Monday, February 4, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Crappy Super Bowl Episode. When good shows pander for Super Bowl viewers.

My mother used to say that every time she would recommend a television show to friends or family members, the next episode to air would inevitably be terrible.  It would seem that said curse has passed down to her son in a manner of speaking.  It's no secret that I've become a genuine fan of CBS's Elementary, finding to be not only much better than expected but arguably about as good as BBC's Sherlock in its own specific way.  No, Johnny Lee Miller doesn't have the raw magnetism of Benedict Cumberbatch, but nor is his version of Sherlock Holmes supposed to be a tall and striking creature of pure sexual charisma.  They are two very different shows, and they both mostly succeed on their own respective goals and intentions.  Elementary is akin to USA's Monk, albeit without the painfully cornball humor and (so far) without a main character who has no idea how civilization functions at any given moment.  So last night CBS gifted the show with a prime post-Super Bowl episode, surely a perfect way to hook the masses on this surprisingly good show, right?  Well... no.  Last night's episode was easily the worst episode of Elementary yet aired by a healthy margin.  Of course that shouldn't be surprising, since it was the latest show to fall victim to the Curse of the Super Bowl.

I don't pretend to have watched every episode of television to air after the Super Bowl since the mid-1990's, but the ones I did watch have a pretty clear pattern.  They are tailored to newcomers and, most importantly, they are tailored to stereotypical football fans.  You saw this in the second-season episode of Glee where everybody inexplicably cares about A) who wins the big football game and B) whether or not the team captain (Finn) and the lead cheerleader (Quinn) get back together (yes, said episode also opened with the cheerleaders doing a variation on Katy Perry's "California Gurls"). In the first five minutes of the usually low-key and mature Elementary, we open with a scene involving Sherlock tied to a chair while a pair of barely-dressed young women ransacking his apartment while sexually teasing him.  Then after Sherlock exposed his upper-hand on these women, we were treated to the main plot of the show. Elementary is a show that has generally refrained from overt violence, since it was in our disinterest as a viewer to know more about a crime scene than Holmes did.  But last night's episode opened with a gruesome onscreen massacre in a hospital and ended its first act with a convenience store massacre to boot; complete with cowering young women in direct peril.

One of the primary tell-tale marks of a Super Bowl episode is an increase in 'exciting' sex and violence.  Remember the Super Bowl episode of Alias which opened with Jennifer Garner sauntering towards the screen in a red lace before being sexually menaced and then imperiled by the kind of henchman she could usually handle without blinking.  Sure she eventually kills the guy, but not without constant radio help from her would-be boyfriend as he hemmed and hawed each time she momentarily lost the upper hand.  Alias was notable in its five season run for never playing its 'female CIA agent who can kick ass' as anything other than normal, but its would-be introduction to a mass audience made sure to sex up its lead while emphasizing traditional gender roles (the episode also climaxed with the good guys basically massacring people who the series had taken pains to explain didn't realize they were working for the bad guys, but that's another story).

More annoying than the obviously pandering sex and violence in such high-profile episodes is the hilarious exposition.  Another hallmark of the Super Bowl episode is hilariously on-the-nose exposition, often delivered by one character to another character; both of whom already know said information.  This is of course to bring newbies up to speed, especially when dealing with a somewhat complex mythology or lengthy backstory.  Hence we have Jennifer Garner's hilarious "Sloane?  The man who I've sworn to see brought to justice for the last year... missing?" line in Alias or Aidan Quinn's questioning last night of Sherlock Holmes abilities ("How did you do that?  You just walked into the room?").  This from a longtime friend and colleague of Mr. Holmes who darn-well knows how the man's mind works.  Imagine the tenth episode of The Dead Zone having various regular characters shocked at the fact that Johnny Smith is in fact a psychic and you'll get the idea.

And the main plot, along with the obvious hunt for an escaped murderer, involved the appearance of a female profiler, who existed solely to be outsmarted, proved wrong, and eventually undone by her own token shred of humanity as she's attacked in a hospital room while confessing her sins.  One of the places where Elementary has one-upped Sherlock is in its treatment of women. Lucy Liu's Joan Watson is, like Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes, a genuinely brilliant person who only seems outmatched compared to the utter genius of Mr. Holmes.  Her gender is irrelevant and her intelligence and especially her medical knowledge is always taken for granted.  But last night's episode introduced a major female character whose sole purpose was to lose to Sherlock Holmes and lose to the murderer she had wrongly profiled.  Nearly all of the prior Elementary episodes were intricate and/or thoughtful mysteries with genuine puzzles to solve and/or genuinely intriguing plot twists (the third episode, the one that got me hooked, had a delightful turn on the standard 'young child in jeopardy' yarn).  Last night's episode was a generic 'manhunt' episode, less like an episode of Elementary and more like a lesser episode of Criminal Minds.

If you scan through the general host of post-Super Bowl episodes over the years, you see a clear pattern: An overdose of sex and violence, overtly obvious exposition and often simple plotting, and a narrative emphasis on plot elements technically designed to appeal to stereotypical male football fans (More sex!  More violence!  More women in peril! More football references!).  This isn't a zero sum game.  The fourth-season episode of House was a relatively normal episode of the show, with a somewhat different format (House communicating with a patient who was stationed in Alaska).  Ironically, it was also Criminal Minds several years back that didn't quite succumb to this pattern in its second-season Super Bowl episode, since that show is of course already full of violence to begin with.  On the plus side, save for an opening which featured a murder at a Super Bowl party, the show basically did its usual thing, including a cliffhanger which featured a male FBI agent in peril instead of the perhaps expected blonde agent in mortal doom.  And while The X-Files season four Super Bowl episode didn't involve a kidnapped Agent Scully (as was becoming the pattern in season four), it did have more gore than usual (another season four trademark) and a weird climax where Mulder basically pats Scully on the back after she kills the villain.  I haven't seen "Leonard Betts" since it aired back in 1997, so I can't say for certain whether it contained a football reference.

This all is a roundabout way of saying, if you watched Elementary for the first time last night, perhaps even on my say-so, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry CBS delivered the show's biggest audience for its worst episode and I damn-well should have seen it coming and warned everyone accordingly.  The show really is quite solid and it's far more than just a rip-off of Sherlock or even Monk.  Last night's episode was terrible.  But I promise (?) that the next one will be better.  Of course, now that I've said that, the next one will probably be even worse.

Scott Mendelson


candice frederick said...

i don't think they should have followed the super bowl, but i rather liked this episode.

James O'Leary said...

Thanks for articulating what I felt as I watched the show.


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