Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Reviews 6: TV Series "Elementary" by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Reviews 6: TV Series "Elementary"
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

A writer does not "watch Television" -- or "see" what ordinary viewers "see" in a TV Show.

So this blog entry is not about whether I think ELEMENTARY is a "good" TV show, or what's wrong with it as a TV Show, or even about whether you should or should-not watch it.  This is more about "how" to be a writer watching TV rather than a viewer watching TV.

And I'm onto my hobby-horse about THEME again.  By Blogger's count, I've done 34 posts relevant to THEME in this writing series. 

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2013/11/story-springboards-part-3-art-of.html is just one, and it has some links to others about theme. 

Here's a link to an index of one of the various series on theme:

So today we're going to look at this episode of Elementary with a microscope focused on theme and what happens when the theme is not reticulated:

Season 2: Episode 12 - Internal Audit
    Jonny Lee Miller
    Lucy Liu
    Aidan Quinn
    Jon Michael Hill

When a hedge fund manager who was also running a Ponzi scheme is murdered, Holmes and Watson must determine which of his clients is guilty.

Study that "logline" -- you have to learn to write a logline for your own novel's pitch or query letter.  This one is an excellent example. 

We're looking at the cohesiveness of the script of this episode to discern the theme and the NETWORK (CBS) opinion of the audience the show is aimed toward. 

A Network gets their opinion of their audience for a given show by studying numbers, statistics, focus groups -- and applying the principles of "PR" (Public Relations and/or Advertising.)

As I pointed out many times, but closely in the series on Marketing Fiction ...


... TV and Film (and News) delivered by Airwaves, Cable, or Internet is a business using the business model where the product the studios make is sold to advertisers totally on the number and demographic composition of the eyes glued to the screen. 

Commercial fiction and now (as pointed out in the Marketing series) non-fiction is all delivering you (the consumer) to the mercies of the advertisers. 
Understanding the attitudes, concerns and opinions of that audience is what PR is all about -- but today it's being used in reverse to create that opinion. 

As any Math Major will explain, "Statistics" can not be used backwards.  Statistics can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people (thousands) but Statistics can tell you absolutely nothing about any individuals even if you know what Groups they belong to. 

PR is trying to become a science which can determine the behavior of an individual -- and one tool being experimented with is the use of fiction (and news) to shape public opinion. 

A writer who has studied my previous blogs on THEME will see this experimental process playing out in stark, high relief, when watching this specific episode of the CBS drama ELEMENTARY linked above titled Internal Audit.

Now, fix firmly in mind that I'm a Baker Street Irregular from the git-go.  I absolutely love the entire Sherlock Holmes mythos, in all its variations.

Elementary is a worthy entry into the canon, via the alternate universe approach (I mean, NEW YORK!!!  But, oh, well, good is good.)

This episode which clearly illustrates many of my points about THEME. 

You can't choose elements of your story at random, because they're neat, or good, or popular, or ripped from the headlines.  If you do, you may get it right, but more likely you will get it wrong and make a big mess.

"Internal Audit" is a neat, clear example of a big mess.

A couple episodes previously, the cop that Sherlock liked to work with got shot and hospitalized.  It appears now there's nerve damage to his dominant arm, and there is no way to say if it will heal or if he must be retired to a desk job.  He's a good Detective to have earned Sherlock's respect.

Sherlock feels guilty for having put this cop in that dangerous situation, but reviewing his choices, he finds no error that he committed.  It just happened.

NOTE: as most TV shows, this one never allows any of the characters to include spiritual elements of "right and wrong" in their decision making.  So the reasoning always seems to be two-dimensional and over-simplified.

The theme of this episode is GUILT/INNOCENCE.  It's all about how responsible an individual is for the consequences of their actions, and what that responsibility says about the choices a person must, should, or could make. 

In this theme element, the connection between Cause and Effect is highlighted.

