Thursday, November 1, 2012

Holmes Set Loose Upon NYC

Earlier this year, I wrote that there were no new compelling TV shows in the fall lineup. Well, I am here now to declare myself a liar. Recently, a friend was telling me about the new CBS show Elementary, which features a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and how she was enjoying it. Previously I had heard only a little bit about the show and didn’t think I would be interested. After her recommendation though, I decided to give it a try.

Once I watched the pilot of Elementary, I dove right into the rest of the episodes that have aired so far (albeit there’s only been four all together). The show is on Thursday evenings, but since I watch all my TV on the web now, that means I have to wait until Fridays to watch the latest episode. I know many people love to go out on the town on Fridays, declaring it the beginning of the weekend and all kinds of fun, but I’m generally exhausted by then. I like to stay home, do some laundry, catch up other things, and watch something on Hulu or Netflix. So I’m pretty pleased that Elementary will be available to me on Fridays; I’m already sensing it will be become part of my Friday routine.

But less about my dull life and more about the show! Elementary, as I’ve already mentioned, is a modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes. Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering drug addict, having picked up a nasty heroin addiction while in London. In order to stay in his father’s good graces (and thus retain residence in his New York City apartment), Holmes has been assigned a sobriety partner in the person of Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), a former surgeon. Having met police captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) in the past and wowed him with his powers of deductions, Holmes has managed to secure himself a position as a NYC police consultant, helping with tough-to-crack kidnappings and murders. Rounding out the cast of characters is police detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).

First off, let’s start by looking at the characters that make up Elementary. One of the most compelling things – if not the compelling thing – about the show is the character of Holmes. Expertly played by Jonny Lee Miller, who I have loved in the past (excepting the terrible disappointment of Dark Shadows), Elementary’s Holmes is a great new take on a classic character. Sure, A.C. Doyle’s Holmes didn’t require a sobriety partner per se, but he was indeed a habitual drug user. For just one instance of this, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, it is noted that Sherlock spends his time “buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”

We are first introduced to Holmes in Elementary with a woman departing from his residence; Holmes quickly explains to Watson that he has no interest in relationships but is occasionally driven by his animal nature to seek out sex. While Elementary’s Watson later insists this is because Holmes is afraid of commitment, A.C. Doyle’s Dr. Watson explains of Holmes: “All emotions, and that one [love] particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.” Doyle’s frequent references to Sherlock’s cold and reasoning mind have lead some to suspect that he might have Asperser’s syndrome; Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes in this way also – he is often brusque and unfeeling in his speech to others, particularly potential suspects, witnesses, and even friends and family of victims. At times, he is downright dismissive of Watson, saying things like, “Situations like these cases require my total concentration. I talk to you, never the other way around.” or “For future reference. When I say I agree with you, it means I'm not listening.” But while he’s sometimes irritatingly arrogant, he’s also lovably quirky and endearing.

And, of course, the Sherlock Holmes of Elementary is a stickler for details, observant to a fault, highly knowledgeable, and able to draw large inferences from the slightest thing seemingly off at a crime scene. In this respect, he is very much like his 19th century counterpart, who has famously said such things as, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” But, in line with bringing things into the 21st century, this Holmes also uses Google to make some of his pronouncements and loves the brevity of texting. And while this Holmes does have a superiority complex that allows him to view himself as above the police, he seems to value them more than the original Sherlock and certainly relies upon them more as he does not (as of yet) take in any private consulting cases. This is very unlike Doyle’s Holmes who primarily worked on private cases, which only occasionally called for the assistance of the police.

Elementary’s Watson, however, does not strike me as very similar to her 19th century counterpart. For starters, I think the show’s creators missed a golden opportunity by not making her a veteran like Doyle’s Dr. Watson – it just seems too absurd not to when history has conspired to make it possible to plausibly have a modern-day Watson also be an army surgeon who served in Afghanistan. And wouldn’t it have been delicious for Holmes’s first line when meeting Watson to be, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” as he pronounced upon their initial acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet? But, I have to admit that Watson’s past, hinted at only briefly so far, as a surgeon who lost a patient under suspicious circumstances could potentially become more interesting and add some depth to her character. (Of course, I could also argue that making her an army vet, perhaps suffering from what she’s seen of war, could provide depth and an interesting back story that continues to surface occasionally.) I do love that the creators decided to make Watson female in this version, showing that these characters can indeed transcend time, place, and even sex.

But, unfortunately, so far I have found Watson to be a fairly dull character. True, I doubt many people would have devoured – and continue to do so – the original Sherlock Holmes canon for Watson alone, but I felt that telling the stories through his eyes always gave the reader a tenderness toward Watson and a feeling that he had a more active role in the cases. Making Watson a sobriety partner rather than a retired army surgeon with times on his hands changes that dynamic very much. Instead of Watson coming along to help unravel a mystery out of his own interest or Holmes’s request for assistance of some sort or another, Watson is merely tagging along out of necessity and frequently standing on the sidelines without engaging at all.

