As a lab assistant demonstrates a worm harvester to a group of students, decomposing body parts are sifted from the dirt. The mystery flesh belongs to Dr. William Velnik, senior professor of invertebrate zoology.
“Worm scientist” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “hot doctor.” But Velnik garnered dozens of lovers with motives to kill with his sixpack abs, rogueish ways and grand romantic gestures — like bestowing the names of his lovers, translated into Latin, on the inchworm species he discovers.
This dark, offbeat humor is characteristic of “Elementary,” the CBS series that reimagines Sherlock Holmes in a modern age and stars Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Monday’s episode — which airs at 9 p.m. on WBBM-TV — marks the directorial debut of Jon Michael Hill, who plays Detective Marcus Bell in the series.
Hill, who grew up in Waukegan, became a Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Hill says he always had an interest in directing but didn’t think of it as a possibility until Liu started directing episodes in the second season of the show, now in its sixth season. During season 3, Hill began shadowing directors and developing relationships with the crew to try to understand all aspects of the show’s production.
He says it was “magical” to view the show from a director’s perspective and be able to fully appreciate the work required to create just one episode.
“It was very satisfying and fulfilling to see something that was just words on a page get fully realized and [know] that you had a hand in shaping that story,” he says.
The series is a drama, but there’s a surprising amount of humor woven into the murder mystery. Hill says drama and comedy have a closer relationship than people might think.
“We kind of think that if it’s a drama it has to be separate from comedy,” he says. “But the way life happens, it’s all mixed up together. The world doesn’t stop just because somebody dies.”
Hill recently closed “Pass Over,” a modern adaptation of “Waiting for Godot” that tackles systemic racism faced by black Chicagoans, at New York’s Lincoln Center, starring in the role he originated at Steppenwolf.
Also at Steppenwolf, Hill originated the jocular role of Franco in “Superior Donuts,” for which he later received a Tony nomination.
Hill says he likes the closeness of the Chicago theater community, that audiences come to shows regardless of the reviews and artists are supportive of each other.
“Everybody knows each other,” he says. “If something goes down, people can rally behind their fellow artists.”
Hill says he plans to continue with his role on “Elementary” but also has big plans to direct more and also to write. He’s writing the pilot for a comedy that he says he will try to peddle to studios once “Elementary” ends.
Hill says he’s excited for his family, especially his mom, to see his directorial debut Monday and thinks it will be “really fulfilling” to see it on the air himself.
One of Hill’s motivations in directing is to open up opportunities to others who might lack industry connections. Hill gave one of his friends, Pete McElligott, a role on the show after reading the script and deciding he was right for the part.
“There are so many good people who just don’t get that foot in the door,” he says. “Hopefully, someday I can be that person who can open doors for other artists. That’s a big part of directing and writing for me: creating from scratch so you can bring new voices to the forefront.”