But it's a TV show, so nothing so profound as cause/effect appears anywhere in this script. 

It is SHOW DON'T TELL -- a story in pictures.  And an excellent script, too. 

ELEMENTARY is one of the very best produced shows on TV.  Elegant! 

This episode, however, doesn't measure up to the usual standards. And that is what's so starkly revealing to make this episode worth study. 

Remember all we discussed in Story Springboards and Episodic Plot structure linked above.

The END of the Internal Audit episode gives you a "springboard" into the next "chapter" of the injured Cop's career.  If you are trying to master springboards or episodic structure, study that last bit of dialogue carefully. 

The cop's story-arc for this episode ends in a scene where the injured cop is offered a different job opportunity in a different law enforcement division.  That offer (unanswered at this point) is a "springboard."  It leaves you with a question that is not answered, and an array of possible developments to stimulate your curiosity.  How curious you are depends on how well you know and like this character.  (Theme-Character Integration is an essential ingredient in Springboards.)

The "mess" I'm talking about in this episode happened because, though one element appears to have been changed by perhaps Network Administrators who are not writers, this final scene was not changed to MATCH THEMATICALLY with the changed element.

I suspect that's because they want to direct this injured cop into the other department which is called "Demographics" but is a surveilance program looking for terrorists before they attack the city. 

The offer is to keep working to "keep this city safe."  We know this character is dedicated to that concept. 

The point of the entire episode is to redirect this one character's career -- presumably to later come back and involve Sherlock in Homeland Security and anti-terrorist activities.

Note that "point" is not indicated in the logline.  Never let your theme show in your logline.  Logline is about plot and genre -- about who will watch or buy the story.

The logline here is about the "mystery" (genre):

"When a hedge fund manager who was also running a Ponze scheme is murdered, Holmes and Watson must determine which of his clients is guilty. "

This is a TV Series with a "story arc" structure, but it is episodic.  So here we see the Springboards used in Episodic structure -- all the gear-wheels of a plot structure are visible and clear and cleanly delineated.  That's why it's so obvious what went wrong to create this mess.

That POINT of having this "episode" as part of the arc is what determines the THEME of the episode.

Each episode has to have a theme that is some sub-set of the master-theme of the Series, and that master-theme has to be a sub-set of the genre's master-theme.

For example: the master-theme of the Romance Genre is "Love Conquers All" -- so all the sub-genres, different settings, times, or alternate-universes, can't change that master-theme.  Each setting can generate a series of "episodes" -- or series of novels.  But always the main theme requires the plot to display a problem and show how love conquers it.  Everything else is decoration.

Thus in a Mystery/Detective series like ELEMENTARY, there has to be a CRIME as a problem, and Sherlock and Watson have to conquer it by sifting details into a pattern that reveals motive, method, and opportunity (all of which hinge on character). 

The master-theme of Mystery is "Crime Doesn't Pay." 

So back to this Elementary episode titled Internal Audit.

Up until that last scene where this job offer is made to the injured cop, I thought Internal Audit was a perfectly fine episode, nicely written, well acted, very engrossing mystery, and contained everything you could want from an ELEMENTARY episode. 

I thought Sherlock becoming a Sponsor was what the episode was about. 

Then BOOM - everything fell apart at that scene where the injured cop gets a job-offer.

Clearly redirecting this injured cop's career into anti-terrorist activity (referred to euphemistically as Demographics) was what the episode was about. 

Sherlock becoming a Sponsor for an AA member is not as portentous as a cop going into anti-terrorist squad duties.  Think about "springboard tension" -- which issue is more likely to uncoil and "spring" into higher drama?  Will Sherlock be drawn back into drug use -- probably, because the original character was a cocaine addict, so what's so dramatic about that?  But a homicide detective drawn into the world of international espionage, covert-warfare, and massive financial schemes -- border security -- wow, that's huge.

So springboard-wise, this episode is about redirecting a cop's  career.

