Rating: Elementary, Season 5

Season 5 marks a return to form for the excellent mystery series Elementary. Here’s what we thought of this season’s episodes:

  1. “Folie a deux” – 5
  2. “Worth Several Cities” – 6
  3. “Render, and then Seize Her” – 6.5
  4. “Henny Penny the Sky is Falling” – 7
  5. “To Catch a Predator Predator” – 6.5
  6. “Ill Tidings” – 6.5
  7. “Bang Bang Shoot Chute” – 5
  8. “How the Sausage Is Made” – 6
  9. “It Serves You Right to Suffer” – 3
  10. “Pick Your Poison” – 6
  11. “Be My Guest” – 8
  12. “Crowned Clown, Downtown Brown” – 6
  13. “Over a Barrel” – 7.5
  14. “Rekt in Real Life” – 8
  15. “Wrong Side of the Road” – 6
  16. “Fidelity” – 9.5
  17. “The Ballad of Lady Frances” – 5.5
  18. “Dead Man’s Tale” – 7.5
  19. “High Heat” – 6
  20. “The Art of Sleights and Deception” – 5.5
  21. “Fly into a Rage, Make a Bad Landing” – 6
  22. “Moving Targets” – 6
  23. “Scrambled” – 4.5
  24. “Hurt Me, Hurt You” – 4.5

Season 5 builds on the series’ strengths: the unraveling of complicated mysteries and the growth of the friendship between Sherlock and Joan as complicated people. The average rating for this season is 6.2, the best since season 1, and the continuing overall quality of the series shows in our individual ratings. Only one episode falls below 4, our unofficial cutoff point for being worth rewatching, and a lot are in the 6-8 range of not extraordinary but well done.

The only real drag on this season is the arc story about Shinwell, an ex-gang member former patient of Joan’s who may or may not be trying to go straight. This arc never lives up to its potential and ends up being an unsatisfying shaggy dog story.

The one real disappointment of an episode this season is “It Serves You Right to Suffer,” at 3, mostly because it is primarily concerned with Shinwell’s story. The episode revolves around a shady FBI agent and it never grows into anything interesting.

By contrast, our favorite episode of the season, “Fidelity,” coming in at 9.5, does a much better job of playing into the series’ longer story arcs. “Fidelity” is the second half of a two-part episode, after “Wrong Side of the Road,” in which Sherlock and Joan, along with Sherlock’s former protege Kitty, investigate a series of deaths that seem to be linked to a traffic accident in Britain years earlier.

Another touch we appreciate this season is that a number of episodes end with living victims being rescued, which is a nice change in a series mostly focused on solving murders. Episodes like “Be My Guest” and “Rekt in Real Life” have happy endings in which people in danger are found safe. Marcus’ girlfriend Chantal, after being assaulted at the end of “The Art of Sleights and Deception,” makes a full recovery, which is a better fate than often happens to detectives’ loved ones and people of color on television.

All around, it’s another satisfying outing with Holmes and Watson.

Image: Sherlock and Joan at work on a case, from “Folie a Deux” via IMDb

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Shadows of Athens

While the subgenre of mysteries set in ancient Rome already has a number of talented practitioners, ancient Greece is a largely unexplored territory, which makes J. M. Alvey’s Shadows of Athens a special treat. In this book we follow an Athenian playwright, Philocles, whose preparations for presenting a new comedy are interrupted when a dead body turns up on his doorstep. From there the action unfolds both in the theatre—for the show must go on—and in the streets of Athens as Philocles, aided by his family and patron, investigates a shadowy conspiracy that somehow seems bent on both starting a war in the Aegean and cornering the market for leather.

Shadows of Athens is a skillfully handled mystery whose various threads are deftly woven together. The stories of Philocles’ play, his family’s leather business, and the geopolitics of the Delian League all come together in a satisfying conclusion. Along the way, we get some wonderful treats including a fully-staged Greek comedy, a sloshy symposium, and Philocles’ views of both the bustle of the Athenian street and everyday family life. Alvey’s ancient Athens is alive, full of both joy and trouble, and Philocles is a companionable guide to its twisting streets, even as he pieces together the conspiracy that left a dead body in front of his house.

