First of all, I would like to make one thing perfectly clear. If you love CBS’s new crime drama Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson—if you adore it, and have already started making plushies resembling the co-stars and are considering relocation to a dilapidated Manhattan brownstone—then I applaud you and your taste in television. With all sincerity. I think you are wonderful, and I’d like to take you out for a pint. There is room for every new Sherlock Holmes to come down the pipeline; The Great Mouse Detective can coexist in the same world Sherlock Hound occupies, be their species ever so incompatible on paper. Sherlockians like watching new Sherlock Holmes adaptations, period, and we will continue to do so until a production so wholly embodies the detective and the doctor that lo, Paget’s illustrations will have sprung to heady life before our very eyes, and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters will at last be recreated to definitive perfection.
But that day has not yet arrived, so we can move forward! (That is, if you're prepared for slightly spoiler-y comments on plot elements.)
Is Elementary the adaptation that is so without flaw that we can all hang up our deerstalkers and forever call it a day? No. So that’s good news. And there’s plenty more good news where that came from.
There has been a very great deal of Elementary-based snark floating about upon the waves of that great snark ocean, the internet, regarding how dare they copy BBC Sherlock, which is six 90-minute installments of untrammeled awesome, and incidentally how dare they costume Miller in a scarf, because Benedict Cumberbatch also wears a scarf, and he is the only character in television history whose neck gets chilly, look at the man’s neck, that’s just science. I was guilty of a raised eyebrow myself when CBS cast Cumberbatch’s erstwhile Frankenstein cohort Jonny Lee Miller, whose name is unabashedly without h, and who traded roles nightly with Cumberbatch, alternating as the Doctor and the Creature. Then Team BBC joined the fray, with Sue Vertue tweeting “Mmm interesting CBS, I’m surprised no one has thought of making a modern day version of Sherlock before, oh hang on, we have!” (which made me giggle), and making very clear that intellectual property theft would not be greeted with smiles or kittens.
Everyone can officially take a collective sigh of relief on this front: as Team BBC doubtless knows by now, Elementary is nothing whatsoever like Sherlock. In fact, in order to find two shows that are further apart on the Sherlockian spectrum, we’d probably have to screen Matt Frewer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles alongside the 1959 Peter Cushing version. As we can all agree, this is wonderful, because now there are more slices of righteous Sherlock Holmes pie to pass around. And I haven’t a doubt that the majority of Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy CBS’s contribution, even if aspects of it were problematic for me.
Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is one rehab stint away from rock bottom, following a mysterious and dark incident involving an unnamed woman, in the classic a lady bruised my heart but I don’t want to talk about it setup that has worked so very many times before in the history of television. He is starting anew, drug-free and living in his father’s least attractive New York residence, which is a massive and glamorous property despite the peeling paint, a worthy replacement for Baker Street. It’s half Bat Cave and half residence, and, as a headquarters for a consulting detective, it’s nicely spacious and grim.
Enter Joan Watson, a disgraced medico hired by Holmes’s father to act as his son’s sober companion. Sherlock doesn’t want a sober companion, but he does want to solve crime, and after discovering that his new babysitter has a real knack for observation (in fact, Joan identifies the discrepancy that solves the case), he realizes that they could be a dynamic duo after all. And really—isn’t crime solving always better with a partner?
As a detective in a police procedural (which is what Elementary is), Miller is nicely energized, often standing slightly off balance and delivering his conclusions in an engagingly erratic fashion, the perfect follow-up to eccentric protagonists from Monk to House (which likewise both owe a debt to Holmes). As Sherlock Holmes, he is something of a puzzle to me. Sherlock Holmes was a languid, poised, aloof, cold, questionably sexual gentleman who maintained iron control over his emotions save when presented with the direst of circumstances. The character Miller is playing is a hyper, edgy, quick-tempered, fiery heterosexual who hires prostitutes when his appetites can’t be managed and reacts to a setback by stealing Joan’s car and deliberately crashing it into their suspect’s vehicle.
Momentarily satisfying? Yes. A move typical of a “reasoning machine”? I defer to your own judgment.
