ELEMENTARY: the Right Way to Update a Classic Hero

TVWriter™’s LB and munchman were all set to review the first season of CBS’s ELEMENTAR (in fact, they were fighting over who got to actually do it), when Our Muse (AKA Gwen the Beautiful) spotted this sum-up by Genevieve Valentine.

Inasmuch as our two local heroes agree almost completely with Genevieve’s work, posting this is a no-brainer:

elementaryfullsize by Genevieve Valentine

Elementary has gotten some flak for being the “lesser” modern-day Sherlock Holmes. But now that its first season is over, we’re realizing this show understands the Arthur Conan Doyle canon — it’s just not afraid to ask questions. Here’s why Elementary is the Sherlock Holmes we never knew we always needed.

Warning: Spoilers for season one ahead!

“Let us hear the suspicions. I will look after the proofs.”

– Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Three Students

A little Holmes is a dangerous thing.

When Arthur Conan Doyle first published his Baker Street detective in The Strand, demand became so overwhelming he charged ten times more each contract to avoid writing them. When that didn’t work, he literally threw the man off a cliff. Even that didn’t take – people donned mourning armbands and chased his carriage down the street (there’s no fandom like Holmes fandom). Conan Doyle brought him back a decade later: you can’t kill a myth.

Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character in film and television – nearly eighty actors in over two hundred works. The earliest was before the turn of the 20th century; he’s been a dog, a cucumber, and a mouse. And his legend’s so ubiquitous that even when it’s not him, it’s still him: Hercule Poirot, Adrian Monk, Jane Tennison, Shawn Spencer, Robert Goren: all operate under the shadow of 221-b.

When CBS announced Elementary, a contemporary Holmes series, there was a flurry of speculation, including allegations the show was merely aping BBC’s Sherlock, which also brought Holmes to a modern-day metropolis. (Somewhere in the afterlife, Basil Rathbone recalled all those times Sherlock Holmes fought the Nazis, and laughed.)

Two questions were most pressing: In the glut of procedurals, would this be true to Conan Doyle? And, Could it be any good?

Yep.

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FTR: Two things could have made this article even better:

  1. Better proofreading – there are some puzzling typos here
  2. Giving the names of the show’s writers – at the very least that of the creator/showrunner, Robert Doherty, who we have to assume, is responsible for resisting network pressure to make this show less than it has become

Insert ELEMENTARY Pun Here (The Writers of This Show Probably Would)

Um. The violin music is a nice touch. It may, in fact, be the most appealing element of Elementary, a title which seems to refer mostly to the level of skill displayed on the show.

 

Show. Don’t Tell.

One episode in, I have a predictive formula for future episodes of Elementary: take one small part Sherlock, add a healthy helping of Law and Order (mixing different iterations liberally), and add just a pinch of Criminal Minds. Elementary, my dear…(never mind. Just. Never mind).

Short story short: If you’re looking for innovation, look elsewhere.

The show works best if you think of it as a kind of postmodern pastiche of the shows mentioned above that, and even then, it’s not working well.  The Americanization of Sherlock Holmes  – he’s sexier, sexed up, and talks in catchier if slightly less intelligent phrases – is a sorry one, and it’s too bad: both Liu and Miller have charisma and chemistry to spare.

Problematic also is Holmes’ legendary brusque, dismissive and condescending attitude toward Watson: they really didn’t think that gender-bending casting decision through. If you thought  Steven Moffat making Irene Adler a dominatrix did a disservice to strong female characters, try making the much-abused sidekick Watson the only major female character:  whip-wielding Irene Adler starts to look like Susan B. Anthony.

OK, maybe slightly creepier than SBA.

Fragments of dialogue echo Sherlock; you can see the invisible pen writing around the British mega-hit constantly, and in some cases, it’s just impossible not to feel that the writers are cheating us, and clumsily too. The beginning, structurally, is very reminiscent of Sherlock’s beginning, which starts things off on the wrong foot altogether.

This is minor, but annoying: because Holmes is British, he occasionally speaks like an eighteenth century person. Hilarious.  My favorite instance of this: referring to the Mets as the “Metropolitans of New York.” Yes. Yes. I’m sure that’s how well-cultured British people living in New York talk.

On a personally disappointing note: they miss at least one great opportunity for a cereal/serial joke, probably because most of the jokes on the show are like a Midwest thunderstorm: you see them coming two miles out and resign yourself to the inevitable conclusion just as quickly. Which is kind of (aside from the music!) a microcosm of the show as a whole.

