A Plea for Leniency for Elementary: In Defence of Dual Enjoyment
Let me get one thing straight: I love Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are excellent as the eponymous detective and his brilliant partner, and I am eagerly awaiting the release of the next three movie-length episodes. I also love the smaller things about the series, like Watson’s cuddly jumpers and the absolute perfect wardrobe of Jim Moriarty… not to mention a certain someone’s cheekbones. Oh, the cheekbones.
One aspect of Sherlock that I do not like is the fan base. More specifically, it is the reaction to the American program Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. The show was an underdog from the start. Not only did it have to compete with the near-universally praised critical success of the BBC produced Sherlock, it also had competition in the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law blockbuster film series- though, the less said about that the better. The backlash and outrage over the show was, and still is, immense. Why make a new Sherlock when we have a perfectly good version? Why is Joan a girl? Why does it have to be in the U.S? Comment thread upon comment thread was devoted to these questions, with none of the answers positive. Now, I’m a fan of the nerd-rage as much as the next person (sometimes I ask Star Wars forums who shot first, then sit back and watch the magic happen), but this is a bit much.
I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t join in with the naysayers. North American adaptations of British cultural icons rarely go well. While not strictly the same, you would think that the cataclysmic failure of the Americanised versions of The IT Crowd and Skins would make the producers think twice before giving this project the green light. It’s worse when American producers take British history or literature and give it the blockbuster Hollywood treatment. (Looking at you, Prince of Thieves! Not even Alan Rickman’s sneer-face could save you.) This is why I was apprehensive. I was afraid that Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic texts were going to be turned into a cookie-cutter police procedural where the only authenticity lay in the names. I was half right.
Elementary is, in my opinion, an excellent police-procedural-mystery-thriller hybrid. Miller captures an acidic, untouchable and yet vulnerable aesthetic that makes him riveting to watch. However, the standout performance is Liu as the now-female Joan (John) Watson. One issue I have with Sherlock is that women tend to be watered down incarnations of the Triple Goddess- child, mother, seductress. While this is in line with the source text, it would have looked out of place if there were suddenly very few women in modern day New York. This might create a Hobbit situation. (In all seriousness, where ARE the dwarf ladies in that film?) Liu straddles the line perfectly between being the exposition pawn and the moral compass of the show, while being a strong female character that I can appreciate without becoming a feminist caricature. The mysteries are engaging, the balance between serial plots and cases-of-the-week is perfect, and the character development across the board is realistic and appealing. It just has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes.
Yes, the character named Holmes is a genius. He is a loner. He has an amazing eidetic memory. The Watson expy is (was) a doctor, there for exposition and to be the heart and humanity of the program. They work together for a struggling police force solving crimes, especially those perpetrated by a character called Moriarty. That’s where the similarities stop. The source-based nuances evident in the BBC version just aren’t there in Elementary, and the intricacies of the book mysteries and characters are lost in a 24 episode series. It appears that the person responsible for describing Sherlock Holmes was doing so via Etch-a-Sketch. However, this does not mean it is a terrible show- it is just not a close adaptation.
This is why I don’t understand the outrage. The series’ are as different as apples and oranges; this isn’t a Trek vs. Wars situation, it’s more like Doctor Who vs. Law and Order SVU. One beloved British institution against a well-written American procedural. The existence of one does not preclude your enjoyment of the other, nor does it mean that either one is diminished. I like both. Sure, Sherlock makes me more excited, more emotional, more geeky. It doesn’t mean I can’t get an enjoyable 45 minutes out of Elementary. I’m not telling you to like the show; if you aren’t a fan of SVU or perhaps The Mentalist, then you probably aren’t going to be into this sort of series. However, for the rest of you, why not give Elementary a go? Just pretend it’s a regular, original show that just happens to have a character called Sherlock.
As a side-note though, for any American producers who may be reading: If any of you dare to try and adapt the BBC Sherlock for U.S audiences, I will feed you to my dragons.
What do you think? Leave a comment.