client in the hopes of defending her successfully and raising his legal profile, I found myself wondering something important: Why? Why was he so desperate for attention? Are we to assume that all lawyers are inherently evil, capable of anything for a shot at fame and fortune? Was there a specific reason he was desperate for the additional billings it could offer? For what the show was selling as an “aha” moment, which one expects to give some backstory on why this character would go to such lengths, I found it all confounding, an elaborate scheme for the sake of an elaborate scheme.
Procedurals need backstories, for detectives and criminals alike. There is an expectation of motives beyond the simple thrill of procedure, which give the formulaic pattern of storytelling dynamic variables to play with in any given week. For criminals, we expect—and accept, on some level—that the backstory will be somewhat unsatisfying (although it does need to feel more logical than what was on display in this episode); in the end, there’s only one episode to tell that story, and it makes sense for the characterization focus to remain with the character who will be on the show on a week-to-week basis. However, unfortunately, “Corpse Du Ballet” lets down that character as well, crafting a backstory for Joan that in its current form adds nothing but basic facts to her character. Without wanting to diminish the strong work that Lucy Liu has done on the series thus far, or the absolute need for greater visibility for the nation’s mental health crisis and the challenges facing the homeless, this was as limp and ineffective a piece of character backstory the series has pulled out thus far; the result is a weak episode that in its obvious attempt to make a statement ends up having little impact.
- Part of the episode’s goals seemed to be to give Miller and Liu some time off—splitting the two characters is something Doherty spoke of as a practical concern to keep them from both having to be on set constantly, although it’s hard to deny the characters are at their most dynamic playing off one another (like during Sherlock’s post-coital coffee breaks).
- Bell is back in the field, albeit without a gun and requiring another officer at his side at all times.
- Between the relentlessly sleazy paparazzi and the murderous lawyer, lots of broad procedural characterization going around in the episodic story that I could have done without.
- Perhaps the lawyer’s plot put me in a nitpicky mood, but wouldn’t Joan have looked up the woman to see if she was actually Frebeaux’s syster? Yes, she eventually figured it out based on the cigarettes, but that seems like something even cursory research could have brought to the surface.
- I know some of you hate when I complain about this, but given that my issues with the episode aren’t even related to it, I’ll say it anyway: The moment Cohen’s name came up in the credits, I had him pegged as the likely murderer. I hated to be proven right.
- I hope “Coitus is in progress or recently concluded” signs go on sale at the CBS store. They’d be a real hit in college dorms.
- I wonder if there was an increase in Google searches for “Do strippers hand-wash G-strings?” during this episode.
- Clyde Watch: What room does Clyde live in? Do you think Clyde watches while Sherlock entertains guests? That’d give new meaning to this running stray observation.