REVIEW – Elementary: A First Look

As we’ve no books to plug at the moment (soon, though), we thought we’d topic on our second passion: all things Sherlock Holmes.

TDM: So we finally have a trailer for the CBS Sherlock Holmes series Elementary.  I’m waiting for the series itself before I get into anything in depth about it.  I’m willing to give it a try, though I have to say I saw nothing that made me want to jump up and down with excitement.  I had a much more positive reaction to the trailer for the Robert Downey Jr. movies.  What about you?

TW: Well, trailers generally are designed to grab an audience, and the RDJ/Jude Law version of Sherlock Holmes lends itself very well to that — plus, it’s a feature film, so even the trailers are high-budget. But given all the ruckus going on over a second television version of a modern Sherlock Holmes, I did expect better. I’ll watch the opener this fall, but I don’t know — already a lot of things bother me about it.

TDM:  So the trailer did not give you warm fuzzies, nor make you want to see the new series?

TW:It really didn’t. Setting aside the perceived rivalry with the BBC version for the moment, it just didn’t feel like Sherlock Holmes. And it has nothing to do with the genderbending of Dr. Watson. Well, okay, nothing with the basic concept. I have no problem with the idea of a female Watson, I just don’t think this particular characterization is what they needed. It weakens the relationship, I think. The whole concept of a “sober companion” is essentially “babysitter.” And “stuck with” as opposed to a meeting of…complements.

My opinion may change as Elementary finds a niche. But judging strictly by the trailer, I’m not seeing shades of “the greatest literary friendship ever known” – which is really the core of the Holmes stories. The spark, if you will.

TDM:  I agree on the “sober companion.”  They didn’t even get the title right.  That annoyed.  And you know me, if they mess up Watson, I’m done with the whole concept.  One reason I enjoy the current movie franchise is Jude Law’s Watson.  He’s an excellent Watson.  I also have no problem with a female Watson.  There was a romcom Sherlock movie ages ago with a female Watson that I enjoy very much.  Of course, They Might Be Giants has a female Watson.  I have issues with bad Watsons.  Other opinions on the trailer?

TW: Just an overall…missing of the point. It felt like–and I realize this has been said by a lot of people who have seen the trailer–the same sort of relationship we’ve seen so many times. Moonlighting, Remington Steele (lord, I’m dating myself here), Bones, House… I could keep going. I don’t know if it’s strictly an American deal, but it seems every time you pair up a male and a female as investigative partners, there’s always either an immediate or delayed flirt-play between them that leads to a romance. Here, they didn’t even bother waiting. Not only do we have Holmes apologizing to her (incredibly out-of-character, and enough of a canon it would never have been a legal issue), but the small bit of praise he gives her about having hope for her as an investigator is immediately met with the downward flutter of her lashes and a half-blush going on. It just doesn’t ring properly – something’s off either in their writing premise OR their marketing campaign.

TDM:  Yes.  And a fear I had when I heard network television was tackling Holmes – that they’d take the route they do with every other detective show out there.  I hope I’m wrong.  But all the shows seem so identical lately.

TW: It’s formula writing. And it bothered me. The behind-the-scenes interviews didn’t help. The writers in particular sounded almost flippant. This isn’t Star Trek (and I love your reboot, JJ, don’t take this wrong); it’s literature. No matter Arthur Conan Doyle never really considered Holmes to be great literature. But it is. And you can’t treat literature like pop culture, without some definite care, and expect it to be different than every other pop culture show out there.

TDM:  As we well know.  We didn’t try to take Holmes into the modern era.  We stuck with one change and kept it Victorian.  If you could update and pull the Great Detective into the 21st Century, how would you do it?

TW:My first step: I wouldn’t make him THE Sherlock Holmes–simply because it’s  too close to the BBC/PBS version, which is absolutely stellar.  (I decided I had to stop over-using “brilliant”) To make a parallel-running series, the second would need a truly fresh view on it. I fear CBS didn’t take the opportunity to craft one.

If you’re going to put a Holmes in NYC in the modern day, why not simply make him a descendant?   We know from canon Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes were  “descended from country squires.”  There’s long been speculation among Doyleans  that perhaps there was a third Holmes brother, the eldest, whose responsibility it would have been to maintain the estate and provide an heir.

Huge amounts of material to work with there.  Plus, it’s a fresh take–I don’t think anyone’s ever used the premise of a great-great-grandson of the family line who has inherited that gift.  And the legal concerns between the BBC and CBS would never have been an issue at all.

