Friday, February 07, 2014

Script Doctoring--Elementary, "Corpse de Ballet" Edition

Welcome to a new feature here at The Mistress of All Evil--script doctoring. Here's where we will take a movie, TV episode, book, or other property that has left us all shaking our heads at it's nonsense. We'll point out the problems, and try to suggest either causes, explanations, or revisions.

Our first test subject is the initial scenes of last night's episode of Elementary, the CBS modernization of Sherlock Holmes. The episode is "Corpse de Ballet," in which the bitchy prima ballerina is the prime suspect in the murder of a member of the corps.

Pre-credits, we open with a montage of pre-performance preparations. The prima looks at herself in the mirror and sets the sparkly tiara on her own hair. The PA taps on the door to call her to the stage. Onstage, some 16-24 dancers warm up in various attitudes, and the prima stalks her attitude (and her rather buxom self) past all the various peons who are in her way. The curtain goes up, the dance begins--very classic corps work, and the cue goes to the stage hands to lower the columns.

I'm already calling shenanigans at this point--why would a classical ballet (as this one obviously is) be moving backdrops DURING the corps dance? It's not like "columns" are expected to be dynamic items on a stage either. Well, but the columns have to move while everyone is onstage dancing because then GASP! A body comes tumbling onto the stage! Cue screams and opening credits!

We have now established the exotic setting--ballerinas--and the shocking visual--the bisected body. It's kind of obscured by rolling clouds of dry ice at first, but we get a longer, closer look as Sherlock and Joan examine it. And there's a pretty serious production problem here--the body is absolutely not believable as a human body, bisected or not.

Call American Apparel--we've found their missing mannequin!

Maybe I'll give them a pass on the upper portion, and it seems in close-ups that they have actually hired an actress to play the body for purposes of displaying the cut throat. But just look at those legs! I want some disarray, some damage from falling out of the flies. A broken bone, a crumpled and skewed foot, some evidence of violence--not just the bottom half of a mannequin after you've managed to get the leg warmers onto it look.

"Huh," skeptics Joan, "you would think there would be more blood." Yes, yes you would. Because however long she's been dead, that body was JUST CUT IN HALF AND DROPPED FROM THE CEILING. You might expect some splotches where the bloody stumps bounced before coming to rest. You might expect some dangling entrails and viscera. You might expect some kind of messiness--but this is broadcast network television, I guess, so you get two halves of an obvious mannequin and a perfectly clean floor.

Can we get some more of that dry ice in here? Our illusion is not so effective when you can actually see the hollow legs on the dummy. Source:

Let's go to the deductions! There's red stuff on her throat--"someone cut her artery, then wrapped a wire around her. . . .time of death is around Last Night O'clock. . . .thin cut, short blade, box cutter? We found one right over here in the garbage with some bloody paper towels at the bottom. . . .box cutter has an engraved iris flower on it. . .bitchy diva is named Iris. . . .we have a suspect!!"

Okay, let's stop right here. What is the most unusual aspect of this case? (This is an easy one, so just go with the easy answer, okay?) That's right--it's the fact that this poor girl was trussed up in wire so that her body would be cut in two and dumped onstage in the middle of rehearsal. So, Sherlock, maybe look at that? 

Because here's the thing about that--it's weird. It's theatrical, it's calling attention to the murder, it requires some arrangement. Maybe question the stage hands--did you see anything odd before the rehearsal? Who has access? Does it take specialized knowledge to get up there, to find a wire, to connect it to the columns? Maybe examine the wire? Hey--no--we don't bother, because we found a box cutter, so we're going to assume it's Iris.

Now, the thing about Sherlock Holmes, the reason he's an interesting character and worth making TV shows about, is that he's not just a linear thinker. He just simply wouldn't fail to investigate or even think about what the whole "cutting a corpse into two pieces and dumping it on stage" would be about.

And frankly, the whole thing is suspect--I am calling shenanigans on it. Because the victim (who we learn is named "Nell") was a professional ballet dancer in New York City. That means she was an elite dancer, one who was originally up for the lead role. So she's a highly trained, successful, rising elite star of the ballet world. Which means--she's incredibly tiny and wiry and strong. She also probably ways about 90 pounds.

Now, I'm no surgeon, but I simply cannot believe that a 90 ballerina has enough mass to cause a wire to cut entirely through her body simply from her own weight. We are talking a whole lot of muscle and bone--her entire spinal column would have had to be severed--bones and discs and nerves. Frankly, I think she would have had to had significant additional weights tied on either side of the wire just to get any significant mutilation, much less the complete (and more or less cauterized) severing she gets.

And that whole trick--the whole murdering the girl, climbing up into the flies with her, figuring out the mechanics of the wire and the flying backdrop--all of that is evidence. It's like a fingerprint of the workings of the murderer's mind, demonstrating things they know and ways they think. Why call attention to the body, but (sort of) hide the weapon? Why arrange for the body to be found during dress rehearsal, and not a performance, which would have a bigger audience? These inconsistencies are like the ridges and grooves of the fingerprint, and should immediately paint of picture of a unique perpetrator, and Sherlock should have been thinking about all these things and piecing together a composite image of the type of murderer to be looking for.

