Spotlighting the Writers of Elementary Season 1
So, I might be writing a post about why I think Steven Moffat often gets singled out for criticism, and draws such controversy. A lot of that is that, well, Moffat is a bit of an egotist who puts himself out there - he has a cult of personality and a following and a very noticeable presence.
But what about some writers who don’t have that kind of presence? Writers who just do their job without standing out or getting a lot of fandom attention? Writers who disappear into a writing team? This seemed like a fun comparison between BBC Sherlock and Elementary, since BBC Sherlock’s three-episode season format means that each writer stands out a lot, while Elementary’s standard US season format means that individual writers are invisible.
In honor of such writers, I decided to look up the writer for every single episode of Elementary season 1, to see if I could find common threads in any given writer’s episodes - try to suss out an identity to each of the very talented writers who put together the best show I have watched lately.
Along with this, you’ll also get my opinions on which are the best episodes of the season!
Warning for possible unmarked spoilers for the twists of individual episodes.
So, let’s go through the writers, as well as the common co-writing teams.
One thing that intrigued me was that very few writers wrote more than one episode without a credited co-writer. Head writer and series creator Robert Doherty solo-wrote three episodes; Corrine Brinkerhoff solo'ed twice, as did Peter Blake. This means that, in trying to figure out what each writer brought to the show, I had to find common threads in episodes that each co-wrote, while more heavily weighting any observation made about the writer’s solo episode.
I will make a few observations about specific teams of writers after going through each writer individually.
Robert Doherty (“Pilot (solo),” “While You Were Sleeping (solo),” “M (solo),” “The Deductionist,” “Details,” “Risk Management,” “The Woman/Heroine”)
Doherty is the writer that I have the most trouble defining, oddly. As the head writer, he generally writes the most important episodes - the pilot, the first post-pilot episode that established the show’s status quo (especially the replacement of Abreu with Bell), the mid-season turning point, an episode that defined many aspects of Sherlock’s characterization, and ¾ of the season’s four-part final arc. As such, Doherty’s voice is the voice of the show. He also gets less opportunities to write outright mysteries.
His most annoying quirk is an over-reliance on Sherlock having scent-related superpowers. "While You Were Sleeping" and “M” both have rather credibility-stretching uses of Sherlock’s sense of scent to move the plot forward.
Craig Sweeny (“Rat Race (solo),” “The Leviathan,” “The Red Team,” “The Deductionist,” “The Woman/Heroine”)
Craig Sweeny had a hand in almost as many episodes as Doherty, including co-writing both “The Deductionist” and the season finale with Doherty. I would say that Sweeny is tied for my favorite writer on the team. His episodes tend to hit just the right tone for me - aside from “The Deductionist,” the episodes credited to Sweeny are all favorites of mine. It’s not even that “The Deductionist” is bad, I just don’t like it much through some quirk of my own tastes.
The episodes I like by Sweeny all hit just the right level of mystery complexity, witty dialogue, and fascinating scenarios. Sweeny, to me, is the writer who most consistently presents fascinating puzzles for Sherlock to unravel - his scenarios tend to be memorable and satisfying, with intriguing twists in the solution. He also produces some very memorable villains - “Rat Race” and “The Red Team” both have pretty interesting murderers, who share the trait of being very patient and methodical; it’s no wonder he was one of the two co-writers who brilliantly brought Moriarty to life.
Sweeny’s big thing seems to be having Sherlock Holmes turn his obnoxiousness toward powerful people. "Rat Race" and “The Leviathan” both have Sherlock being quite obnoxious toward rich people, “The Red Team” has him standing up to shadowy government agents, “The Deductionist” shows how somebody of roughly equal power (possibly greater fame) to Sherlock abused his trust and hurt him (and his resulting beef with her). (I haven’t finished season 2, but Sweeny also solo-wrote “We Are Everyone” - meaning that Sweeny has written two episodes in which Sherlock is interrogated by government agents - which is what helped me notice this theme). Certainly, this is a major part of the show, but I’d estimate that Sweeny does it most consistently.
Corrine Brinkerhoff (“Flight Risk (solo),” “The Leviathan,” “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs,” “A Landmark Story”)
Brinkerhoff is the one tied with Sweeny for my favorite season 1 writer. Like Sweeny, Brinkerhoff tends to provide a sense of adventure and fun, with intriguing mysteries and setups. She does have a slight running tendency toward over-complication; “Flight Risk” and “The Leviathan” both have a lot of twists as Sherock and Joan eliminate suspects, and her suspects tend to be very bland individuals.
