Whenever we talk about post-Super Bowl episodes, Alias’ “Phase One” looms large, for two reasons. The first is that it was one of the most thrilling hours to air after the Super Bowl, the series’ strongest episode—regardless of how it impacted the show long-term—in the highest profile timeslot imaginable. The second is that it was an unmitigated failure from a scheduling perspective: While damaged due to a lengthy ABC post-game, not unlike how Elementary was damaged by a mid-game blackout, the episode was the lowest-rated in the recent history of the time slot, and failed to provide the series with any significant ratings boost.
I have it on good authority that Alias was a topic of conversation at CBS when “M.”—the episode where Elementary began its journey toward meeting Moriarty—arrived at the network. I can imagine how someone would look at that episode, the show’s finest moment thus far, and think it should have aired when it could have the widest audience. But as Alias learned, the post-Super Bowl audience isn’t looking for dark, unflinching revenge or large-scale mythology; they’re looking for something that could theoretically appeal to the kind of average American viewer who stayed up until 10/9c—or 11/10c with the power outage—and still felt like they wanted to watch an hour of television. And while “M.” was a big moment for fans of Elementary or fans of television in general, it wasn’t the kind of mass appeal episode that CBS was looking for when it came to Elementary’s moment in the spotlight.
Although I can see the logic that led to its being placed behind the big game, “The Deductionist” is nonetheless a disappointment. It fails to pick up on the momentum gained by “M.” and “The Red Team,” shifting away from evolving character dynamics and focusing almost exclusively on reminding viewers—or informing new viewers—about Sherlock as a character. Returning to the basic structure of “Child Predator,” one of the series’ stronger episodes, the hunt for a recently escaped serial killer places Sherlock in a match of wits with an evil man who’s out for revenge, although that match feels as though it’s been fixed. The episode struggles from feeling too engineered in the early going, its sexually stimulating opening and its murder-heavy crime-of-the-week low on the subtle and nuanced storytelling that we’ve seen from the show in previous installments. While Elementary is as tied to murder as CBS’ other procedurals, it doesn’t always go so far down the road of a series like Criminal Minds, which risks fetishizing death to the point of desensitization.
At a certain point, though, “The Deductionist” settles down. With all of the pomp and circumstance out of the way, the night owl viewers on the east coast hopefully—for CBS’ sake—caught up in the sexually-charge danger of it all, the episode boils down to something basic: Who is Sherlock Holmes? The introduction of F.B.I. profiler Kathryn Drummond (Kari Matchett) feels at first like a way to give Sherlock someone to banter with during his investigation, and to provide a way for the episode to sketch out the differences between Sherlock’s methods of deduction and Kathryn’s more psychoanalytic approach. Even when the show gives the two characters a personal connection, it feels like just another way for their banter to be complicated, their sexual history another reason why Sherlock would respond so dismissively toward her arrival.
But the idea that Kathryn Drummond had profiled Sherlock is the episode’s best trick, a way for an episode without a mystery to nonetheless ask a number of important questions. Acknowledging that the episode has a certain burden of exposition given the potential for a wider audience to be tuning in, Drummond’s anonymous profile of Sherlock—which gives the episode its title—manages to function both for new viewers and existing viewers alike. For new viewers, it’s a way to inform the audience about Sherlock’s addiction and about his past in London. For existing viewers, however, it’s a way for us to consider whether or not he’s on a different path in New York than he was before. Sherlock may not be so vulnerable that he doesn’t take a moment to stare blankly when Watson suggests that he has made a friend (she meant herself), but he’s still vulnerable enough that his grudge against Drummond has less to do with her methods and more to do with what happened when those methods were turned against him. It’s a good point in the season to turn the magnifying glass on Sherlock, just as this high-profile timeslot is a good time to be offering a character study of the person who is likely going to draw people in on Thursday nights.
In the episode’s defense, its other storyline had a similar duality: While Joan’s efforts to keep herself from being evicted from her rent-controlled apartment hardly qualify as a complicated storyline, it’s at least another sign that her skills of deduction continue to manifest outside of her work with Sherlock, continuing a thread that has been recurring throughout the series. Although Joan’s more complicated relationship with Sherlock—that she is remaining as his sober companion without being paid—is never mentioned, the storyline still fit into a broad understanding of the character’s continued interest in Sherlock’s methods.