For myself, as a historian, Alvey’s work is a particular treat to read. The book captures the richness and complexity of Athenian life in a specific moment—a generation after the Greco-Persian Wars, as the empires of Athens and Sparta were beginning to tilt toward war—with a liveliness that no textbook or scholarly history can match but with exacting attention to historical detail. It was delightful to be able to pick out details and know which primary sources Alvey was reading (and to recognize a cameo appearance by my dear old friend Herodotus).

I thoroughly enjoyed Shadows of Athens and eagerly recommend it to anyone with a taste for historical mystery looking for something new to pick up.

Image by Erik Jensen

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Rating: Elementary, Season 4

Here’s our take on Elementary‘s fourth season:

  1. “The Past is Parent” – 4.5
  2. “Evidence of Things Not Seen” – 4.5
  3. “Tag, You’re Me” – 7
  4. “All My Exes Live in Essex” – 5.5
  5. “The Games Underfoot” – 4
  6. “The Cost of Doing Business” – 5
  7. “Miss Taken” – 3.5
  8. “A Burden of Blood” – 5
  9. “Murder Ex Machina” – 4.5
  10. “ Alma Matters” – 5.5
  11. “Down Where the Dead Delight” – 6
  12. “A View with a Room” – 8
  13. “A Study in Charlotte” – 8
  14. “Who is that Masked Man” – 4.5
  15. “Up to Heaven and Down to Hell” – 6
  16. “Hounded” – 8
  17. “You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got You?” – 5.5
  18. “Ready or Not” – 7
  19. “All In” – 6.5
  20. “Art Imitates Art” – 5.5
  21. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” – 4
  22. “Turn it Upside-Down” – 7
  23. “The Invisible Hand” – 1.5
  24. “A Difference in Kind” – 2

Elementary continues to entertain with complicated mysteries and the ongoing evolution of Sherlock and Joan’s partnership. This season’s ratings average out at a perfectly respectable 5.5, but it could have been better.

The big weight dragging this season down is the ongoing arc about the tangled relationship between Sherlock and his father Morland Holmes. Although John Noble gives a fantastic performance of Morland Holmes as a rich man who can’t quite buy off his own conscience, we are sick to death of stories about fathers and sons who don’t get along. The arc takes up too much oxygen in this season and leaves some episodes that otherwise had potential with not enough air to breathe.

The lowest episodes of the season are at the end, “The Invisible Hand” (1.5) and “A Difference in Kind” (2), a two-parter in which the Daddy Morland story crashes into the ongoing saga of Moriarty and her international network of evil. The collision of these storylines is poorly handled and ends up feeling perfunctory and more the product of the need for an “exciting” season finale than the internal logic of the characters involved.

For the best of the season, though, we have a trio of 8s, each of which stands alone and apart from the Morland drama: “A View with a Room,” in which Holmes investigates a video shot inside the headquarters of a violent biker gang, “A Study in Charlotte,” about a dead mushroom expert, and “Hounded,” in which a man is chased to death by what seems to be a glowing dog. Two of these episodes—“A Study in Charlotte” and “Hounded”—riff on classic Holmes novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles) in interesting ways, although “Hounded” is more faithful to the original while “Charlotte” just borrows some scene-setting. All three of them present Holmes and Watson with unusual problems—a video that seemingly couldn’t have been shot, a set of deaths that may have been accident or murder, and a phantom hound on the streets of Manhattan.

Apart from these episodes, though, most of this season is in the okay-but-not-great range between 4 and 6. This season is solid, but not exceptional. Still, the chemistry of the characters and the inventiveness of the mysteries keep Elementary afloat, as always.

Image: Sherlock and Joan consult a skeleton, from “All My Exes Live in Essex” via IMDb

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Rating: Elementary, Season 3

Season 3 of Elementary adds a new character to the mix, shaking up the relationship between Sherlock and Joan in some interesting ways.