As for Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson, she is incredibly satisfying in a number of ways. A woman who has suffered her own bitter disappointments, she maintains her calm with frank looks and careful silences, absorbing her Sherlock’s manic energy as if it were no worse than radio waves passing through. By the end of the episode, she seems rather entranced by what their work together could look like, and she leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that she can and will stand up to Sherlock’s tantrums. Thus, as a stalwart partner in a police procedural, I quite adored her. As Dr. Watson . . . well, Dr. Watson was a warm, intelligent man of action who barely survived the Afghan War and lived to tell about it, a respected physician who was irresistibly drawn to Holmes’s adventures. The character Liu is playing is a warm, intelligent woman with no combat experience or war wounds to speak of, a shamed surgeon who killed a patient on the operating table and is forced to resort to palling around with a lunatic detective for pay.
Do I like her? I do, very much. I like her enormously. Do I want to see more of her? Yes, I’ll be watching her with interest. Could she have been named Diana Lucretzia Von BananaPants for all her resemblance to Watson? I leave it to your discretion.
I think it’s important to point out that every adaptation will inevitably be dissatisfying in some aspects, and there are many roads that lead to Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. is neither tall nor meticulously clean. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock attains heights of cruelty and misogyny unheard of in the canon. Basil is a mouse. I don’t need every aspect of the books to be incorporated, but I wonder just how far you can walk away from a character’s backstory and retain any sense of the original. After enough cutting and pasting, where are you?
Elementary doesn’t look like a show based on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It looks like a show based on Monk, CSI, Cold Case, Psych, and Bones, none of which would exist without Sherlock Holmes, which is beginning to seem a bit like photocopying a pencil copy of a sketch drawn on tracing paper laid over the original. I was honored to see the pilot at the UCLA conference “Sherlock Holmes: Behind the Canonical Screen,” followed by a Q&A with producer Robert Doherty, who was extremely affable and explained that they wrote their Watson from the ground up, started absolutely fresh, so that she could be the perfect foil for their reimagined Holmes. It worked. But it doesn’t make either of them particularly recognizable.
As for the mystery itself, there is a gruesome murder, and there are very competent police officers I liked tremendously investigating it (Aidan Quinn as Tobias Gregson is phenomenal), and I often wondered just what the devil Sherlock Holmes was doing there. It’s all well and good to deduce that the murderer was known to the victim because there are enough broken shards for two glasses of water, but forensics would have worked that out within ten minutes at most, and other feats of finding small blood stains and discovering safe rooms likewise don’t take a genius to figure out. What made Sherlock Holmes necessary in the Victorian Era was the fact that forensics as we know them didn’t exist, period. Modern adaptations like Sherlock and Elementary have a very tough row to hoe on that front, and there was nothing about this Sherlock I found indispensible or even particularly necessary—all the more so when Joan, who has a razor mind of her own, ultimately carries the field by taking note of a suspect’s allergy.
(For the record, I love that Joan saves the day with her lightning wits. I just wish Sherlock had more to do than rapid-fire monologues about what crime scenes look like and standing around being very tattooed.)
Easter eggs for the hardcore fans are few and far between, though—to my immense satisfaction—Sherlock keeps bees on the roof of his townhouse and is actively working on the Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. There are several splendid moments of warmth and humor, including Sherlock deducing whether or not the Mets will lose (take a wild guess) and explaining to Joan of a particularly amazing deduction, “I Googled you.” Their chemistry is charming, their patter quick, and it would be a hard push to find two better looking people to slap on the telly, which led Doherty to swear up and down to us that there would be no kissing. Ever.
My biggest issue is that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are adventures, an aspect of tremendous importance to me that seems to have been entirely missed by Elementary. Sherlock and Joan’s lives are threatened exactly zero times in the pilot episode, and there are precisely zero fight scenes, which is an average that will doubtless change soon, but meanwhile I found frankly baffling. There are no secret criminal societies thus far, nor suspected vampires, nor glowing hounds, nor snakes trained to kill people, nor mongoose accomplices, nor poisoned blowdarts, nor exotic roots that when burned and inhaled will drive you mad. There was a murderer. (Spoiler alert: they caught the murderer.) It made for good television. As adventures go, my cats lead lives of greater visceral thrill.
It will be intriguing to see where the series goes from week to week, as Sherlock and Joan run amok in the Big Apple, free now and forever of the taint suggesting they too closely resemble Sherlock. Meanwhile, my advice to Joan: invest in a gun, my dear Watson. Because I dearly, dearly hope that you will be needing it. If not now, then all too soon.
All images copyright ©2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
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