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Elementary: “On The Line”

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“No one can accept something like that forever.”

One of the hallmarks of a crime procedural is the need for the occasional bit of self-reflexivity. Elementary has largely followed the work of two consulting detectives who are brought in to help solve—or, to be more accurate, solve—the NYPD’s toughest cases. This makes perfect sense when you consider that these detectives are Holmes and Watson and at the center of a modern day take on Sherlock Holmes, but it makes less sense if you consider the politics of police work divorced from the premise of the series. If you were to translate this into the voiceover from the start of a Law & Order franchise, it would read something like “In the city of New York, there are two random consultants brought in to solve all of the cases because apparently there are two competent cops in the entirety of the NYPD. These are their stories.”


“On The Line” feels like the series’ attempt to respond to this basic reality, as we learn that the faceless mob that makes up the remainder of the NYPD are not particularly fond of Sherlock and Joan’s involvement in their cases. Chris Bauer (best known for his work as Frank Sobotka on The Wire) plays the ringleader, Coventry, who is offended when Sherlock attempts to open a cold case to reveal that the man framed for the episode’s opening suicide in fact killed the victim’s sister—and other women like her.

Coventry is far from the episode’s villain, what with the whole serial killer situation, but he’s also not positioned as a hero. He puts Sherlock and Joan’s lives in danger by giving Lucas Bundsch—the aforementioned serial killer—their home address, and consistently gets in the way of a legitimate investigation because he’s too proud to admit that he could have been fooled. And when Gregson gives his speech at the end of the episode reaffirming Sherlock and Joan’s value in the wake of their successful apprehension of Bunch and the rescue of two women he held in captivity, Coventry does not suddenly acquiesce and admit he’s been wrong—he remains out there, a symbol of the fact that some members of the NYPD would be unlikely to accept Sherlock and Joan’s continued presence with smiles on their faces.

It’s a conclusion that makes sense, in that it basically gives Elementary the license to keep telling the same kinds of stories while simultaneously leaving the door open for this concern to reemerge in the future. It reminds me of those periodic storylines on House—the non-Sherlock Holmes Sherlock Holmes adaptation, one we haven’t talked a lot about—where someone would come in and discover that House was an incredibly reckless and dangerous doctor, as though this wasn’t immediately apparent to everyone who has ever spent roughly 30 seconds with House. The conflict would emerge (Chi McBride played it first), House’s career would be threatened, but then eventually the threat would go away and the show would continue because the entire premise of the show cannot be destroyed in the way these threats suggest, and because Dr. Gregory House was a genius who saved lives. As we see here, the most you can expect is for a procedural to acknowledge a logical leap in the show’s premise, and then find a way to justify it—in this case, that justification comes from showing Sherlock and Joan are valuable enough for Gregson to stick his neck out for them, effectively telling the rest of the NYPD that results matter more than their silly unions (I’m paraphrasing).

That’s fine, for the record—as noted, there were no expectations that the NYPD were going to suddenly revolt and change the structure of the show, and while I’d like to believe in at least some other vaguely competent members of the NYPD I appreciate the small cast and their ability to use that small cast effectively. Acknowledging that the NYPD would be at least somewhat hostile to Sherlock is the kind of world building a procedural has to do to make its universe feel at least moderately realistic, an answer to a question that the show intends to treat as rhetorical but viewers could potentially consider a real concern regarding the show’s premise. It’s unlikely that the show will change at any point in the future, but the writers have at least created the potential for conflict with the NYPD that could reshape the show’s path forward, which can support both short-term stability and the unlikely but not entirely implausible notion that season three ends with Gregson and Bell quitting their jobs to join Sherlock and Joan in the consulting detective business.


“On The Line” simultaneously makes a point about how Sherlock’s personality stokes this tension, with Joan making the case Sherlock could perhaps expand what she calls his “tiny zone of courtesy,” a zone he seems only willing to extend to her. Much as House’s methods were amplified by the fact he was an angry, cruel man, Sherlock’s interloper status at the NYPD is exacerbated by the fact he is not what one would describe as typically nice. The argument doesn’t have a lot of weight early in the episode, but its conclusion—from which the above-quoted line from Joan derives—makes clear that this won’t be changing either. Sherlock is not a nice person—he can make exceptions for exceptional people (as he does with Joan, and as he has arguably done with Gregson and Bell), but at his core he’s just not nice, and he believes this is what makes him good at his job. Joan may speak to the long-term hardships of being a difficult man in a trick situation, retaining the sense of impending upheaval should the show want to introduce another figure to question the show’s premise (as House did with David Morse). In the short term, however, Sherlock is going to remain a bit of an ass.

I’m also fine with Sherlock being mean, but I prefer it when it’s a bit more calibrated toward humor than the procedural storyline in “On The Line.” I never jived with Troy Garity’s performance as Bundsch, and never bought into him as a compelling foil for Sherlock. The serial killer angle was too dark for the show, robbing it of its comic rhythms and replacing it with a showdown that lacked both suspense and personality—not every villain-of-the-week needs to be on the level of a Moran, for example, but if you’re going to hang the episode on their mind games I’m going to need more than some catfishing and a broken finger.


Elementary is more than welcome to gloss over the complications of Sherlock and Joan consulting on and solving so many cases, and I would never make the argument that Sherlock needs to be “nicer” for the show to be successful. Sherlock—as Joan notes—has nonetheless become nicer by his willingness to make an exception for her, and those exceptions may well grow as the series moves forward. Elementary has always done well to keep from dwelling on his meanness, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the future. That said, though, “On The Line” was more a discussion of why the show’s balance works than an actual demonstration of that balance, a mostly joyless effort that made its point but failed to simultaneously make an impact.

Stray observations:

  • “It’s a short walk to madness. I can attest”—the show has been pretty consistent with building self-reflexivity into Sherlock’s interview style, but there will come a point where it will become the equivalent to flashing a “Sherlock was an addict because of Moriarty, everyone!” chyron on the screen if it’s overdone.
  • I was really hoping the killer’s name was actually “Lucas Bunch,” but IMDB suggests the above spelling is correct instead. Too bad.
  • “It was 2007, those glorified slippers were a veritable pox on the streets”—Sherlock Holmes, fashion critic. This is evidence there wasn’t zero comedy in the episode.
  • Speaking of which, it’s true that some of the show’s most pivotal episodes—“M.” and the season one finale, for example—have taken the show to some dark places. Those felt earned; this didn’t, for me, which is the difference.
  • Clyde Watch: Shocking news, everyone—there is more than one Clyde. This not only means that we’ve been lied to, but it also means that there is almost zero excuse for not using “Clyde” in the story more often if the show has two turtles on retainer.

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