The Comedy In ‘Elementary’ – Sherlock Taking Naps In Random Places

the comedy in elementaryI have a feeling that the show’s quality eventually silenced naysayers.

We all have a core of what defines our viewing tastes. For me that is Drama and Comedy (Which is probably why ‘This Is Us’ appeals so much!). Yes, I can enjoy other genres (like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, and Action) but there has to be a strong emotional core (which is why ‘Arrival’ and ‘Her’ appeals more to me than ‘Ex-Machina’). So for this series, I will dig into titles that made it to my viewing list (at least garnering a 5/10) that might not be overtly a comedy yet has enough ‘comic beats’ to warrant shining a light on.

For this instalment, I’ll be looking at a TV show that is unique among the iterations of Sherlock Holmes: ‘Elementary’. Not only because Watson is a woman and an American, it’s because it paints our protagonist as flawed. Yes, he has this superpower of observation (that has him bravely licking stuff off doors and floors) that helps him solve crime better than any detective employed by New York (and likely any government), yet our first introduction to him (his sober companion arrives) reminds us that he is human and susceptible to stumbling like the common man. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s not a comedy as I usually look back on how it has made me laugh countless times. Not only that, it has garnered praise from critics as the seasons chugged along. It’s rare that a crime procedural gets that kind of recognition. As for my own recollection of what tickled me, it seems like the deadpan nature (like the reveal of Sherlock wearing a welding helmet as a way to limit bright light) and Joan’s moments of repressed laughter are part of the show’s humour blueprint.

That’s likely the reason why it appealed to me: well written characters that grow as they spend more time together. You’ll be glad to know that there isn’t a ‘will they’ or ‘won’t they’ between Joan and Sherlock (though there are a number of viewers who hope this would happen and are convinced that the two are denying themselves a ‘happily ever after’). While I appreciate well written romantic arcs (even those that are barely on screen), its more welcome to have more of a blossoming of a friendship (as their relationship primarily constitutes as co-workers, even after Joan moves on from being a sober companion to being Sherlock’s equal).

While I’ll have to rely on serious followers of the Holmes cannon to let me know how the first ever iteration of Sherlock Holmes got together with his Watson, I’m going to assume it’s quite different from how this one happened: Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering heroin addict in New York and has no choice but to have a sober companion, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), accompany him everywhere. Eventually though in all the seven seasons, the relationship changes to one of teacher and student, colleagues, friends, and ultimately family. Since they are primarily consultants to the New York Police department, there are two cops who they have regular contact with: Captain Thomas Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).

Prior to watching the Pilot, I was only familiar with Jonny (via ‘Eli Stone’) and Lucy was the unknown here and I wondered if she could pull it off. I hadn’t seen her 10-episode arc in ‘Southland’, though have heard enough good things to give it a go. What I was reminded of though, while looking through her filmography was her stint as Viper in the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ franchise. Somehow similar to Betty Gilpin (who also was in the show and appeared in a couple of episodes as Fiona Helbron), and it could be inferred that Lucy thrives more in characters with a neutral presence. Those that have an unbiased view (or at least as much as a human can) of the world. That means playing authority figures which she does both with Jack Black in the animated franchise then later with Taye Diggs (‘Set It Up’). Though I have the feeling that it’s just that she has yet to cross paths with the writer who understands how to leverage her uniqueness into a character that has a neutral soul but somehow is an optimist.

Take Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) from ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘The Good Fight’. Michael has that ‘smarty pants’ centre in all the characters he plays, a part of him that revels when he’s able to outwit someone else. It may not be overtly showing, yet it’s there. You can see it as a commonality between Mike Flaherty (‘Spin City’) and Marty McFly (‘Back to the Future’). I’d probably say that this is the first role I’ve seen of Lucy that I would have strongly associated with her as there was a really good fit. Jonny was the same prior to my viewing of ‘Eli Stone’, maybe it was because I preferred him as Eli rather than 1996’s Sick Boy (‘Trainspotting’) or Dade (‘Hackers’) a year before. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. You can chalk that to me looking forward to witness a bit of magic happening (that everything aligned: budget and personnel availability). Which is why I do look forward to Katie Holmes (who incidentally also appeared in an episode of ‘Eli Stone’) finding something that has as strong of a fit as Joey Potter.

A lot of the gags have to do with living with someone as eccentric as Sherlock. This means that he also has a set of contacts (like Rich Sommer playing a mathematician who doesn’t like things coming between him and the numbers) that he turns to who are specialists in their field. One of the recurring ones that doesn’t fail to amuse me is Joan being woken up (one of the best ones were making her think that he moved her). I did consider that Sherlock would have easily picked the lock of her door, and during my rewatch of episodes I am keenly observant if the door to Joan’s room is closed or open. A more recent one is discovering Den of Geek’s Mike Cecchini episode reviews that contain ‘Sherlock as a schmuck‘ moments.

