Elementary, My Dear Sherlock

sherlockelementaryYou’ll never guess what this one is about.

BBC began a delightful experiment in late 2010. They took the works of the great Arthur Conan Doyle and reinterpreted them, bringing his greatest character forward through the many decades  to 2010. Yes, I speak of the Great Detective himself, the immortal Sherlock Holmes. First introduced to the world on November 20, 1886 in the story A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes  and his friend through many adventures Dr. John Watson began a long and illustrious career, solving crimes beyond the ken of the inimitable Scotland Yard. As the decades passed, Sherlock Holmes became the standard of criminal deduction. The Great Detective saw all, observed all, and deduced an astounding amount. He has earned an ever elusive status of being his own adjective. (Come on. I can’t be the only one that describes a particularly incisive example of deductive reasoning as Sherlockian. (In fact, I know I’m not, I just can’t prove it right now because I read too much and can’t narrow down a source.))

The experiment bore tremendous fruit. It was so successful, CBS decided to throw their hat into the ring and create their own version of the same concept, because anything worth doing is worth doing twice. And here I am, a blogger on a site dedicated to genre related stuff that has already mentioned this subject once many moons ago. So what am I to do? I am nearly duty bound to express an opinion. So let’s get on with it,shall we?

Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes in Elementary, with Lucy Liu playing opposite him as Dr. Joan Watson. The premise is straightforward. Sherlock Holmes, in recovery from drug and/or alcohol addiction, leaves London to take up his consulting detective business in New York. He has a contact in the NYPD, a captain who worked with Scotland Yard with the Great Detective before his fall. Sherlock sets about re-establishing his credentials on these shores, with Watson, his sobriety partner, following in his wake attempting to solve her own puzzle, the man named Holmes. Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is energetic, eccentric, erratic, and brilliant.  Estranged from his father, living in , as he approximately puts it, “the most dilapidated of his (father’s)  five properties in New York,” Holmes spends his days raising bees, sharpening his prodigious skills, and waiting for the police scanner or a phone call to reveal his next great case. We are shown hints of a tragic past, tantalized with mention of an apparently deceased (yeah, sure.) woman named Irene Adler, and left wondering what is to come as Holmes works his deductive magic on crimes unsolved, or sometimes even unnoticed,  by the NYPD.

In Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title role opposite Martin Freeman’s John Watson, a doctor and veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The series begins at their introduction, with Watson looking for a flatmate in London while he recuperates from his traumatic experiences. When he looks up an old friend from school, he is introduced to Sherlock Holmes, and swept into his world as much by curiosity as financial necessity. We meet Mycroft Holmes, who occupies a minor post in the English government, watch Holmes trade banter with Inspector Lestrade, and learn that Scotland Yard, while appreciating Sherlock’s undeniable talents, holds him somewhat at arm’s length because of his nature. Holmes, as one detective observes, gets off on crimes. The weirder they are, the better he likes them. There is even the fear that one day waiting for the crimes to happen won’t be enough. One day they fear they’ll find a body on the ground and discover it was Sherlock Holmes that put it there. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is also energetic, but where Johnny Lee Miller is eccentric, Cumberbatch gives us obsessive. Instead of an erratic Lee Miller, we see an intense Benedict. They converge again at brilliant.

Elementary works very hard to make the show work. Sherlock Holmes is everything he is supposed to be, something of an outsider, but undeniably brilliant. He works through his cases with the panache one expects of the Great Detective, seeing each case as a collection of pieces waiting to be assembled. Miller captures his arrogance well, and handles his separation from we mere mortals competently. My biggest problem comes from the nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Lucy Liu is not to blame here. She is handling the character she has been handed very well, in my opinion. She is convincing as a former surgeon turned sobriety companion. She is believable as an intelligent woman doing a difficult job with a difficult client. Because of the nature of her relationship with Holmes, she is required to pry into his background. She can’t be believable if she doesn’t. But that isn’t the purpose of Watson. Watson is meant to be Holmes’  interface with the rest of us.