More About ELEMENTARY from its Showrunner

The big push is on as CBS tries desperately to make us sample – and love – ELEMENTARY, their quasi-Sherlock Holmes quasi-adaptation. We’ll have our own review up today or tomorrow, but, till then:

How Elementary Won’t Go There with Sherlock and Watson – by Natalie Abrams

Millions of Sherlock Holmes fans can rest easy; CBS’ Holmes adaptation Elementary will pretty much never suffer from theMoonlighting curse (and here’s hoping that is the last time we’ll ever mention those two ideas in the same sentence).

After CBS announced that its modern-day adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective series would feature a female Watson, fans feared that sexual tension may develop within one of the most iconic partnerships in history. But they didn’t need to worry. Executive producer Rob Doherty promises there will be no romance between the dynamic duo in this iteration, which stars Jonny Lee Miller as the recovering addict and consultant for the NYPD, while his distaff Watson (Lucy Liu) is a former surgeon who becomes Sherlock’s “sober companion.”

“It was certainly never about creating a ‘will they or won’t they’ scenario,” Doherty says of reimagining Watson as a woman. In his research, however, Doherty once read a psychological assessment that described Holmes as having a weird aversion to women. “Just as a joke to myself, it made me think, ‘What would make Sherlock Holmes crazier than a female Watson?'” he says. “It started as a joke, but I kept coming back to it and asking myself, ‘Well, what would it really change? Why would it be different? What’s the big deal?'”

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So they took the only interesting aspect of this particular twist on two classic characters off the table, leaving viewers absolutely nothing to make them want to watch.

No way do we believe that a TV network deliberately made Watson a babe and vetoed any deviation from a platonic relationship. Nor do we believe that a talented guy like Rob Doherty would deliberately close himself up to interesting opportunities that could be created simply by the chemistry between two pretty, pretty stars.

OTOH, it just might be that keeping them chastely away from each other’s bods wasn’t in the original agenda but is, in fact, a reaction to the fact that when shooting started everybody looked at the result and, lo and behold, there  “waren’t no chemistry there ‘atall.” Nice save, CBS! (But we’re onto you anyway.)

And Now, a Promo for ELEMENTARY

…Cleverly labeled as “news” by the Hollywood Reporter:

‘Elementary’ EP Rob Doherty, Star Jonny Lee Miller Take THR’s Fall TV Poll

From Ringer’s Rob Doherty, former Dexter baddie Jonny Lee Miller is on the case for the New York Police Department, who isn’t totally happy to have his know-it-all attitude helping with their most challenging cases. Meanwhile, recovering addict Holmes isn’t as happy to have a babysitter in Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), who regardless of if she likes it or not, will wind up playing a role in his investigations.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Doherty and Miller to challenge them to our Fall TV poll — including the writer and guest stars they’d like to see take the trip to the East Coast setting.

The Hollywood Reporter: Fill in the blanks — if you like X, Y, and Z, you’ll like my show.

Rob Doherty: If you like intricate mysteries, humor and tremendous acting, you’ll like our show.

Jonny Lee Miller: If you like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and new ideas, you’ll like the show.

What was the funniest thing that happened while filming the pilot?

Miller: We had to deal with a lot of [crazy] people on the streets of New York City (laughs).

If you weren’t on Elementary, what show would you want to be part of?

Doherty: FX’s Justified.

Miller: I’d want to be some scumbag on Breaking Bad (laughs).

If you could scrub anything off your résumé, what would it be?

Doherty: I don’t think I could do that without disrespecting the people I’ve worked with and love even though there may be a couple stinkers on my résumé, I’ll never tell you which ones (laughs).

Miller: Good lord, I’m not going bring that up to the Hollywood Reporter!

What’s the most bizarre network note you’ve ever gotten?
Doherty: One executive said he had an issue with the flashbacks in my script because it kept bringing him back to the past (laughs).

What are three necessary items you need in order to write?

Doherty: I need a white noise machine, green pen and the occasional action figure to prop up and twiddle with as needed.

If you could add any one writer to the Elementary staff, who would it be?

Doherty: I’m going to stay on the Justified tip and go with Graham Yost though Arthur Conan Doyle is a writer I’ve adored since childhood who came up with a character as endearing as Holmes would be a naturally good addition (laughs).

Who’s your dream guest star on Elementary?

Miller: The Chelsea football team, all of them, the whole lot. We get to shoot in London at Chelsea. Or the New York Jets.

Elementary premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on CBS.

Aha! Just figured out why we haven’t made it in TV yet. We’re dull as hell…and, judging from the above, we still have way too much personality (laughs).