One big messy problem is that nowhere in this episode prior to that final scene in the cop's story-arc is there any hint that he will be drawn into anti-terrorist task force work.

The writing on this series and even in this episode is so pristine, so perfect, that the lack of foreshadowing of this truly epic scene in the development of a minor character that will affect the life of the main character is horrifying.  No writer of this caliber would have done such a thing.

So I saw in my mind's eye the original script submitted (which may never have existed, I have no inside knowledge of production of this show), and the rewritten script that was produced.  And I saw the non-writer's "hand" behind the decision to replace one Perpetrator with another. 

The aired episode used the crime of Money Laundering to be the motive for 3 murders.

There was an Art Gallery involved as a "front" for the money laundering scheme run by the Ponzi scheme hedge fund manager.

Tracing back from the Art Gallery, Sherlock discovers a Holocaust Survivor charity (retrieving money from the  Nazis) is involved in the money laundering -- an international charity. 

That seemed perfectly reasonable to me -- they used veiled references to Bernie Madoff by using similar names etc.  It was well done.

At first the Holocaust Charity didn't seem intrusive -- didn't seem to not-fit.

Only when that final scene on the injured Cop's plot-thread came up did I realize the script was distorted.

I guessed they couldn't change that scene with the injured cop because there are plot-plans for subsequent episodes locked in.  As I said above, it's an obvious springboard. 

But someone decided they had to use a Holocaust Charity as the source of the guy who did the murdering. 

But the entire episode is about morality's dictums regarding personal responsibility.

It makes thematic sense that the source of this murderer would be a CHARITY, and money-laundering made perfect sense -- white collar crimes.

It had to be an International Charity because the job offer to the cop is to become a guardian of the city against invaders from abroad who want to kill people.

So thematically International is the only choice.

But what are the HEADLINES chattering about now? 

Not Bernie Madoff (who invested for charities, mostly domestic.  Currently a trust is paying a portion of the invested capital back to the investors). 

Right now the headlines (most buried deep behind our scandals de jour) chatter about US based Islamic Charities funneling money to terrorists who use that money to attack us here and abroad.

This is HORRIBLE NEWS -- most Islamic charities are as good as anyone else's, and they do the job very nicely, thank you!  But with humans, there's a rotten apple in everyone's barrel.

And of course rotten apples make headlines (that glue eyeballs to advertisers).  Stories about upstanding charities don't attract the exact eyeballs advertisers pay big bucks to access.

There are a number of really effective, efficient, completely honest Holocaust Survivor charities in the USA -- so I assume there must be a rotten apple in that barrel somewhere, humans being human.  I didn't see anything wrong on first viewing with the choice of a Holocaust charity.

Collect a lot of money or power in one location and like turning on a light bulb at sunset on your patio, you will attract flies, moths, and things that sting.

The lesson is don't turn that color light on -- don't collect money or power in one location under the control of say 6 or 12 individuals who only have to agree to keep quiet in order to make them all rich. 

Now take a close look at the underlying structure of that episode's script considering our discussion of episodic structure and springboards.

The point was a) Sherlock becomes a sponsor, b) injured cop gets involved in anti-terrorist activities.  c) Sherlock's protege, Watson, faced down a temptation to reveal one of her prior clients -- so the entire episode was about morality, responsibility, keeping your word of honor.  That's why the cop didn't answer right away -- as an honorable man, he had to be sure he chose correctly, and that he would give his Word and keep that promise (like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain vampire character.)

The Holocaust Survivor charity broke "word of honor." 

It was an international charity dedicated to doing something all viewers would like to see done, and it betrayed the Holocaust Survivors by retrieving their money but not passing it on to them or their heirs.

Does that fit the theme?


There are some brilliant writers involved in this show.  Watch those names on the credits.  Grand careers are being launched here.

But what is the natural, obvious, and thematically perfect type of international charity to be the source of someone stealing money and WILLING TO MURDER?

