Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Elementary, My Dear Bloggers

Although it's already been on screens both sides of the Atlantic for several weeks now, hang up your deerstalkers and grab your 'I<3 NYC' caps as today I'm taking a look at the US' take on a modern-day Sherlock Holmes...

I've known what to expect from Elementary for ages. When I first heard that an American version of Sherlock was to be made I was less than thrilled - as I was of the opinion that it would be a mere diluted copy of the original. As time went on, however, it became clear that Elementary was going to take Sherlock Holmes to somewhere different; literally, by being set in New York and figuratively, by having a female Watson.
As a Holmesian, I wasn't best pleased with the changes but I tried to reserve my judgement till after I had seen the show.

Now I have seen it, it's time to unleash it.

Firstly, Elementary is not as good as Sherlock. This isn't a harsh criticism as not many shows (if any) are and I wasn't expecting it to be. Instead, Elementary is a decent police procedural drama and seems quite happy being so. Comparing both shows does neither justice but I'm going to do so anyway.
Whereas Cumberbatch's Sherlock has great, big adventures involving royal scandals, giant dogs and dramatic falls, Lee Miller's rendition is a specialist in homicide, as Captain Gregson tells us in the pilot, working with the police to bring killers behind bars. Clearly then, Elementary's plots are a lot less puzzlebox than a Sherlock but they are still enjoyable if you enjoy those sort of story lines. (In one episode involving a serial killer known as the Balloon Man, I felt a little short-changed that I saw all the twists coming before Holmes himself did but I'll forgive that.)

However, as with all these crime dramas, its the lead characters that make the show different so Elementary's success very much relies on how well Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Lui perform as the intrepid investigators. In my opinion, its half-and-half.
Lucy Lui doesn't do it for me as Watson. While not actually against the transformation of the good Doctor to a woman, I feel, in this case, it has had the effect of reducing the character. While Martin Freeman of course has the role of surrogate audience figure who is there to react in shock at the great detective, he also gets a clear character, a brave ex-soldier who craves the adventure as much as Sherlock. Lui's Watson doesn't have this development. By taking out the traditional parts of the doctor's character, little is put in its place apart from a unexplored back story concerning her failure to save a patient on the operating table. It's a strange thing to apply to a character the audience is supposed to automatically side with and is not what is needed.
On the other hand, as an admirer of his performance(s) alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle's Frankenstein stage play, I was already predisposed to like Jonny Lee Miller in the role. Thankfully, what I've seen has confirmed this hope, as he gives an enjoyable turn in the role . Without the ice and arrogance of Cumberbatch and the original, his Holmes is a man with all the intellectual prowess you would expect but also, as we are forthrightly told in the pilot by Watson, a deep-down longing to understand people.To demonstrate a difference between the two, after discovering a dead body from one of his deductions Lee Miller says 'sometimes I hate it when I'm right' - something I can't imagine being said by Sherlock's Sherlock. On the whole, I think Lee Miller has delivered a quirky, engaging character - I just don't see him as Sherlock Holmes. Which leads nicely in to my next point.

While I can take the more ordinary crime plots and the fuzzy characterisation, my main gripe with Elementary is how 'unHolmesian' it is. Its starved of references to the canon so much they seem to have a strict quota of 'one nod per episode' as the pilot revealed that Holmes kept bees while another episode focused on his erratic sleeping pattern. During the episodes, I was crying out for any sign that what I was watching was Sherlock Holmes. Not much came.
Also, the two leads are so far removed from their literary counterparts they might as well be different characters. Even their dynamic has changed. While the originals are best friends, pure and simple, Elementary employs a needlessly complex relationship which sets Dr Watson up as Holmes' live-in sober companion to help him keep off his addictions. What would have been easier to swallow was if, as this reviewer suggested, they were meant to be descendants of the Victorian versions which would have allowed them their significant changes. As it stands, the writers will need to do some work to make them the inseparable duo Holmes and Watson should always be.

Overall, Elementary really isn't a bad show with a very good leading man, decent crime plots and is peppered with some gentle humour. To enjoy it most you need to dissociate it in your mind from both Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes in general. However, for this reviewer, as the main character is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes, it's a hard thing to do.

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