Geek Girl Navigating the World – It’s “Elementary” why I like CBS’s take on Sherlock Holmes

elementary cbs sherlock holmes lucy liu

Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters that just seems to spark endless fascination and inspire people to reimagine him almost constantly.  Never mind that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found him so tiresome that he tried to definitively kill him off in The Final Problem. By then, Holmes had reached such popularity that killing him off couldn’t really work.  Even now, Holmes seems to resurface in popularity every few years and gets resurrected once again to become the centerpiece of another slew of adaptations.

Of course, Americans being Americans, we just can’t seem to let the excellent “Sherlock” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman stand. Nope.  We’ve got to have a Sherlock of our own, or, well, if he’s not precisely our own, at the very least he’s going to get partially Americanized to serve our own purposes.  I’m not necessarily a big fan of American TV remaking or re-envisioning British shows or whatever they want to call it.  It doesn’t often turn out very well, and I’m saying this as an American who probably enjoys watching TV way more than I actually should.

Still, the allure of Sherlock Holmes was strong.  I wanted to see how the CBS version, “Elementary” was going to be.  I’m not a hardcore Sherlock Holmes fan, by any means.  When it comes to Doyle, I’m a much bigger fan of The Lost Continent than the hyper-observant detective.  Still, I’d like to think that I’ve got decent enough taste to end up more than a little put off by a terrible adaptation.

I like Jonny Lee Miller a lot.  He’s the reason why I have “Dracula 2000” on DVD and why I even bothered to watch “Plunkett & Macleane” in the first place (though that movie proved to be a far worthier and more entertaining use of my time, “Dracula 2000” remains a movie worthy of group heckling).  I still think that “Eli Stone” got canceled way too early, even as I realize I was one of the nineteen people still watching it at the end of season two.  So, I was pretty well committed to watching at least the first couple of episodes of “Elementary” to see how I liked it.

Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters who is difficult to write well. He’s fundamentally flawed because he is so intelligent and observant. It becomes impossible for him to function on a normal level for prolonged periods of time.  He gets perceived as eccentric frequently, but then he veers right into “potentially psychotic” territory pretty easily.  The man doesn’t just have some character flaws, he’s got issues that would make a magazine subscription clearinghouse envious.

Fiction writers are usually the ones who seem the boldest when it comes to tackling Holmes’ oddities head on.  From a traumatized, cocaine-addicted Holmes, right up to a Holmes battling against none other than Dracula himself, the detective often ends up being put into nearly any kind of story you can imagine.  Fans are fairly used to seeing Sherlock Holmes being ushered through all kinds of situations, in many different times, and through mysteries that involve perfectly mundane or extraordinarily supernatural elements.

The more familiar stories that Doyle himself wrote are the ones that seem to find their way to the screen most often.  I’m not sure how many different versions of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” I’ve seen, but I know it’s more than two and less than ten.  My favorite one is the one in “Sherlock.” I just felt like that one, while modernized, held very true to the original spirit of the story.

At first glance, “Elementary” looked like it could just be another sad attempt at cashing in on a Sherlock craze.  Even worse, with the twist of having a female Dr. Watson, it looked like it would also end up being a gimmicky attempt to run with what was hot.   While I wasn’t really leaning towards not watching the show, I probably had more misgivings than the average viewer as the publicity machine started ramping into high gear.  Some of the trailers made the show look like it would be cool and some of them made me wonder if it would end up just being another footnote in the crime procedural mania that took hold with “C.S.I.”

Crime shows really do seem to be a dime a dozen these days.  At any given time, if I flip through channels I will find at least a dozen procedurals running, no matter what time it is.  I’m not quite sure if fatigue has started to set in yet or not, but eventually it will and then we’ll be on to the next big thing in television.  I’m ready to watch something else.  Still, the lure of a new Sherlock Holmes adaptation with Jonny Lee Miller playing the consulting detective kept me cognizant enough of the first show’s air date that I wasn’t going to miss it.

“Elementary” has a Sherlock who is a recovering addict.  He has relocated from England to Brooklyn, New York.  The main reason for that relocation, at least insofar as the show is concerned so far, was for Holmes to go into rehab. I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one that thinks that seems more than a little far-fetched.  It’s one of the rare missteps for an otherwise intelligent show in terms of plot.  The show opens with Watson going to get Holmes from his stint in rehab, only to discover that Holmes left as soon as he was released.  When she tracks him down, of course, they end up working their first case.

If you’ve watched “Sherlock” but haven’t bothered to watch “Elementary” you may be wondering what the difference is. They’re both shows about Sherlock Holmes, they both have their respective Watsons, and they’re both updated to a contemporary setting.  The main difference is that “Sherlock” adheres to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle canon, while “Elementary” is hellbent on giving Holmes a brand-new casebook.

The cases in “Elementary” are, much like cases in “C.S.I.”, fictionalized amalgamations of homicides that have been ripped from the headlines or historical incidents that have remained embedded in the American consciousness. Some of them are more recognizable than others, which is probably to be expected.  “Elementary” succeeds in making them both less sensationalized that either “C.S.I” or “Law & Order” do, selling the audience instead on Holmes’ brilliance and making his character the centerpiece of the show. “Elementary” feels much less exploitative than “Law & Order”, “C.S.I.”, or “Cold Case” because of that fact.

As for Holmes himself, Miller gives a performance as a decidedly more accessible Holmes.  To be certain, Sherlock is still just as weird as ever, full of quirks and idiosyncracies that set him apart from the ordinary people around him.  He’s a bit prickly and erratic, but he seems less manic and less antisocial in the “Elementary” universe.  Knowing that he’s a recovering addict from the outset makes it a little easier to forgive him is oddness.  After all, Holmes is trying to adjust to some very drastic changes in his life. He is not necessarily the sneering, selfish, narcissist that ends up being portrayed in popular media so often.  While Holmes is never exactly shown as being heartless, he really isn’t the kind of guy that you’d really want to go have a drink with, either.  Sherlock Holmes is very smart.  He is not nice.  On the other hand, at least he’s using his powers of observation to fight crime instead of perpetrate it.

What about Watson?  Lucy Liu’s Dr. Joan Watson isn’t exactly the kindest, sweetest person on the planet.  She’s hired to be Holmes’ sober companion, which means she’s essentially been hired to be Sherlock’s full time babysitter.  She’s not very happy with her charge.  Holmes is difficult and willful and he’s got an alarming tendency to drag her to crime scenes so he can assist in solving homicides. She has to be tough on him and keep him out of trouble.  Liu doesn’t make her Watson cold or calculating.  Dr. Watson is struggling with her own past.  She had her reasons for leaving medicine and she keeps stating that she isn’t going to go back.  She’s smart and she’s also an excellent foil for Holmes.  Her Dr. Watson is elevated from simply being a sidekick to being a true partner in the consultations. There’s no flat, window-dressing Watson here.  She’s a strong character in her own right and she’s getting some airtime to develop her character too.

The show is seven episodes into its first season and I find that I’m really enjoying it.  I get my mystery fix with enough distance between the forensics and the investigators that I don’t have to feel guilty for watching it.  It’s a new take on a familiar character that is interesting and entertaining.  I want to find out where this Holmes will go, especially since it deviates enough from Doyle’s cannon that I don’t have to be concerned about Reichenbach Falls looming any time soon.

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