Here’s our episode ratings:

  1. “Enough Nemesis to Go Around” – 3.5
  2. “The Five Orange Pipz” – 5
  3. “Just a Regular Irregular” – 6
  4. “Bella” – 4
  5. “Rip Off” – 6
  6. “Terra Pericolosa” – 8
  7. “The Adventure of the Nutmeg Concoction” – 7
  8. “End of Watch” – 7
  9. “The Eternity Injection” – 5.5
  10. “Seed Money” – 6
  11. “The Illustrious Client” – 4.5
  12. “The One That Got Away” – 4.5
  13. “Hemlock” – 6
  14. “The Female of the Species” – 8
  15. “When Your Number’s Up” – 5.5
  16. “For All You Know” – 4
  17. “T-Bone and the Iceman” – 3.5
  18. “The View from Olympus” – 7.5
  19. “One Watson, One Holmes” – 8
  20. “A Stitch in Time” – 7
  21. “Under My Skin” – 7.5
  22. “The Best Way Out Is Always Through” – 6
  23. “Absconded” – 8
  24. “A Controlled Descent” – 0.5

The average rating this season is a solid 6, which is pretty good and a small step up from season 2’s 5.4. This season continues the previous season’s efforts at threading larger stories through the individual episodes. These larger stories include Watson striking out on her own as a detective and tangling with a female drug dealer, and Holmes taking on a new apprentice, Kitty (based on a character from one of the original Conan Doyle stories). Since one of our few ongoing complaints about the series is the shortage of female characters other than Watson, we find both these story lines offer positive developments, although we miss the Holmes-Watson camaraderie that the first two seasons had built up so carefully.

We are spoiled for choice for the best episodes this season with four topping out at 8: “Terra Pericolosa,” about the hunt for an antique map, “The Female of the Species,” in which Holmes and Bell chase stolen zebras, “One Watson, One Holmes,” about an internecine feud in the hacker collective Everyone, and “Absconded,” a kidnapping case connected to bees. Each of these episodes offers the wonderful complexity and unexpected turns that we have come to expect of Elementary, while leading to a satisfying conclusion. It is also significant that, although there are dead bodies in each episode, none of them is primarily a murder investigation. Not only does this ring true to the original stories, in which Holmes investigated everything from bank robberies to things that go clang in the night, it also makes a nice change of pace from the usual routine of the murder mystery procedural.

While there are a few weaker episodes in the 3-5 range, only one stands out as singularly bad: “A Controlled Descent,” at 0.5. In this episode, Holmes is dragged back into his drug-using ways by a lonely former dealer. While there is something to be said for the complexity with which Elementary handles Holmes’s addiction and recovery, this episode just feels cheap and forced, its dealer character a flat and uninteresting plot device.

Image: Watson and Holmes interview a prisoner, from “One Watson, One Holmes” via IMDb

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Rating: Elementary, Season 2

Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson are back on the case in New York in season 2 of Elementary. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

  1. “Step Nine” – 5.5
  2. “Solve for X” – 4
  3. “We are Everyone” – 5
  4. “Poison Pen” – 6
  5. “Ancient History” – 6
  6. “An Unnatural Arrangement” – 4.5
  7. “The Marchioness” – 4
  8. “Blood is Thicker” – 6
  9. “On the Line” – 4.5
  10. “Tremors” – 5
  11. “Internal Audit” – 6
  12. “The Diabolical Kind” – 6
  13. “All in the Family” – 7.5
  14. “Dead Clade Walking” – 6
  15. “Corpse de Ballet” – 5.5
  16. “The One Percent Solution” – 4.5
  17. “Ears to You” – 4
  18. “The Hound of the Cancer Cells” – 6.5
  19. “The Many Mouths of Aaron Colvillle” – 8
  20. “No Lack of Void” – 6
  21. “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – 6
  22. “Paint it Black” – 5.5
  23. “Art in the Blood” – 4
  24. “The Grand Experiment” – 3.5

The average for this season is 5.4, which is fine but a bit of a dip from the first season’s 6.5. There are few standout episodes this season, but none that really fall flat, either. It’s mostly a competently handled second season for Holmes and Watson.