Why? Because Sherlock is supposed to be smarter than anybody else in the room. He's supposed to have encyclopedic knowledge on numerous topics filed away in his prodigious brain. He's supposed to be able to follow several trains of deduction simultaneously. The thrill of Sherlock is how he assembles random details into a coherent whole, and that's what I want to see him doing.

What we got instead was a ploddingly linear thinker who gets led around by the police. Here is the body, Sherlock. Here is a box cutter with blood on it. It also has an flower engraved on it. It's not a brilliant for him to recognize it as an iris, and it's blindingly obvious that the next step is to talk to the person in the theater who is named Iris, and try to pin it on her.

No. That's cop thinking, that is not Sherlock thinking. Sherlock would be thinking "If Iris killed Nell with her own identifiable box cutter, why would she hide it in the back stage trash? If she wanted to hide it, she would have taken it out of the theater entirely, or returned it to her own toolbox. If she wanted it to be found, why hide it at all?" Then he'd look for anyone who would benefit from Iris being a murderer, including Iris herself. And the fun would be watching him propose theories and then disprove them. "Iris can't be the murderer, because the combination of flamboyant reveal and covering up the weapon is inconsistent. Either she needed to flaunt the murder for X reason, or she needed to hide the body for Y reason. There is no consistent theory for her to do both. It must be someone else."

(Also--if Iris had murdered Nell, it would have made sense to hide the body so it wasn't found until she left the country for her "long scheduled master class in Montreal." Skip the country and don't come back. Much more rational and efficient.)

So then, Sherlock should be delving into who has a motive for framing Iris? We could entirely skip the "torn rotator cuff" deduction--and I'm not sure why that disqualifies her from being the perp--but could still have them sleep together as he tries to find likely suspects. He would still go to the lawyer's files of past stalkers and threats (Iris apparently has a lot of restraining orders against people), and he could still recognize the sound of the automatic door closer. (Why? How many different kinds of those are there? Why does he know the particular brand of door closer? Has he written a monograph?)

Of course, the door closer is the important clue, as it shows up in the middle of the leaked voicemail from Iris to Nell. Again--why? Why would anyone be clandestinely copying voicemail messages with their door open? (Also--not sure how Iris's voicemail to Nell ends up recorded on her own phone. OR how lawyer guy knew it would be there.) Sherlock recognizes the door closer sound, decides that the lawyer is guilty, and manages to get a warrant. The motive? Lawyer wants to get famous defending a big media friendly murder case. 

Okay, this one is completely nuts, and depends on too many contingencies, primarily, Iris being willing to let this decidedly mediocre lawyer defend her on a murder case. He might be good enough for filing restraining orders (not a tricky matter, BTW. I filed a couple during my lawyering days). That does NOT mean he knows the first thing about criminal law. Iris is far too savvy for that to happen.

Furthermore, what is the deal with keeping the security cameras from the theater? He was going to show the footage as an alibi for Iris, in case he was criminally bad at defending her? Sure--let's imagine that exchange.

Lawyer: I would like to play this security footage for the jury, your honor.
Prosecutor: I object. There is no proof this is actually from the theater, or that the footage is from the night of the murder, or that it has been untampered with between the night of the murder and today.
Judge: Mr. Lawyer, can you demonstrate how that footage came to be in your possession?
Lawyer: Well, because. . .I stole it myself?
Prosecutor: If Mr. Lawyer is going to testify to his own actions, he can no longer be Ms. Ballerina's attorney--he is now a witness.
Lawyer: I stole the camera hard drive the night I killed Nell and framed Iris for the murder. . . .
[Sound effect of all the criminal defendants running away from this guy as their attorney….]

Stupid plan, stupidly executed, but at least is "explains" why the body was bisected--he thought it would make the case more media worthy. What should have happened was that Sherlock should have figured the clumsy framing job in about ten seconds.

Other quibbles:

  • Joan's suddenly revealed volunteering with homeless people. Because Tragic Family Backstory! Lucy Liu does a really great job of showing complex emotions around having a schizophrenic father who shows up at homeless shelters and only sometimes recognizes her--but the fact that the script went there is pretty ham-fisted.
  • Mental illness doesn't work like that. Joan gets called into a case of a homeless man who was "off his meds" and yelling and attacking cops. He's clearly agitated and if he's off his meds and decompensating to the point where he is actually tied to the hospital bed, he is NOT going to calm down just because Joan says "I need you to calm down."
  • Nor is her going to be completely lucid and organized less than 24 hours later, to the point where he can apologize "for my behavior yesterday." Psychotropic medications don't work that quickly either. I think it should take weeks, not hours for medications to work, and I really don't believe they turn Raving Assault On Cops Guy into Soft Spoken Caring Good Friend Guy, like, ever. Psychotropics are good, but they are not that good.
  • Last week, Sherlock was a sobriety sponsor for a drug addict named Randy--is he all better too?
I kind of like the character development this show is doing--Sherlock is teaching Joan how to solve cases, and she is actually striking out on her own and having real success. She solves the Case of the Missing Freebo--a homeless guy who is being held captive by a couple who is fraudulently cashing benefit checks. Furthermore, Sherlock tries to discourage her from pursuing this case, and she ignored him. 

But it's a mystery show! The mysteries should be interesting! And more than that, it's a Sherlock Holmes mystery show--it should be much more dazzling.


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