Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sherlock vs. Elementary: Whodunnit best?

'Elementary' starring Jonny Lee Miller & Lucy Liu
Anyone who likes to see classics of English literature put on screen as much as we do naturally forms quick opinions about new adaptations. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle have had plenty of telly and film adaptations to please their eyeballs or cause loud, manic grumbles in recent years. We've had the ass-kicking bromance of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, flavoured with vague historicisms and horrid anachronisms that we shouldn't think too much about because aren't the costumes great and isn't that Rachel McAdams such a plucky young thing? We've been treated to the rebirth of Hugh Laurie as the dark, broody and borderline sociopathic Dr. House, terrorizing med students and solving medical mysteries with nary a Web MD search engine in sight. And, perhaps most beloved by geeks, nerds and superfans, the BBC's charming modern interpretation of Sherlock starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in a nice (Belstaff) coat. 

The controversy about the development of CBS's Elementary starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu is now well known. CBS approached the executive producers of Sherlock to make a spin off but they had brave artistic integrity and refused. So CBS went ahead with it's own modern revamp, and cast Johnny Lee Miller as the famous detective, an actor who famously shared the stage with Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle's Frankenstein, a production where the two shared the lead roles, alternating who played Dr Frankenstein and the Monster on alternative nights. (@SloaneScholar1: I hope the Cumberbatch/ Lee Miller arrangement wasn't anything like this famous Mitchell & Webb sketch) In other words, CBS got the actor closest to Cumberbatch in age, skill and the pop cultural consciousness to play the same part. (Though Miller is sorely lacking in the ridiculous name department... we'll let that pass.) Cumberbatch, no stranger to controversial public pronouncements (see "posh bashing") denounced Elementary as a cheap and tarty knock off that wouldn't come close to the ingenuity BBC version and many fans and critics nodded their heads in agreement. 

But let's have a closer look at Elementary v. Sherlock. First of all, it's good. It's enjoyable to watch and the plots are even a bit less obvious than the ones in Sherlock, though that may not be a trend that can be maintained over a 22 episode season. 

Victoria Coren thinks Lucy Liu's casting as a female Dr. Watson is a placating half-measure to the feminist set. If the producers were really trying to do something revolutionary, they would have put a woman in the deerstalker cap. True. Watson is certainly Sherlock's "helpmeet" and supporter, and even when played by a man the character is represented as maternal. But, I think there is a lot of potential for a strong female representation here. Liu brings depth and... I'm gonna use the word gravitas to the part. Her character has a complicated past and more moral aplomb than a Law and Order Assistant District Attorney or a CSI sex case worker. I don't think she's there to mind the fort and do the laundry while fretting about Sherlock, I think she's there to have a complicated emotional journey of her own. Compared with the total lack of female characters that are not wooden cut-outs in any other crime procedural currently on network TV (I miss Profiler. Remember Profiler??), Liu's role is an advance, though not a complete triumph. 

And personally, as cheesy as it could potentially become, I welcome new the sexual dynamic to the traditional story. Will there be a Dawson-and-Joey-Rachel-and-Ross-Sam-and-Diane-like ramp up of sexual tension until they do it in a season finale and we all weep and clap at our televisions? Don't tell me it's not there in Downey and Law's movies already because I will not believe you.


I am a big fan of BBC's Sherlock. After the first series, I was like a junkie going through withdrawal. How could there just be THREE 90 minute episodes ?!?  I'm sorry - how long do we have to wait for series 2? I was convinced that creators/ writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt (of Dr. Who fame) were clearly sado-masochists/ gigantic teases of the worst kind who thrived off the collective agony of their adoring audience. But, the series was so smart and so well done that I would endure the 17 month wait as long as I was assured that I would get more of Cumberbatch's sneering alien-like face and "sexy" brains.  I was (as Irene Adler in season 2 "A Scandal in Belgravia") SHER-locked. 

BBC's Sherlock, "A Scandal in Belgravia"
Sherlock was a smash hit for the BBC not only because it satisfied Sherlock Holmes aficionados with smart and subtle nods to the ACD canon but because of the casting and acting. You can't fake the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman. "Jim" Moriarity as a psychopath criminal consultant made the hairs on my neck stand on end. And, I could think of no one better to perform the part of Mycroft than Gatiss himself. In fact, I'm willing to bet that there was a global spike in sales of Sherlock Holmes titles as well as copies checked out at local book depositories by fans of the show who wanted to get Gatiss/ Moffatt's cleverly hidden references and clues ... and then blog about them. 

