See what I did there? Sometimes I think the best part about these silly blog posts are the titles I come up with for some of them. I’ve seen three episodes of CBS’s new hour-long detective drama “Elementary”, and I’m ready to talk about it, I think. It’s been generally well received by reviewers and most people I know are enjoying it. In fact, Sonya aka @honey_child on twitter is thinking that Jonny Lee Miller may in fact be her favourite “Sherlock”. Me? My feelings are MIXED.
Let me back up a bit.
I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan for almost 30 years now. It all started for me one Christmas when I was in elementary school. My parents gave me the BEST present: It was a huge cardboard box that looked like an old steamer trunk. Inside was a complete collection of the “Great Illustrated Classics Series”. Are you familiar with them? They are small, square paperbacks: every second page was simplified text of a classic story, while the alternating pages were simple black and white drawings illustrating the story as it moved along. For a reading geek like me, I couldn’t think of anything better. I discovered authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Later on I sought out the full versions of these stories, but at the time I was happy to delve into these “gateway” editions. Dickens, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson…and a collection of four short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was simply called “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and I still remember the three stories in there: The Red Headed League, The Copper Beeches and The Speckled Band. A second volume was “The Hound of the Baskervilles”: a story that I didn’t care for then, and haven’t really come around to since. But those first three short stories started me down a path of fan obsession. I made it my mission to track down every Sherlock Holmes story ever written by Doyle. I soon found out that Doyle wrote 56 short stories and 4 novels about Sherlock Holmes, so I had my work cut out for me. That summer I began with “A Study in Scarlet” (the first novel) and steadily made m way through the stories. The 56+4 became an impossible goal, one that I started and stopped several times, until I made it to the end almost three years later. During this time I discovered the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. This series was a revelation to me: they were faithful enough to the original stories that I could respect them, and Brett’s fevered passion shone through in every episode. These would be shown Sunday nights on the CBC, and my brother, Dad and I would make a point to be done supper and be in front of the tv whenever we could. Since I was watching these at the same time as I was reading them, some of the stories were familiar to me and some of them were new. I’ll never forget the night that we sat down and watched “The Final Problem”. I hadn’t got this far yet in my reading, so you can imagine what the three of us thought when Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes battled to the death at the Reichenbach Falls and the final scene was of the two of them plummeting to their deaths. There was no internet back then, of course, and my Dad was a casual fan, and didn’t know that “The Final Problem” was not actually the end. For weeks I thought that was how the Sherlock Holmes mythos ended.
Around this time, “Young Sherlock Holmes” was being released in theatres. My Dad thought this would be the perfect fit for the three of us to see one Saturday afternoon before Christmas. My Dad had a habit of “previewing” movies before we could actually see them. A couple of years earlier I really wanted to see “The Last Starfighter“. I had read the Marvel Comics adaptation as well as the novelization so I knew what I was in for, but that wasn’t good enough for my Dad. He actually went out to the theatre and watched the movie by himself. He came home and I was waiting up for him. He grimly shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, Trev, but it’s just too violent for you.” It took me a long time to forgive him for that, but I guess he was just being a good parent. But on the afternoon of “Young Sherlock Holmes” we were going in blind. It didn’t start out well. The opening scene has an older man get hit with a poisonous dart and suffers from horrible visions and nightmares, all graphically displayed on the big screen. The scene ends with the man jumping out of a second floor window, falling to his death. I could sense that my Dad was about to usher us both out of the theatre. I was in grade 6, but my little brother was just in grade 3. He actually had put his popcorn down and was halfway out of his seat when my brother and I pleaded with him: “PLEASE don’t make us leave. We PROMISE not to have nightmares!”. He looked at us, and took pity. He sat back down and we were reprieved! My brother and I couldn’t believe it! It turned out to be one of the best afternoons. The movie was scary, sure, but it was Sherlock Holmes on the big screen, and it was AWESOME. I ended up getting a “Young Sherlock Holmes” calendar, the soundtrack on cassette, and I had a poster on my bedroom door. In fact, that poster was up on my bedroom door up until I got married and moved out of my Mom’s basement. Marla saw that poster. I still remember the tagline: “Before a lifetime of adventure, they had the adventure of a lifetime.” How cool is that?
Well, dear reader, I see that I am at the 1000 word mark already, and we haven’t even got to the reason of this post: CBS’s “Elementary”. We’re getting there. There have been other Sherlocks, obviously. Too many to list here: Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr.,Hugh Laurie’s House, even Mitchell and Webb have given it a go. Okay, okay: moving on.