This season sees an attempt to introduce arcs and connected stories, all of which more or less work, but few of which are really compelling. The main arc of the season has to do with Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, an interestingly reimagined version of the original lazy, self-indulgent polymath whose brilliant mind was the interconnecting tissue in the late Victorian British government. This version of Myrcoft is a self-indulgent restauranteur who turns out to have a different but equally complicated role in the modern British government. He makes for an interesting character who plays off Sherlock and Joan in surprising ways, but his story lacks payoff. Our lowest-rated episode of the season is the finale, “The Grand Experiment,” at 3.5, in which the truth about Mycroft is revealed, and it doesn’t add up to much.

Other arcs and extended stories this season include the formation and healing of a rift between Sherlock and Detective Bell, the reappearance of Holmes’s former collaborator and self-promoting drunk Inspector Lestrade, and the emergence of Everyone, an anarchic hacker collective who sometimes help with investigations in return for various acts of public humiliation by Sherlock and Joan. Some of these stories work out better than others. Bell and Holmes’s rancorous split isn’t always fun to watch, but it does give Jon Michael Hill, who plays Bell, some rich material to work with. Lestrade is an entertaining buffoon, another interesting take on a classic Holmes character. The hackers of Everyone are a nebulous group who become mostly-unseen recurring side characters providing useful information for Sherlock and Joan and creating amusing opportunities for Sherlock to do ridiculous things in return.

As usual, though, the most rewarding part of Elementary is not any season arc, but the devious crimes Sherlock and Joan get to untangle while Joan grows as a detective in her own right and Sherlock comes to appreciate the value of their partnership. The best episodes this season, the only two that rise above competently average, offer just such cases. “All in the Family,” at 7.5, gives Detective Bell a chance to shine as he uncovers a long-term mafia plot. “The Many Mouths of Aaron Colville,” at 8, presents a curious challenge as bite marks found on recent murder victims seem to implicate a serial killer who died years ago.

Not everything this season works as well as we might hope, but it’s still a solid season full of intriguing cases for Sherlock and Joan.

Image: Joan and Sherlock, from “Ears to You” via IMDb

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Rating: Elementary, Season 1

Elementary is the American answer to Sherlock, a modern-day Holmes and Watson series which we have found to be more enjoyable than its British inspiration. Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant detective and recovering drug addict. Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson, former surgeon, who starts out as Sherlock’s sober companion but soon becomes his partner and an accomplished detective in her own right. Here’s how we rated season 1.

  1. “Pilot” – 10
  2. “While You Were Sleeping” – 8
  3. “Child Predator” – 8
  4. “The Rat Race” – 6
  5. “Lesser Evils” – 7
  6. “Flight Risk” – 6
  7. “One Way to Get Off” – 4
  8. “The Long Fuse” – 5.5
  9. “You Do It to Yourself” – 6
  10. “The Leviathan” – 7.5
  11. “Dirty Laundry” – 8
  12. “M.” – 6
  13. “The Red Team” – 6
  14. “The Deductionist” – 5.5
  15. “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs” – 6
  16. “Details” – 4.5
  17. “Possibility Two” – 4
  18. “Deja Vu All Over Again” – 8
  19. “Snow Angels” – 10
  20. “Dead Man’s Switch” – 5
  21. “A Landmark Story” – 4
  22. “Risk Management” – 5
  23. “The Woman / Heroine” – 10

Elementary gets off to a roaring start in its first season with a great combination of complex characters, rich performances, and intricate mysteries. The average rating for season 1 is 6.5, which is very strong showing for a new series.