However, there have been a few times already when Watson has provided medical knowledge or has somehow figured into Holmes’s scheming to get information or signal the police for assistance. I hope to see more of this in the future, with Elementary’s Watson taking on an increasing role just as Doyle’s Watson did over time, reaching the point where Holmes could say of his assistant in The Hound of the Baskervilles: “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.” Perhaps not the praise most of would want to hear, but coming from Sherlock Holmes, that is a very high compliment indeed. Still, the writers of this show aren’t far off from reaching this kind of level between their Holmes and Watson, and the language they use to express it is similar, with Holmes telling Watson, “You know Watson, I take it all back. I'm beginning to find the chat that accompanying your companionship extremely useful. It's like white noise. It puts me in a state where I think and obverse better.”

At this time, I can’t really recall anything else I’ve seen with Lucy Liu in it, but her name is a big enough draw for many viewers I suppose. However, I’ve been a bit disappointed in her performance as Watson. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of nuance in her acting, and it hasn’t served to counteract the flatness I currently see in the character, as outlined above.

My bigger concern with Elementary’s Watson though is that she is only contracted to remain Holmes’s sobriety partner for six weeks. With four episodes already passing (generally considered in TV time to be four weeks then), there are only two more weeks where she is required to be Holmes’s constant companion. After that time, what will happen? Will we see Watson no longer? Or will the show’s writers need to come up with some other contrived premise to keep her around to continue to help Holmes in his work?

Similar to Watson but to a greater degree, Captain Gregson and Detective Bell are pretty dull and flat characters. Right now, Gregson’s main purpose seems to be to provide the details of a given case and support Holmes’s seemingly wild deductions based on their past history. Meanwhile, Bell mostly serves as a sounding board for Holmes, always questioning the validity of Holmes’s assertions, only to find out later that Holmes was indeed correct. It would be nice at some point if we got a bit more out of these characters, although I don’t think it’s strictly necessary that they become more fleshed out characters in order for this show to work. Between the show’s four main characters, there’s a fair amount of diversity in terms of age, ethnicity/race, and sex, which I'm always pleased to see on a TV show.

Next off, no discussion of this show would be complete without looking at the cases delved into each week. So far, they have been you standard, run-of-the-mill crime show cases: kidnappings and murders. To that end, there’s a bit of sensationalism in some of the show’s scenes, particularly the opening sequence of the pilot episode. But compared to the many rather gory crime shows on TV now (think Bones, Criminal Minds, NCIS, etc.), the show is focused more on revealing the thought process behind solving a crime than on autopsies and gun fights with suspects. Although the crimes are typical of what you see on other detective shows, the solutions are rather convoluted in order that the writers might show off Sherlock’s prowess in deducting from rather insignificant clues that the obvious solution is in fact not the right one.

While it seems unlikely at this point, I’d like a break from all the violence and murder we see on so many other TV shows. It would be nice to get some cases that involve more mundane – but certainly no less interesting – events. I’m thinking of the many odd cases that A. C. Doyle created for the original Sherlock Holmes, which varied from retrieving a scandalous photograph for a member of royalty to tracking down the mysterious “red-headed league” and reclaiming a member’s dues to determining whether or not a young woman should take an offered role to be a governess for a family out in the countryside. While these may seem insignificant, these cases are always absorbing to read about and usually develop into something larger than they first appear. And, as A.C. Doyle’s Holmes points out, “Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the most difficult it is to bring it home.” Right now, Elementary’s cases are pretty commonplace for TV crime shows and not particularly singular. But because the show’s writers have decided to go the course of having Holmes be a consultant for the police only and taking on no private cases, it’s unlikely we’ll see any mysteries in the vein of the ones seen in the original stories.

On a final note, as this has gone on rather longer than I expected, there’s a few things from the original series that haven’t transferred over to this new show that I really think should have. The first is another golden missed opportunity – wouldn’t it just be fun if Holmes and Watson lived at 221B Baker Street in New York, just like their 19th century counterparts did in London? It seems wrong to have Holmess and not have Baker Street. Maybe that’s just me. The second is that Holmes as written by A.C. Doyle was a master of disguise as suited the purposes of his cases. It would entertaining to see Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes do so also, but again I think the character may be limited by the choice of having Watson as a sobriety companion rather than army vet roommate – Holmes and Watson are not allowed to be apart more than two hours, so unless Watson also joins in the fun and games of dressing up for a case, it would be difficult for Holmes to do an extended undercover ruse requiring a disguise. And, finally, there is Holmes’s archenemy, Moriarty. There are rumors that the show will introduce such a character eventually, and I don’t think it’s necessary for him – or her – to have arrived so quickly into the series so on this particular front, I’m happy with how things stand at the moment.

And, since the power went out while I was beginning this post and didn’t come back on for days, it’s now almost Friday again and I can look forward to the next episode of this show!

1 comment:

  1. Update: There have been several references on the show now to Sherlock's past involvement with a woman named Irene, which is apparently a sore subject with him. I'm not sure how I feel about this yet ... although this wouldn't be the first adaptation to make more out of Holmes's relationship with Irene Adler, the woman, than there actually was in the original canon.