Brinkerhoff’s favored focus appears to be on clever cover-ups. Her solo episode, “Flight Risk” features a case of sabotage used to obscure a murder, followed by a murder made to look like the victim ran away; “A Landmark Story” is centered upon an assassin who makes his murders look like accidents. Sweeny shares this as well, between “Rat Race” and “The Red Team,” so perhaps that adds the quality of puzzle and intrigue that I like in both their styles.
Liz Friedman (“Lesser Evils (solo),” “Dirty Laundry,” “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs,” “Dead Man’s Switch,” “Risk Management”)
Friedman also has a lot of solid notches on her belt in terms of episode quality (one of which is shared with Brinkerhoff and three of them shared with Silber, but still). Her solo episode, “Lesser Evils,” is quite brilliant. A quick look at Wiki shows she’d worked on Xena and House, which is an amusing combination in the context of Elementary.
Friedman wrote/co-wrote two episodes revolving around a twist that one character or group of characters is secretly an East European/former Soviet Bloc immigrant (one from Ukraine, one from Russia), which I imagine indicates either heritage from the area or a great fascination.
Christopher Silber (“One Way to Get Off (solo),” “Dirty Laundry,” “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs,” “Dead Man’s Switch”)
Silber jumped out to me as the go-to “dark” writer. However, I had trouble quantifying what was “dark” about his episodes - which led to me figuring out his big running quirk.
Silber clearly likes episodes with a ticking clock and innocent people in real-time danger. "One Way to Get Off" has a serial killer on the loose, ready to strike at any moment; “Dirty Laundry” has a confused teenager caught up in the crime of the episode and traumatized by it; “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs” has a tense ticking clock hostage scenario; “Dead Man’s Switch” revolves around the titular negotiation technique, and as such comes with a race to find the blackmailer’s assistant. As such, Silber’s episodes tend to be dark and humorless, because he writes situations with very little room for humor or wit.
Peter Blake (“Child Predator (solo),” “You Do It to Yourself (solo)”)
An anomaly - one of the “minor” writers who got to write two solo episodes. Peter Blake is probably my least favorite of the writers listed here - both of his episodes are ones I never feel a desire to re-watch. Like Silber, his episodes are very dour and very dark.
Both of these episodes portray long-term abuse, and both of them revolve around abuse victims being framed by their abusers (who appear to be the victims themselves). Arguably, he’s a one-trick pony, but both episodes do something different enough with that general concept. I certainly respect that both episodes are inventive and complex, I just find the subject material particularly uncomfortable (in the right ways, at least).
Jeffrey Paul King (“The Long Fuse (solo),” “"The Red Team,” “Details”)
King writes decent enough episodes. His solo episode, “The Long Fuse,” is not one of my favorites, but it’s an interesting enough mystery. "The Red Team" is rather excellent, but it’s hard to not give more credit to Craig Sweeny, who more consistently worked on episodes I liked just as much as “The Red Team.”
King is the only writer who wrote multiple episodes for whom I could not find a noticeable common thread.
Jason Tracey (“Details,” “Snow Angel (solo)”)
When I found out that Tracey wrote Snow Angels without a co-writer, I desperately hoped that he had gotten more work in season 2 - because “Snow Angels” is, without any doubt, my favorite single episode of season 1. I think it’s a fantastic mystery with great set pieces, great dialogue, brilliant characterization and development, and in general a great showpiece for everything that makes Elementary great. I was pleased to see he got to write four season 2 episodes without a co-writer for any of them; clearly, the show’s producers held the same high opinion of his work, and I hope he stayed just as good.
The one common thread I found between Tracey’s two season 1 episodes was a seeming enthusiasm for Marcus Bell - “Details” being Bell’s focus episode, and “Snow Angels” featuring probably Bell’s most memorable moment of deductive reasoning. My girlfriend commented that his season 2 episodes show a distinct interest in writing about the mob; I have not seen the relevant episodes to comment.
Mark Goffman (“Possibility Two (solo)”)
Goffman wrote just one episode, but it’s a memorable one. "Possibility Two" is an episode with a bit of a low-level science fiction bent (the plot hinges upon two huge innovations in genetics, and one element that may be possible or may be theoretically possible, I don’t know enough to be sure).