There’s a lot of credit to go around for that strong start. The writers give the actors a lot to work with, and the actors take it and run with it. Sherlock and Joan are both interesting characters in their own right, but the dynamic between them as they slowly figure out how to live and work together and each one starts to bring out the best qualities of the other is wonderful to watch. In the best Holmesian tradition, the mysteries they investigate unfold in surprising but logical ways, often leading to resolutions far afield from where they began. The production design feels real and precise—you can smell the dirt on the New York sidewalks and the money in the corporate offices. Even though this series takes some dramatic departures from the Holmes and Watson canon, it is also filled with loving touches of fannishness that reward those familiar with the original stories—if you remember, for instance, that in one original story Holmes tells Watson that his nemesis Professor Moriarty has a painting in his front hall that he could not possibly afford on his academic salary, you are a step ahead of one episode’s twist.

Of course, even in such a good first season, not everything quite works. The lowest rating for this season, a passable but uninspired 4, is shared by three episodes: “One Way to Get Off,” about a potentially wrongly convicted man from Captain Gregson’s past, “Possibility Two,” in which a client comes to Holmes believing that he has somehow been given a genetic disorder, and “A Landmark Story,” which begins the set up to the final reveal of Moriarty. Each of these episodes has its merits, but they suffer from some weak plotting.

These three low episodes, though, are balanced by three full 10s. The pilot episode combines an interesting case in which a deliberate murder was cleverly stage-managed to look random—a subtle callback to the original Holmes story A Study in Scarlet—with our introduction to the characters of Sherlock and Joan and the first steps in their friendship. “Snow Angels” pits the detective pair against not just a daring robbery but a blizzard which knocks out power throughout the city (and, as a bonus, gives us the delightful side character of Pam the snow plow driver). The double-episode finale, “The Woman / Heroine” offers the most interesting take on both Irene Adler and Moriarty that we’ve ever seen.

I’m often disappointed in Sherlock Holmes adaptations that pit the detective against his nemesis Professor Moriarty. In the original stories, Moriarty is nothing more than a plot device to get rid of a character Conan Doyle was tired of writing. He appears in only one story and is briefly mentioned in just a couple of others. I find Holmes to be at his best when he is unraveling a problem, not chasing an enemy, but Elementary found a way to make Moriarty work.

We look forward to reviewing and rating season 2.

Got your own take on Elementary? Let us know!

Image: Joan and Sherlock from Elementary via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Miss Sherlock Is Now Available – Thoughts?

I first heard about Miss Sherlock in the spring of 2018, but wasn’t able to track it down then. In December, I found a review by Kaisu Tervonen in Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish daily. (NB. Finnish only.)

HS HBO Miss Sherlock Playing Cello

The Sherlock character is called Sara Shelly Futaba (played by Yūko Takeuchi). She’s a consultant specializing in criminal psychology. Our Sherlock / Futaba meets her Doctor Watson or Wato Tachibana (Shihori Kanjiya) at a murder scene of a good colleague of Wato’s after the doctor returned from Syria.

In a familiar manner, the two end up solving mysteries, one per episode. What the series is really about, apparently, is first building and then endangering their friendship.

Since I last wrote, also the IMDB entry for Miss Sherlock has been updated and the episode descriptions added.

With regard to U.S. viewing, I’ve found out that you can stream (for a fee) all of the season 1 (8 episodes) at Hulu with English subtitles, but I haven’t had the time to check that out.

The HS reviewer wasn’t very impressed, so I’m a little dubious. Have you seen any episodes at all? Please chime in!

Image: HBO Miss Sherlock / HBO via Helsingin Sanomat

P.S. Twitter users have uploaded some screencaps.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Jane Austen, Mystery Writer

The great mystery novelist P. D. James has noted that Jane Austen’s novel Emma has all the essential elements of a mystery novel: the plot revolves around secrets which are revealed at the climax but to which the heroine and the readers have been given clues all along. I think we can extend that idea further and say that most of Austen’s novels are, in spirit, mysteries.

The plots of most of Austen’s completed novels are about heroines becoming wiser about themselves and the world, usually by discovering things that make them reevaluate the people around them. Elizabeth Bennet discovers that Wickham is a scoundrel and Mr. Darcy has an honorable soul under his proud manner. Marianne Dashwood discovers that Willoughby is a scoundrel and her sister Elinor has feelings as deep as her own. Catherine Morland discovers that Northanger Abbey is not a Gothic haunted house. Other discoveries and reevaluations made by the heroines and other characters also propel the plots along. Darcy learns that Jane Bennet was actually in love with Bingley all along. John Thorpe learns that Catherine was not in line for a fortune after all. Anne Elliot learns that William Elliot is responsible for her friend’s financial difficulties.