But, even this rabid fan couldn't help but notice (as Victoria Coren and other feminist minded audience members have noted) the lack of women characters in the series. The cast includes: Molly and Mrs. Hudson. Both utterly charmed by/ smitten with Sherlock that they forgive all manner of sins and wait on his every need. There are fleeting appearances by other women characters: Mycroft's assistant Anthea and Watson's revolving door of girlfriends. Then, of course, there's Irene Adler (*the* woman) who, in this manifestation, worked as a(n expensive) dominatrix for hire (*eyeroll*). I am convinced that the decision to give her this profession was simply to justify the intimate pin-code setting to Adler's personal safe ... and the rude ringtone she  put on Sherlock's mobile.

So, when I found out Lucy Liu would be cast as Dr. Joan Watson for Elementary, you'd imagine that I'd be over the moon, right? WRONG. I cringed at the idea. Not because I'm anti-woman, a racist or a pedantic ACD enthusiast who can't conceive of a lady Watson (all insults which have been hurled at Coren for her tongue-in-cheek article on Elementary). But, because this casting choice screamed of tokenism. It's a lazy way to create sexual tension between the two leading characters. It seemed like a "bold" decision made by US TV execs based on focus group data rather than a thoughtful appreciation of the character. Ummm, do I have to remind you that US networks have badly remade UK shows in the past: Life on Mars, The Thick of It, Coupling?!? It was change for the sake of change. Not to mention, I'm not a fan of Lucy Liu's "acting." So, I get Coren's aversion to Elementary. And, if we're really talking about correcting gender imbalance in tv detective shows, lets bring back Veronica Mars! 

That's not to say I haven't watched or won't continue to watch Elementary because it's not terrible. I like that Jonny Lee Miller has decided to play Sherlock not so obviously posh. But, has anyone noticed that JLM doesn't really have the hands of a master violinist? Just sayin'. Liu's Joan Watson doesn't rival Freeman's Watson. She basically accompanies Sherlock (quietly) as he conducts his investigations. She makes him sleepy-time tea, ensures that he gets enough rest, and eats properly since this Sherlock has just emerged from a stint in rehab. It's Sherlock Holmes lite and I don't think it's pretending to be anything else. 


My colleagues have done an excellent and wonderfully witty job probing the feelings that surround Sherlock Holmes as a character, particularly in the context of the new show Elementary. One thing that appears to be clear is that few of us are truly "purists" anymore. I myself often wish to be but in the final analysis, with so much ripe opportunity for remaking and reimaginings afoot, one melts before the spectacle. As a James Bond fan, for example, I was unable to sustain the commonly felt outrage at the appointment of Daniel Craig as the new 007 (a blond Bond!) through the release of the first production stills and, of course, the fine film Casino Royale.

Jeremy Brett: The Quintessential Sherlock Holmes
And as it was with Sean Connery, so it is with the (seemingly) infinite permutations of the "greatest detective who never lived." One individual provides the template from which later versions evolve. To my mind, the ultimate Holmes remains Jeremy Brett in the Granda tv series that was first produced in 1984 and continued until 1994. His character is thoroughly "old-school": his accent clipped (sometimes too much so, according to complaints I have heard), his dress and demeanour bringing the ACD stories faithfully to life. David Burke as Dr. Watson is also pitch-perfect: long-suffering, steadfast, and perfectly integrated into the script so that he does not distract from Holmes yet when he is absent you feel the loss of his comforting presence.

I was not overly concerned with the obvious liberties taken with the Downey and Law films; I enjoyed the manic freewheeling and zany plot developments in both and suppose that I never really expected them to take the original as anything other than a basis of inspiration. As one review put it: "thoroughly enjoyable, though any resemblance to Conan Doyle's work is entirely co-incidental." What really piqued my gravest suspicions was the announcement of the BBC series -- "modern day" Sherlock? What effrontery was this?? An over-the-top Robert Downey Jr. by all means, but a contemporary Sherlock poking through the streets of Peckham? Going for coffee at Costa? Texting on his mobile? Yet the resulting series, as @SloaneScholar1 has described, was an immediate revelation. I too was enthralled within the first ten minutes. And trust me, the languid Idle Historian, having reached a somewhat advanced age, is not easily "enthralled." The concept proved to be that rarest of things = sheer magic. Elementary is not quite that (yet, anyway), but it is certainly good. And if Gatiss, Moffatt, Cumberbatch, and Freeman taught me anything, it is that the world of literary classics exists to be reinvented, spun and even sometimes sprinkled with a novel female Dr. Watson. 


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