In 1971, Universal Pictures produced a film titled They Might Be Giants starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward as, respectively, “Sherlock Holmes” and Dr. Mildred Watson, chronicling their adventures fighting crime in New York City. Sound familiar? But wait, it gets better. This Holmes is in fact a mental patient by the heroic name of Justin Playfair, whose life is in real danger due to his grasping elder brother’s attempt to usurp the family estate. When Dr. Watson is naturally seized upon as Playfair’s partner in imaginary mayhem, the pair gallivant about Manhattan fighting foes both real and illusory, all the while pretending to be the dynamic duo of the Victorian era.
But They Might Be Giants, for all its Sherlockian iconography, isn’t a Sherlock Holmes reimagining. In fact it’s a Don Quixote pastiche, and an admirable one—it’s about defying reality when reality is too grim or too dull or too heartbreaking, about falling in love with heroism and refusing to be told that the world no longer needs justice served up by brilliant vigilantes.
It takes Cervantes’s novel as its inspiration and delightfully tweaks it for a modern era.
It respects the spirit of the source material.
And that, makers of CBS’s Elementary, is why I must apologize to you for recent murmurs of Sherlockian pissiness. Because some of us fear you don’t get that principle. At all.
There will always be room for more adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. The problem isn’t that the Warner Brothers films and BBC’s Sherlock already exist, and that they are good, and that we by and large love them. Nothing is wrong with adding your sprightly potato salad to our geek potluck and passing around the plastic forks. We are still hungry. No, the problem is that we fear the ethos of our beloved characters will be ignored in favor of market research and general Los Angeles willy-nillying, and we already have a bit of a sugar high from all the Holmesian brilliance of late, and from over here, it looks like you made your potato salad with daikon radish, and that isn’t what a potato salad is, CBS.
It’s a widely accepted fact among our ranks that you can turn Sherlock Holmes into almost anything and he will still rock harder than David Bowie circa 1972. Make him a cartoon mouse called Basil. Please. Put him in the 22nd century with a robot friend. Update him to a dangerously pretty self-avowed sociopath in a Belstaff coat—go on, we dare you, it works like a charm. Nearly anything can be done to the world of Holmes and Watson so long as the creators understand that we as rabid Sherlockians have certain expectations. (As for non-Sherlockians, go ahead and throw any hard-edged cop drama you like their way and call it Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street and Dr. John Watson, CRIMEBUSTERS. They won’t notice the things we will.)
Which brings us to Elementary, starring Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, set in modern day New York City.
Admittedly, some of your ideas are quite sound, CBS. Including but not exclusively . . .
- So you tell us that Holmes and Watson are “a crime-solving duo that cracks the NYPD’s most impossible cases.” Fine, we can lose London. Peace out, capital of the British Empire, we’re shaking up this game.
- Sherlock Holmes is an addict who has just come off a stint in rehab. We buy it. The Holmes of the canon did his share of morphine and intravenous coke, and in fact Watson “gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career.” Rehab it is, we have stronger candy these days.
- Quoted from radiotimes.com (as indeed is all of this information), Joan Watson is the “‘elementary’ choice to keep the ‘mischievous’ Sherlock Holmes grounded as he ‘[runs] free in New York solving crimes.’” How right could you possibly be? Without Watson, Holmes would probably lose his gravitational pull and fly off the planet. Also, Sherlock Holmes is hilarious and likes to prank his clients with naval treaties delivered in breakfast trays. Gold star, CBS.*
- Holmes’s professional counterpart is Tobias Gregson, played by Aidan Quinn. This is nothing other than true canonical fact, and we as fans thank you for it. It makes us feel warm and comfortable and right at home, as if we sat in scrambled eggs.
So again, apologies for our tetchiness on the following subjects, which are alarmingly centered around a particular character . . .
- Make Dr. John H. Watson, M.D., a woman, no worries. And by all means cast Lucy Liu, who is a turbo-charged nitrobadass. So, let us tell you about Watson, who is our universal hero and our mascot and is loved by us all and if you wreck the character we’ll come after you with arsenic-tipped pitchforks. Ready? He’s an army veteran who was wounded in action. So obviously she’ll be . . . what? Really? No? Ah . . . hmm. But women serve in the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as we speak, and they’re incredibly brave, and it would be a tribute and. . . But . . . are you sure? Right, then. No army record, no formal training with deadly weapons.
- Can we talk more about Watson? Because we love the subject. Great. So, Watson is only a general practitioner, but a very competent doctor, and . . . what’s that you say? Your version . . . isn’t a doctor? She . . . lost her medical license due to a patient’s death, you say? And she’s “paying a penance” by working as a sober caretaker? Aha. Oh. Well, maybe that is . . . something you’ll explain, you darling CBS folk.
- We have a really hard time getting off the topic of Watson, we know, it’s admittedly embarrassing, but one very important part of the mythology is that he’s alone in London, just spiritually adrift, and he needs a cause, so get this, he meets an amazing consulting detective who completely fascinates him and . . . I beg your pardon? She’s forced to live with Holmes as his sober companion at Holmes’s wealthy father’s behest? You know something, this potato salad you just spooned onto my plate seems to be mainly daikon radishes and ox knuckles. What’s that about?
I’m not arguing that we’re purists, because we aren’t in general, but we have trepidations because frankly Watson is the heart and soul of the matter—strip him of everything he stands for, and what’s left of him? You’re not giving us a Sherlock Holmes who’s a dense, plodding Puritan who slowly solves crime by textual procedure, presumably. So, CBS, what are you doing with the most important character from the books?
One makes the assumption that the bond between Sherlock and Joan will begin feisty and steadily grow, which sounds like a fantastic X-Files remake, and I’m glad you’re making it. Truly. And our gross irascibility (for which I am personally sorry) might be erased by our spellbound awe at the sheer purity of beauty that Elementary offers as a series, such that we come to you upon our knees, begging to wash your feet with our hair. That might happen, CBS.
For instance, that might happen if Joan Watson shoots criminals when Sherlock Holmes is too lazy to bring the service revolver. Or if she bangs men (or women) from “many nations and three separate continents” and the celibate Holmes ribs her about it continually. Or if she is there for him no matter what the circumstance and no matter the cost to her, through thick and through thin, watching him be amazing, because Holmes is the single great relationship of her life, and she knows it.
But don’t hand us a plate consisting of daikon, ox knuckle, and peanut butter and brightly tell us it’s potato salad, CBS. Because we may not be purists, but no one on earth loves their chosen dish better. Fair warning.
*Regarding “elementary”: you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Read all posts by Lyndsay Faye for Criminal Element.