Sherlock, on the other hand, gives us a much more traditional take on Holmes and Watson. Martin Freeman’s Watson, by contrast, spends his time explaining  Holmes to the rest of the world, while giving Holmes insight on those niceties that escape the Great Detective. Not the motivations. Those Holmes grasps fully. It is the social mores that escape him, the direct interface between the genius of Holmes and the comparative mediocrity f the rest of the word.  In fact, Sherlock take pains to keep as much of the traditions of Sherlock Holmes as possible, given the temporal shift. If  faithfulness to source material is our sole guide, Sherlock is a clear winner.

At the end of the day, for me, it comes down to this. I enjoy Elementary. It is entertaining, stimulating and fun. On the other hand, the news that Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch are currently too busy to film the next season of  Sherlock sends shock waves through me. I am slavering to see what comes next, and their careers and other projects be damned.

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2 Responses to Elementary, My Dear Sherlock

  1. Ronnie says:

    I have enjoyed both versions, and both work better than the Robert Downey Jr. movies. Its hard to compare the two. While both take place in a modern setting they diverge quite a bit in other ways. Sherlock focusses on the skills and quirks of the master detective, delving into his amazing deductive powers and showing us how his amazing mind reaches conclusions that escape everyone else. Elementary contains this aspect, but it is instead used to explore who Sherlock is and why he is and what has made him the quirky, eccentric detective we have all known for so long.

    I think this is why we see a much different, and in my view very welcome, Watson. It is important to recognize how the traditional Watson is indeed a window for the audience/reader into the foreign mind of Sherlock Holmes. But this relegates Watson to a subservient role. This is why Watson so often feels like a squire to the knight. In the classic 1940’s movies starring Basil Rathbone, Watson is played by Nigel Bruce as a bumbling, mostly incompetent water carrier for the brilliant Holmes.

    Martin Freeman never falls into this trap, but his role continues to be secondary, primarily as a commentator on Sherlock Holmes. He is able to actualize the reaction of the ordinary person (audience) to an amazing intellect that is tied to some serious character flaws, specifically in relating to other people (the audience once more).

    Lucy Lui on the other hand is playing a much different role. As Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock goes about solving his crimes we see a much more vulnerable character. We can see that his effort to solve crimes has a source, there is some pain and hurt in his history that has made him the way he is. Thus, the Watson character takes on a new role. Jane Watson is no longer a conduit to the audience, instead she is a conduit into the mysteries of who Sherlock is and why his connection to the rest of humanity is so fraught with difficulties. In this way, Martin Freeman’s character is looking at the audience, while Lucy Lui’s is looking at Sherlock Holmes.

    In this way, the show has elevated the Watson character onto a more even playing field with Sherlock Holmes. This certainly is not the Watson from the novels, and we rarely get such an intimate view of Sherlock from any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. But that is indeed what they seem to be attempting with Elementary. This is one of the reasons the show can exist with the amazing Cumberbatch Sherlock.

    They are different shows attempting to accomplish different goals and that is a good thing, because Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have created an ideal representation of the classic due. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Lui cannot compete on that classic take and seem to be attempting something different, something that makes it hard to compare the two series. Because while they both take place in modern day, their similarities get fewer the closer we look at both shows.

    • dreygeaux says:

      As always, my friend, you add both excellent graphics and an interesting new perspective. I agree with you about the Robert Downey Jr. interpretation. I didn’t include those movies because they are period pieces placed in Holmes’ proper time.

      I am intrigued by your comments regarding the elevation of Watson. My own introduction to Holmes was through the performance of Jeremy Brett. I have yet to watch Basil Rathbone’s interpretation. David Hardwicke’s Watson was not incompetent, but he was in no way the equal of Holmes.

      Martin Freeman on the other hand, while not being Holmes’ equal in deduction, is a fully realized character in his own right, not just a shadow to emphasize Sherlock’s greatness. In is own way, he brings forward the weaknesses of Sherlock Holmes.

      Your insight on Joan Watson strikes me as particularly profound. While I see your point, I’m not sure the point of view offered by Joan Watson is a necessary component of the story of Sherlock Holmes. But your viewpoint adds much to my consideration, and I respect it. Thank you.

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