The weakness of this episode is a distressingly cavalier attitude toward two of its featured criminals - a blackmailer is played for laughs (contrast Friedman and Silber’s very dark, terrifying blackmail scenario with the comedic blackmail-as-alibi scenario in this episode), and a murderer with serious entitlement issues is played as almost funny - that funniness may have been meant to make the scene more horrific without bludgeoning the viewer with the wrongness of his actions, but it was nonetheless a bit odd. The upshot of this is that Goffman presents not one but two memorable criminals in just one episode.
“Possibility Two,” and Goffman as a result, is majorly redeemed by having the hysterical dry cleaners subplot and a glorious ending scene. Basically, this episode’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses, in my estimation, and as such I would evaluate Goffman as a good writer, but I’d like to see more of his work before judging as much.
Brian Rodenbeck (“Deja Vu All Over Again (solo)”)
Rodenbeck got a major task - Joan’s first solo case - and he did OK.
The mystery of this one episode is very, very good - I’d argue that it hinges on Sherlock being a bit of an idiot and not looking through his Google search very attentively, but I can forgive that. Where Rodenbeck fails, though, is dialogue - Joan’s big case explanation at the end falls particularly flat, just feeling long and lifeless. That might be that Lucy Liu was settling into doing that part of the episode, but the dialogue she had to work with was very plodding.
And now, the teams…
Robert Doherty and Craig Sweeny (“The Deductionist,” “Woman/Heroine”)
This is clearly the A+ writing team. They do big events and major character development, and the episodes they write together are solid on all fronts.
Liz Friedman and Christopher Silber (“Dirty Laundry,” “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs (with Corrine Brinkerhoff)” "Dead Man’s Switch")
Y'know what I said about Silber doing a lot with ticking clocks? I’d say that while his solo episode featured such a thing, Friedman’s collaboration seems to make the device work better and to provide the best tension, because I feel like “One Way to Get Off” does not really milk the tension of the killer on the loose as well as “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs” and “Dead Man’s Switch” milk the tension of a kidnapping and blackmail, respectively.
“A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs” and “Dead Man’s Switch” also both feature strong and noticeable allusions to Doyle canon (“Giant Gun” having Sherlock outright summarize a story, and “Dead Man’s Switch” beginning with a straight adaptation and then quickly going to hell due to how modern technology changes the circumstances).
I really have to take them to task for “Dead Man’s Switch,” which features numerous tasteless fat jokes and atrocious treatment of the rape victims involved in the story (or rather, not involved - the rape victims are reduced to props who have zero role in the story).
They did do a great job with the characterization in “Dirty Laundry,” the best work done by just the pair of them. The poor teen girl caught up in the whole situation was a brilliantly written character, and the episode had a human touch that the show doesn’t have often enough (I’d say the show as a whole has a tendency to feel a bit emotionally detached from the crimes being committed). Odd that “Dirty Laundry” and “Dead Man’s Switch” feel like they were written by entirely different writers - if I had to guess, I’d say Friedman’s fingerprints are all over “Dirty Laundry,” and Silber’s over “Dead Man’s Switch,” so maybe one wrote more of each episode; however, that’s pretty baseless speculation due to how closely they collaborate.
[LATE EDIT: Not as baseless as I thought. The pair are given equal credit for “Dirty Laundry,” but “Dead Man’s Switch” is credited as Silber’s story with the pair collaborating for the teleplay.]
“A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs” is one of the gems of the season. Working with a third writer, in this case the very talented Corrine Brinkerhoff, clearly paid off.
I’d say Craig Sweeny, Corrine Brinkerhoff, Liz Friedman, and Jason Tracey all come across to me as very strong writers. Mark Goffman I’d like to see more from. Robert Doherty’s work seems constrained by its arc-critical nature. Christopher Silber seems to me to be the weakest of the more prolific writers, but as he worked closely with Liz Friedman and contributed to two of the great episodes she wrote, I find it hard to dismiss him as the weak link among the five prolific (IE wrote more than three episodes) writers. Peter Blake writes well-conceived episodes that just don’t hold my interest, Rodenbeck seems weak with dialogue, and Jeffrey Paul King is a cipher.
All in all, I found this an interesting exercise in identifying style with very, very little information. Almost all of this is conjecture, due to the rather anonymous nature of the writers I am talking about.