Did Bernie Madoff shoot or stab people?  No.  That was pure "white collar" crime.  Did he deal with people who then turned around and killed him?  No.  Why?  White Collar Crime (like embezzlement ) doesn't go with murder. 

The kind of person who runs a Ponzi scheme is not the kind of person (study criminal psychology) who murders or associates with people who would. 

What sort of people run their lives on a morality that makes it OK to shoot, stab, burn, behead or otherwise murder people who disagree with them?

You have to find the sort of people who fit into the episode that ends with a cop considering a redirection of his career into detecting terrorists. 

In other words, the money laundering that goes with the cop's career redirect is international and run by people who believe murder is OK at least under some circumstances.

All of a sudden, when you see that last scene with the injured cop, you understand the thematic ERROR made here -- and because the intrusion is smooth, subtle, and almost correct, you have a quandry to resolve.  Is it the Holocaust Charity that is the intrusion or the Cop's career choice that is the intrusion in this script? 

Which piece of this script was wedged in by non-writers?

Then ask why non-writers would mess with a script.

The answer (all the way back to the 1960's and STAR TREK which I do know a lot about) is ADVERTISERS and their assessment of the audience they want to reach with their products.  Or more specifically, it's what the network execs think the advertisers think.  (consider the Duck Dynasty flap from December 2013 and audience plus advertiser responses to the flap.)

The decision to change a script element has nothing to do with the thematic integrity of the story.

That's the big problem you face if you want to work in TV (where the money is).

The decision is entirely a PR (math turning an art into a science and not quite making it) decision. 

Some non-writer exec decided they could not use the obvious Islamic Mosque supporting an Islamic charity funneling money to terrorists in other countries.

Given that final scene with the injured cop, it is vividly obvious the International Charity had to be Islamic in the original script.  If it wasn't -- then it would have had to be changed in rewrite because that's what has to go into the cop's plot-thread springboard. 

But Islamic Terrorism is a hot-button issue that would distract viewers from the commercials, and therefore forbidden.  Any non-writer can see that instantly.

So what sort of international charity could they use instead of a Muslim one?  Red Cross?  It would work thematically, but no, can't attack the Red Cross -- too many people approve of them.

So who?  What charity?

A Jewish Charity would be acceptable to the CBS audience as a source of an embezzler turned murderer.  Despite the fact that Madoff wasn't a violent criminal, despite everything mystery fans know about criminal psychology, despite all the facts everyone knows, it is plausible enough, so use it.

But the script already called for 3 murders to lead to the solution -- and that's air time. 

So these (really great) writers had to leave out the character development that would have let the audience understand the Perpetrator as a "rotten apple" -- a distinctive, unique, strange individual criminal with both White Collar and Violent Crime in his makeup. 

It must have pained them greatly to leave such a paper-thin character as the perpetrator.  They could have made the Holocaust Charity element work if they'd had maybe another 4 minutes of air time to develop that individuality. 

But even so, that would not have been the platform upon which to hinge the springboard of the injured cop's new career decision.  There aren't any Jewish terrorists planning attacks on New York or London. 

I've detected similar "messes" made of other TV shows, but none so clear and stark and easy to see as this one.

Given this problem with this script, what would you do to fix it? 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Hi JL,
    Great post! While I don't watch Elementary given what you've laid out, the key is making the whole thing believable. How do you make a white collar crime (money laundering) along with three murders believable? Add an element that could induce a regular person to commit murder. Introduce a hallucinogenic substance while at a cocktail party to the glass of the Holocaust Charity person. S/he has an allergic reaction to it and the drug now is transformed into a longer-acting poison in his/her system. This makes him/her not in their right mind and with little provocation murder is the 'solution' to their problems. A stretch? Yes, but it would keep the PR folks happy and is plausible in this day and age where more and more allergies and food sensitivities are coming to light.