Comedic Moments:

  • Possibly the ‘Baha Men’ wrote ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’ as an advertisement for the right detective
  • As a detective-in-training you’ll have to expect random messages from your teacher.
  • Sherlock having to read ‘Twilight’ in order to figure out who Bella should choose.
  • An off screen performance of ‘Frozen’
  • A whistle is what you need when in New York
  • The reason Sherlock wants Joan to accompany him to London
  • A far fetched possibility that the thief is a leprechaun
  • There are likely parallel worlds wherein tennis balls are knives

While Season 1 (and unfortunately the ‘only one’) of ‘Limitless’ instantly establishes its protagonist, Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), as a cheeky fellow and surrounds him in the confines of a procedural, Elementary seems to have had to ease out from notes from the studio (I’m guessing something like: “We can’t make a overly comedic Sherlock”) and finally breathing a sigh of relief in Episode 2 (interestingly titled as “While You Were Sleeping”) as it opens with Sherlock using a particular method to fall asleep while awake. Though it’s probably not intentional that the show went from ‘very serious’ to ‘usually cheeky’, it does echo a bit how people who are quite guarded (as Sherlock has been due to being on his own most of his life) allow little humour in their life (or at least when witnessed by others who haven’t won him over).

The show’s strengths is its comedy (which of course often, if not always, relates to character development), and I definitely speak for myself that I end up liking people more once I find out they can make me laugh (or if I am able to reciprocate). I know it’s a bit worrying that my downfall might be due to someone outsmarting me with comedic means, but I guess that’s the risk of having friends (or at least being open to add more). But as the saying goes: If you block out the ‘bad’ you risk doing the same for the ‘good’.

I even realised that my fondness increased once I noticed that sarcasm is used properly (not as comedic foil) and more to show that it is a method of communication intended to injure who is at the receiving end of the comments. Here’s an exchange illustrating how Joan has put her guard up after Sherlock had been quite dismissive of her a number of times:

Sherlock: I’m not sleeping. I’m just reviewing the details of the case in my mind.
Joan: I’m sorry. You were talking to me? ‘Cause I thought I was just a cavernous expanse between two ears.
[A beat]
Sherlock: You mustn’t be so sensitive, Watson. The service you’re providing is quite valuable.
[She hands him a cup of coffee. He eyes it and after a moment…takes it. Peace offering?]
Sherlock: For a brief stretch in London, I talked only to a phrenology bust I kept in my study. I named him Angus. Wasn’t the same. I realized that when it came to listeners, I preferred animate to inanimate.
[He nods]
Sherlock: Was quite a breakthrough actually.
[A swig of his coffee]
Joan: Angus. I’m glad I made it to the animate category.

Of course it does frustrate me when there are those who still believe that sarcasm is interchangeable with dry humour, wry humour, acerbic humour, or even hyperbole. The way I was able to limit being affected by it is to just understand that it’s up to them to realise (if they do) that by intentionally being confrontational, they are broadcasting to everyone they cross paths with that they are not interested in building deeper connections (which is the only way a real friendship can grow and thrive). On the upside, it seems like the irate essays towards Lucy Liu being cast (not just as a woman…but as an American!) died down as Season 1 was airing as I haven’t really come across any recent ones (maybe all the positive talk somehow buried the negative ones?).

If I had the power to change certain aspects of the show, I would want the kind that enabled the final season the best it could be. I’m not sure what exactly it was that caused the magic to wane, but it seemed like time was in short supply. The performances seemed to be there, it’s just the material wasn’t able to spend the right amount of time in development (I’m going to avoid pointing my finger at the showrunner or writers as it is likely they did what they could). Until I get confirmation on what really happened, it was a shame that it didn’t go out with a big fireball (guns blazing) like ‘Homeland’ was able to execute during Season 8.

How about the fact that they should have cast a woman to play Holmes and not Watson? I sort of agree with the irate essayist who blew her gasket when Lucy expressed appreciation on playing Joan (just the part that one way forward in terms of injecting new life in Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation: Sherlock could have been played by a woman). Good thing her (irate essayist) issues of outrage didn’t really come true. It is possible that during development it was considered that there was a female Holmes and a male Watson…or even both of them played by women. The thing with development is that the producers could only work with what they have (particularly studio support and whoever they have cast available during that time period) and something really essential is chemistry between whoever ends up as the two picks. Probably also the reason that other than Robert Doherty’s take on the fictional historical duo, the other version (and apparently there is a third one out next year) that fits me as a viewer would be 2009’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ which was released two years later that had Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. This is why it’s a delight to hear those who are able to appreciate BBC’s adaptation (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) and ‘Elementary’.

Even if this isn’t the kind of show the glorifies graphic imagery, there are moments that you might want to skip or episodes that require viewing by the resident censor in your home before letting your kids hang out and watch with you. I was reminded that one of the MA episodes actually was quite early and I did get quite worried when watching the pilot when a sequence went on longer than it should, and when noticing that ‘Child Predator’ (a phrase the writers decide to turn on its head) show up as episode 3 during the first season which does cement the show’s (or at least that season’s) MA rating. Similarly to ‘Homeland’ (that has its first season also littered with ‘MA’ scenes) it ends up leaning more towards the ‘M’ side.

If you like your humour subtle or dry, then you’re likely going to sail through all seven seasons. It’ll also probably help if you have a soft spot for the lost (maybe those two pairs of cat eyes staring at you this moment waiting for their food are a good reminder?). But if I had a choice on which episode to recommend if you’re really short on time I’d probably go with ‘Details’ (Season 1 Episode 16) as it has Joan’s inciting incident (if we were to look at the show as a whole) and also one of my favourite gags (self defence). My second choice would be to have you watch the first two (‘Pilot’ and ‘While You Were Sleeping’).

Leigh Lim.
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