Austen also leaves some clues hidden in plain sight, unremarked upon in the novels but waiting for the clever reader to put together for themselves. Why is Mr. Darcy in such an ill humor when Lizzie first meets him at the Meryton ball? Austen never lays it out for us, but once you know his history it becomes clear that only a few months have passed since his beloved younger sister Georgiana nearly eloped with the scheming Mr. Wickham. Of course the sight of young women his sister’s age freely dancing with men they have barely met puts him in a sullen mood, and it is this mood rather than his natural character on which Lizzie first judges him.

Austen’s great literary innovation, the “free indirect style” in which the narrator stands apart from the point of view character but reflects their judgments and perceptions in the narration, represents a careful balance between objectivity and subjectivity that is important in mystery writing. The job of a mystery author working in the classic style is to present the reader with all the necessary facts to resolve the mystery themselves, but to obscure those facts in such a way that the reader does not get ahead of the detective in working out what happened. Austen’s free indirect style achieves precisely this goal, letting the readers in on what is going on in the world around her characters but coloring the facts with the main characters’ own perceptions and biases.

Austen framed her social satires and ethical critiques in the genre of romantic novels since those were popular in her day. I sometimes wonder, if she were alive and writing today, would she have chosen to write mysteries instead?

Image: Portrait of Jane Austen via Wikimedia (National Portrait Gallery, London; c. 1810; pencil and watercolor; by Cassandra Austen)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Quotes: I Only Regret […] Making My Detective a Finn

Christie Cards on the Table Excerpt

“[…] I only regret one thing—making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight.”

– author Mrs. Oliver in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table

This excerpt comes from a Hercule Poirot novel. It’s a page-long burst by an imaginary author who doesn’t really care about getting certain details wrong, for example when one would use a dictograph vs. phonograph. That, of course, leads to feedback from more knowledgeable readers.

Being a Finn, I guffawed! Finns are busy readers indeed these days; it may already have been the case back in the 1930s as well.

(But, good grief, way to insult Romanians and Bulgarians, Christie! There’s a lot of interest in Christie’s writing, but on the other hand a lot of it hasn’t aged well, especially the racism and bigotry.)

Christie, Agatha. Cards on the Table. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011 [1936], p. 66.

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Call for Help: Where Is Miss Sherlock?

I saw Bay Alden tweet-share a trailer for a gender-swapped version of Sherlock Holmes set in modern Japan. It looks fascinating, so I had to dig up more. Here are the trailers I found:

MISS SHERLOCK Official Promo Trailer (HD) HBO Asia Original Series via JoBlo TV Show Trailers

MISS SHERLOCK – Japanese TV Series Trailer #2 via Seven on YouTube

MISS SHERLOCK – Japanese TV Series Trailer #3 (Official Trailer from HBO Asia) via Seven on YouTube

The show is co-produced by HBO Asia and Hulu Japan. The official description reads:

“MISS SHERLOCK pays homage to the classic by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, with bold interpretations of the iconic characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. MISS SHERLOCK is set in modern day Tokyo and both lead characters are Japanese women – Dr. Wato Tachibana, a surgeon recently returned from a volunteer doctors’ mission in Syria and Sara Shelly Futaba, an investigation consultant to the police department who solves bizarre and difficult cases. Throughout the series, the pair solves mystery after mystery with Miss Sherlock’s extraordinary observation and reasoning skills.”

Miss Sherlock premiers on April 27, 2018.

Now for the part that I need help with. Does anyone know whether Miss Sherlock is available outside Japan? If so, are English subtitles available? I did find a mention (repeated elsewhere) that it can be viewed in the U.S. only via the HBO Go streaming app, but I haven’t found a confirmation by HBO or Hulu.

Anyone?

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

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