Elementary brings a new kind of Sherlock to TV
Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:52 pm in Lifestyle
Even those who never picked up one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyleâs stories nor looked at one of the adaptations know the character Sherlock Holmes. Heâs been portrayed as everything from a drugged-up delusional madman to a buffoon to a near-omniscient genius â always a brilliant but flawed man.
Itâs odd, then, that the latest Holmes adaptation is getting so much hatred from fans of another major television version. Elementary, CBSâs new Thursday night drama, has been under attack by some fans of BBCâs Sherlock. Both shows feature Holmes and Watson solving mysteries in the 21st century, but some Sherlock fans are denouncing Elementary as a ripoff or simply inferior and not worthy of Conan Doyleâs vision. Not only are those arguments premature, theyâre wildly off base, especially since Elementary is quite good.
But first, some background: The idea of modernizing Holmes is nothing new. Basil Rathboneâs series of Holmes films in the 1930s and 1940s brought Holmes into the present day after a few adventures. BBCâs Sherlock was the first to bring Holmes into the new millennium, part of a recent trend to try to do Doyle justice.
But until recently, Holmes has been based more on a stereotype or parody of the character. Rathboneâs films, however enjoyable, helped push the image of the detective always clad in a deerstalker cap. And Nigel Bruceâs comedic relief forever marred the character of Dr. Watson as a large idiot, constantly having to be told the obvious.
Jeremy Brett, in a series of adaptations in the 1980s, brought Doyleâs text to life by providing the truest-to-the-books, Victorian version of the character. In terms of series length and accuracy, this television series is the best attempt to adapt the books to the screen.
But in the last few years, there has been an attempt to return to Doyleâs takes on Holmes and Watson that, although lacking the length of Brettâs run, stay true to the books.
Guy Ritchieâs two Sherlock Holmes films, even with a very kinetic and manic tone, are the best recent take on the characters yet. Jude Lawâs Watson is probably the best portrayal of the doctor, very much the opposite of Bruceâs buffoon. Game of Shadows featured not only Jared Harrisâs perfect Moriarty, but also a version of âThe Final Problemâ that did the story justice.
BBCâs Sherlock is full of references to Doyleâs text and crams numerous story plots into each episode of its very short seasons. Benedict Cumberbatchâs Holmes is very inhuman and distant, and the episodes themselves have far higher stakes than the original stories do, especially in the second season. Itâs a great show, but perhaps suffers from trying to do too much at one time.
Both of these are equally valid versions of Sherlock Holmes. And with Elementary, there is now a third great, valid take on the Great Detective.
Though itâs still early in its season, the show is already showing itself to be a success. And that success comes from its cast.
Doyle described Holmes as Bohemian, brilliant, acerbic and troubled with boredom. Jonny Lee Millerâs Holmes is all that, and also very human. His take on the character is the center of a rather fun spin on the Holmes mythology.
In CBSâs version, Holmes is still a whip-smart consulting detective, but something happened to him in London that forced him to worsen his drug addiction. After a stint in rehab, heâs moved to New York City, where he is set up with a sober companion, former surgeon Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).
As Holmes, Miller is a broken genius. Instead of the more omniscient takes on the character by Rathbone and Cumberbatch, Millerâs version of Holmes doesnât instantly figure things out. He can still deduce answers easily and is still the smartest person in the room, but he has to do more legwork. And the drug addiction element isnât just for set up; it plays deeply into a self-loathing Holmes. The mystery of what exactly happened to him in London looks to be a driving force behind the show and one that serves both the plot and the character.
Liuâs Watson is equally interesting. Watson isnât a simpleton, but rather a force of seriousness next to Holmesâ sarcastic nature and eccentricities. The chemistry between the two is platonic, which is odd for television. The interactions between Liu and Miller, then, can be more fascinating than the cases theyâre solving.
Elementary dives into aspects either ignored or marginalized by other recent versions. Holmesâ NYPD contact, Gregson (Aidan Quinn), comes from the original stories, as does Holmesâ drug addiction. Itâs a fresh element that helps set the show apart.
If thereâs a major problem with Elementary as it starts its first season, itâs that itâs a procedural. Crime procedurals basically blot television today, offering formulaic series where each episode is just a âcase of the weekâ instead of serialized stories or a greater mythology. Elementary is helped by the fact that itâs Sherlock Holmes lending his unique form of deduction and crime fighting to solve each case. But the mysteries themselves, although somewhat clever, feel generic.
Elementary is a great take on the Great Detective and has strong promise. Itâs unique from other adaptations, but still a valid and interesting look at Doyleâs hero. If it can bring in more of Doyleâs cases and story elements rather than more generic crimes of the week then it could be one of the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations yet. Until it does, itâs a flawed but good show, well worth checking out.