In addition, despite my frustration with the way the episodic story was introduced, I thought the conclusion was a fitting pivot toward Sherlock’s character rather than Howard Ennis as a serial killer. The twist with the sister was played effectively, and the showdown between Sherlock and Ennis wins points both for the long tail character study implied in the results of the survey—a question for the audience to ponder—and in the “Chekhov’s Singlestick” rule being put into full effect. As much as Ennis’ characterization was caught up in serial killer cliché, the idea of these two characters profiled by Drummond coming together was a useful construction, delivering a scene that outclassed the episode around it.
And yet there is something inherently unsatisfying about useful. I can make various logical justifications for the standalone nature of this installment, with Alias’ failure with “Phase One” as a fine case study for why serialized episodes can be a mistake in this timeslot. But in working so hard to ensure that new viewers had an easy point of entry, the episode was stripped of any real sense of continuity, something the show has done a strong job of embedding in character dynamics. As much as we could read Sherlock’s self-reflection in light of his evolving relationship with Joan, the episode ignores the complications in their relationship that are bubbling under the surface, just as it ignores Sherlock’s strained relationship with Gregson and the NYPD. Although the episode doesn’t necessarily feel outside of the season’s broader continuity, it still feels at times like this could have just as easily been the fourth episode as it was the 14th, something that I wouldn’t necessarily have said about even some of the more episodic installments in the first half of the season (like Thursday’s “The Red Team”).
I don’t necessarily hold the exposition against “The Deductionist,” at least not in and of itself: the episode carried a particular burden, and so resorting to more basic characterizations is a logical solution. However, although Alias might have warned against delving so far into the serialized world on display in a series, the lesson might have been taken a few steps too far here. As much as I can see why “M.” would potentially turn away some viewers, at least there was something about it that could make someone watch it and feel like there was something they missed. It would be possible to do this with an episode that embraced the evolution of Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, but “The Deductionist” largely separates them; it would be possible to do this in an episode where Sherlock interacts more directly with Gregson, but the episode chose an enigmatic serial killer instead. As much as “The Deductionist” didn’t entirely overwrite any of what has made me come to appreciate Elementary over the course of its first season, it also failed to successfully translate those strengths in the very episode where such a demonstration would have been most valuable for both new and old viewers alike.
- It continues to shock me that no one else has copied the two-part episode structure Grey’s Anatomy used in 2006. Perhaps producers are afraid of never topping the bomb in the hospital, but I was disappointed that Elementary didn’t at least try to build a cliffhanger into the equation.
- While picking up on the “sexualized female” trend of recent years begun by Alias and picked up by Grey’s Anatomy, Elementary at least offered a sexualized male figure in a shirtless Jonny Lee Miller handcuffed to a chair.
- Although it’s sometimes frustrating to seem one step ahead of the show’s mysteries, I really enjoyed remembering the singlestick just before Sherlock used it on Ennis.
- That’s now two female actresses from USA drama series—Kari Matchett (Covert Affairs) tonight, and Callie Thorne (Necessary Roughness) earlier in the season—in short-term guest spots with the potential to recur on Elementary. One more and it’s a trend—Gina Torres might be available?
- Speaking as someone who would totally—theoretically, of course—be the kind of person who would find continuity errors in less reputable productions of the kind featured in this evening’s episode, I appreciated that element of the mystery even if the “There was a porno filmed in Joan’s apartment!” felt unnecessarily edgy. And to think I have a spatula in the sink waiting to be washed.
- I don’t know about anyone else, but I was rather convinced that Ennis had used the radio tuning as a way to lure Sherlock to his hiding spot, instead of just being fidgety.
- Curious to know if anyone was watching for the first time, or watching for the first time since the pilot: if so, I’d argue that “Child Protector,” “The Leviathan,” and “M.” are probably the episodes that stood out the most from the season thus far if you want to watch more (and if you want them to be a bit better than this outing).