The other basic elements–Watson, the police, the deductions, etc–can all be incorporated without a whole lot of effort.  It’s not as if Watson is an uncommon surname. But it allows room for personality differences, the quirks and the backstory, without requiring every scene shot to be microscopically examined for potential legal issues. It allows for that “Americanization.”

A fresh view is what makes the Guy Ritchie films unique  – they took the very basic framework and then ran with it in a totally new style. Yes, Holmes is Holmes and Watson is Watson and it’s Victorian England – but other than that, it’s fresh. There are mixed opinions on how well they succeeded in the endeavor, but you can’t please everyone.

But Ritchie’s premise seems to have been  far more a “What if Sherlock Holmes was an action hero?”  Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss chose a premise of “What if the canon Holmes existed in the modern day?”  Both fresh takes.

Unfortunately, the Elementary creators seem to have copied the second premise rather than crafting another fresh one.  Moving him to New York just isn’t enough of a deviation. Not when there are still other options.

So it feels like a deliberate move on CBS, a retaliation of sorts for being turned down on their offer to the BBC version.  A flip-off. Reminds me of one of my kids doing something strictly to piss the other one off.

TDM:  Interesting.  I actually have a descendant story outlined somewhere.  Did it years ago.  I’ll have to dig it out.  Holmes himself had a granddaughter.  For me personally, I don’t consider descendants an update of Sherlock Holmes.  You won’t have the Watson/Holmes dynamic, for example.  So it ends up something different entirely.  I’m not sure exactly what I’d do.  I haven’t thought about it enough.  It’s an intriguing proposition.  You’re very right that there are so many avenues open to be explored.  It seems a shame Hollywood keeps revisiting the same ones.

As for Elementary, best of luck to them and us.  May it exceed our expectations.

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4 thoughts on “REVIEW – Elementary: A First Look

  1. The decendant story line (Holmes’s son, grandson, nephew, daughter) has been used in Sherlock Holmes type literature many times. I have several examples in my collection. Honestly, it is not one of my favorites. But I can’t think of it on TV, so maybe that would be original.

    I don’t mind the “sober companion” business, myself. Watson began as Holmes’s roommate, and became his friend, then his partner. In the 19th century, cocaine usage was legal, though it is not today. If the 21st century Holmes took cocaine, it makes sense that he would need some sort of help. Like House with his pain medication addiction. If the relationship develops into friendship and partnership, that might work.

    Your point about the formula sexual tension relationship out of Castle, Bones, and Remington Steele is a good one, but it is just possible that they will develop into a close friendship. Co-Ed partners that are just close friends have shown up on TV, like on Hide In Plain Sight, and maybe the Mentalist (though in the season finale this year, they implied that MAY be changing).

    I agree that the Holmes/Watson dynamic will be key, but we will wait and see.

  2. I agree with Larry. Goren (a character based on Holmes to some extent) and Eames (his female Watson–and a very traditional secondary lead Watson) never, to my knowledge, developed any romance. I am not against romance, per se, but I never believed Watson would be Holmes’ type regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I also think it’s a little unfair to say that an actress/character lowering her eyes for a moment is flirty. I lower and raise my eyes all the time as part of my thought processes. No one ever accuses a male actor of being flirty because he lowers his eyes. I’m not sure how it’s possible to “half” blush.

    I believe Holmes has been played as increasingly rude as the character goes through actors, at least in recent years. This is not my experience of Holmes in the stories. He can be impatient, but never unjustifiably so, and he is not randomly rude or lacking in understanding of social interactions in the stories. The BBC Sherlock really reminds me of *House* plus *Bones,* in some ways, which isn’t to say I don’t like it, but that isn’t “my” Holmes. I’m okay with various versions, but bothered that people now think Holmes is a sociopath, etc. I really hated most of the second Guy Ritchie movie, in which Holmes, I felt, was portrayed as a buffoon.

    But your discussion was mostly about Watson, so I digress. As to the friendship, I don’t think Watson was terribly taken with Holmes at first in the stories (they moved in together to afford the rent–it is a pity all the modern Holmeses seem to be rich, but I can live with it). The “greatest literary friendship” should start from zero and build. Joan Watson’s expression when Holmes stated she used to be a surgeon was great. It was clear in just one moment how haunted she is by her past; this gives her a backstory that will probably come into play later, as well as a possible future goal. Well, I guess I should stop now. Interesting comments.

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