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Elementary Mistakes

A little while ago, Sue Vertue1 expressed her displeasure over CBS’s announcement that they were going to produce a show similar to the BBC’s excellent Sherlock. She need not have worried, the American take on a thoroughly British idea, called Elementary2 does not come within a country mile of Sherlock, especially in terms of quality, plot and originality.

The problem is that it’s more beholden to the rules of American TV than it is to the source material. 3 So rather than a brilliant yet austere man who, by modern standards, may well be considered a danger to society, we get an edgy and cool adolescent who has kinky sex, goes to addiction counselling and admits that he could be wrong. It makes for a great detective show, but doesn’t live up to the promise of Sherlock Holmes.

Tommy Lee Miller as not really Sherlock Holmes

Less the Great Detective, more the great big man child.

It is a huge shame; the roles are superbly performed. Johnny Lee Miller is an excellent Holmes, and injects manic intelligence and dispassion into the role. Lucy Liu4 is a superb Doctor Watson, being sharp and hard enough to be the great detective’s companion. However, this is a dynamic familiar to many a crime drama, and it doesn’t evoke the classic work. Given that it’s meant to be a direct re-imagining, it seems a bit of a waste.

What I wanted was a Holmes style version of Person of Interest (which is also produced by CBS) and what we got was something more akin to House than Sherlock; it’s a clever remix of old ideas, and though this makes for a good show, it doesn’t make for a remarkable show. TV is moving on from the tired old formulas of crime drama, and it’s sad to see such talent go to waste on something that could have been much, much more.


1: Her productions credits include Mr. Bean, The Vicar of Dibley, Coupling and two small boys with her husband, Steven Moffat. The pair of them are responsible for Sherlock, of course.

2: Elementary, as in “Elementary my dear Watson”, a phrase that Sherlock Holmes never actually says in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work (and isn’t really his catch phrase). But then the writers of the show wouldn’t know that, as they clearly haven’t read any of the books. In many ways, it’s quite a regrettable name, especially as it sounds a little bit too much like alimentary, a part of the digestive tract.

3: You could argue that CBS has made these changes to avoid conflict with the BBC. I doubt that; the changes look more like the inevitable consequence of altering something to fit the market.

4: While we are at it, why have they changed Watson’s back story so much? It’s another change from the source that doesn’t makes sense, if you assume they’re drwawing inspiration from the original. Elementary’s version of the good doctor isn’t a former member of the military, which is rubbish. Is it because Watson is a woman? I sincerely hope not. It could be that American audiences don’t like to be reminded of Afghanistan. Both reasons aren’t good enough.

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Categories: TV
  1. October 19, 2012 at 6:15 am

    “Elementary, as in “Elementary my dear Watson”, a phrase that Sherlock Holmes never actually says in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work.”

    Or possibly “Elementary” as in “Elementary”, a word he does use in The Crooked Man.

    http://www.snopes.com/quotes/signature/elementary.asp

    • October 19, 2012 at 6:27 am

      Hardly a catch phrase, and more likely a reference to the 1929 The Return of Sherlock Holmes. A more interesting question is, do ideas attached to Holmes that Doyle did not create count?

      • October 19, 2012 at 7:38 am

        I don’t think they’re claiming it as a catchphrase, just as a word that is strongly associated with Holmes in the public consciousness (which it is). That they didn’t use the whole phrase, only that part which is found within the text, is no less correct for probably being a lucky coincidence…

        And whether the 1920’s movies “count” depends on whether they’re trying to do a faithful (if updated) adaptation of the source material or just another interpretation of the character as found in popular culture.

    • jfs
      October 19, 2012 at 10:51 am

      Also see: “Play it again, Sam”.

      A phrase doesn’t have to appear in the corpus for it to be inextricably tied up with the subject.

  2. October 19, 2012 at 7:49 am

    I think Doyle’s work is only the first stage in a growing legend; Holmes is one of our figures of modern myth and I’d like to think that stories about him will stand the test of time. The problem with Elementary is that the main character doesn’t fit the broad strokes by which we define Holmes; it’s a decent show, but I doubt that it will add to the myth.

    A similar argument could be made to explain why Jean Paul Valley was never really The Batman, I suppose. (Hmm, explaining that to those who haven’t read Knightfall probably deserves it’s own post.)

    • FN
      October 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

      As far as I can tell Jean Paul Valley is never meant to be a replacement Batman; he’s there as a placeholder, whilst Batman’s away. He’s also a purposely rubbish replacement for Batman. That way, when Batman gets all better, he can return without anyone complaining about Jean Paul getting short shrift.

      I think it’s more than a little unfair to apply the same concept to Elementary, just because it’s not Sherlock.

      I watched the first series of Sherlock. And from all the hype, all the glowing reviews, all the commentary, I wondered if I’d watched the same series as everyone else. I’m pretty sure that what everyone else saw as an achingly edgy and cool modernisation of Sherlock Holmes, just made my face ache.

      I’m not a Doyle reader. I tried, I just didn’t enjoy the writing style enough to wade through it to get to the story. But I am aware that if I want the true-to-the-original experience, I should read the Doyle books. Because every other interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is going to be exactly that; an interpretation. From Basil Rathbone fighting Nazis, to Jeremy Brett oozing class, Sherlock Holmes has had a *lot* of interpretations. I’ve seen quite a lot of them.

      I’m going to have to work from memory here, and I’m sure the internets will happily correct me when I’m wrong, but if Sherlock is Holmes Done Right, then why is the character as played by Benedict Cumberbatch described as a sociopath? I’m not sure how being a bit mopey, preferring one’s own company, and not being particularly good at making friends makes one a sociopath. I’m also not sure I caught any drug references. Plenty of achingly clever references to nicotine patches, but I didn’t really catch that whole 7% vibe. I did catch plenty of scenes that made me think of American Police Procedurals of the last 15 years, though. Sometimes it was the characterisation, sometimes it was the script, but the deduction bits just screamed it.

      Which is funny, because most of the animosity I’ve seen directed at Elementary seems more based on “How dare they take something British and put their dirty ex-colonial hands on it” than anything else. “How dare they take something that Mr Moffat has done all original-like and try to be all original-like in Americaland!”.

      Because Sherlock doesn’t seem like Sherlock Holmes to me. It seems like an attempt to sell something in America, rather than Sherlock Holmes Solves Crimes. It seems far more Americanised than any home-grown Holmes I’ve seen before. Which makes Ms Vertue’s expressed displeasure over the remake seem more like a complaint that they’ll never get to go and make Sherlock in America now than anything else.

      Elementary might not be to your liking, but it’s just as valid an interpretation to me as any other (including Sherlock).

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