To be fair, I was kind of prejudiced about this show before I saw a single frame of it. A couple of years ago, the BBC produced a weird show called “Sherlock”. The premise was “Sherlock Holmes in modern London”. Lame, right? WRONG. Being a purist, I cling to the 56+4 like a fundamentalist to the gospels. And yet, there was something addictive about this show. First of all, Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful as Sherlock Holmes: twitchy, freaky (in fact the cops nickname him “The Freak” when he’s not around) moody, you can’t take your eyes off of him. And Martin Freeman as Watson is a revelation. It’s a testament to the idea that “everything old is new again” that both the canon Watson and “Sherlock”‘s Watson can both be veterans of a war in Afghanistan and have it make sense. I think the thing I liked the most about the series is that you really get a sense that the creators (Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss) love and respect the original 56+4, and that they are just having as much fun with the mythology as they can. For example, the first episode is called “A Study in Pink”, a riff on the 56+4’s first story, “A Study in Scarlet”. I was amazed how telegrams could so easily morph into text messages, and diaries become blogs. It’s as if the writers stuck the 56+4 into a box, shook it, and worked with whatever came out. In one dizzying scene, no fewer than 6 original stories were name-checked and dealt with. “There’s no way they can sustain this!” I thought to myself, and I don’t think the plan is to sustain it, actually. With each episode lasting a prime-time unfriendly 90 minutes, and with only three episodes a season, it’s a wonderful experiment that respects the originals. It won me over. Last January, a friend downloaded Season 2 from a file-sharing site and four of us crowded around our tiny MacBook screen to watch them. I’ll never forget how electrifying and draining the climax to “Reichenbach Fall” was, and our discussion afterwards as to how it all worked out, how did Sherlock pull it off? I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.
So now “Elementary”. I don’t hate it, I just don’t like it very much. The idea is that Sherlock Holmes, played by Jonny Lee Miller, is a recovering addict living in exile in New York. Dr. Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is assigned to be his sobriety coach and must live with him for six weeks to make sure he sticks to his regimen. As he bides his time, he helps out the NYPD as a consultant. The problem I have with it is that it just feels so conventional. It might as well be called “CSI:NY” except that show already exists. If the first three episodes are any indication of the pattern, you have a murder/crime in the pre-credits sequence. Inspector Gregson (nice touch there, I’m glad they didn’t go for the obvious Inspector Lestrade reference) calls in Holmes who is at first at odds with the investigation but through his keen powers of observation and deduction solves the crime within the hour. None of the stories are based on any of the 56+4, which is understandable: hard to sustain that, and the references to the original character are few and far between. I do like whenever something of the original character is revealed, and I like that they are taking their time to do it (for example, the violin was only introduced in the second episode, still no sign of the pipe or deerstalker, the addict component has already been addressed, as has the beekeeping). No Lestrade, Mycroft, Irene Adler, Mrs. Hudson, Baker Street Irregulars, Diogenes Club, Moriarty, or Sebastian Moran referenced yet, and maybe they won’t appear at all, and I’m okay with that, although if you strip Holmes of all of his tropes, does he remain to be Holmes? There’s no doubt in my mind that Bandersnatch’s “Sherlock” feels much more embedded in the “Sherlockian” universe than JLM’s Sherlock. I don’t mind that Watson is a woman in “Elementary”. It’s just that there isn’t anything all that interesting about her character so far, but it’s still early days. You never want a Watson to outshine a Holmes, but you do need to see some chemistry between the two of them. She doesn’t hold a candle to Martin Freeman, (or Nigel Bruce, or David Burke, or Edward Hardwicke for that matter). And PLEASE don’t have them hook up, okay?
And the title kind of bugs me: “Elementary”. One of the things that bugs purists is the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson”. SHERLOCK HOLMES NEVER SAID THIS (in the original 56+4). He DID say “elementary” once or twice, and he said “My dear Watson” tons of times, but never TOGETHER. Calling the show “Elementary” brings to mind “Elementary my dear Watson” and it hints at an ignorance associated with the producers. Let’s just say that Moffat and Gatiss wouldn’t have made that mistake. My last comments are addressed to Angelina Jolie’s ex-husband, Jonny Lee Miller. I didn’t know much about him before this. I remembered he played “Sick Boy” in “Trainspotting” and this past summer I was lucky enough to see him and Pedigree Fannypack in a recording of Danny Boyle’s stage version of “Frankenstein”. The version we saw had JLM as the Creature and Bandersnatch as the Doctor. Both were wonderful, and even now I think I see elements of the creature in JLM’s Sherlock. Both were damaged, almost child-like, and there’s a simple innocence to JLM’s Sherlock. Crummypants’ “Sherlock” is cocky, moody, and smug, and I KIND OF PREFER THAT, to be honest. JLM is definitely a more sympathetic Sherlock, but I’m not sure how much chemistry there is between him and Liu’s Watson. They’re certainly no Beckett and Castle, if you know what I’m talking about.