Elementary – Using Direction to Elevate the Procedural

I wrote recently about The X-Files being restored, and why some procedural (or ‘procedural adjacent’) shows are more equal than others. While Elementary isn’t in the pantheon of Prestige Shows such as copycat-spawning LOST, groundbreaking The Sopranos, or even genre-and-plot-soaked cult fun of Dollhouse, I argue it sets itself apart from most current TV procedurals with a few crucial choices.

One thing Elementary does quite well – which places it a step above something like the Law and Order entries, and sets it apart from something like the funkier, homage-laden Psych – is allow its directors to frame and direct things in unusual ways. I wrote about how Christine Moore’s direction of the series not-finale encapsulates everything great about not just the series, but the original books. Lucy Liu has also taken several turns at the helm, often framing scenes in ways which are a bit unusual. The direction isn’t so different as to draw undue attention, and not so extreme as the BBC house style which is often chasing cinematic looks (and which takes more time and money than a network procedural has). But the direction is different enough to be more than merely functional, and really underlines where the characters are in relation to each other emotionally in the scene, episode, or even in the season. 

Let’s look at 07.09 “On the Scent” and how some shots demonstrate design and direction going a long way not just towards a cool shot or pretty look, but to set up later plot points and demonstrate series themes.

This shot is set up like an Ames Room – a funhouse optical illusion. The set design and camera angle make the floor and ceiling show like angled lines, with square patterns adding to the illusion.

But the shot isn’t purely for aesthetics; it’s done explicitly to make Joan small and backgrounded, seemingly the least important and noticeable. This is relevant a few scenes later when Joan pulls a “I surreptitiously took pictures of paperwork while you guys were chatting” bit. It’s believable that the mob guys didn’t notice, because we the audience registered her as insignificant in the room.

The above reverse shot during the arrest visually shows off the division between law and order and our consulting detectives. The cop, Detective Marcus Bell, and the criminal are all on the right side of frame, while Joan and Sherlock stand in their own extrajudicial space. Working outside the box of the law, relying only on each other, is how they caught the criminal in this episode, and also a season- (and series-) long theme.

Elementary is coming to a close soon, but its direction like this, as well as the character rapport and development through the series, which will make it continually rewatchable. 

Stray Observations

  • It’s no accident that in this episode Watson is also mistaken for a maid despite her chic outfit. She’s constantly underestimated by the male criminals, which allows her to get information they may have noticed Sherlock obtaining. The above optical illusion would work with anyone, but making it the Minority Woman carries an extra level of ‘the men in the room speak to the other men and ignore Watson, to their detriment.’

  • Love how Joan’s solves the mystery involve her knowing not just about gambling (which Sherlock is extensively familiar with) but about sports rivalries (which Sherlock knows nothing of).

  • It’s these bits of character work coming into the solutions, along with dialogue particulars such as Sherlock casually dropping ‘agronomy’ and “I’m afraid that that is not exculpatory. Two point five women are murdered every day by an intimate partner, so we’re going to have to cover our statistical bases with a little more than your word” into conversation which really elevates the written material.

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  1. […] the emotional tools of the dozen therapy appointments we can’t afford or actively avoid. (As does Elementary with different tools . . . but that’s another blog […]



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