While I may mock my fellow Intwischa colleagues for their lack of cinematic knowledge, I have a dirty little secret of my own: I hate episodic television. I don’t have the patience to wait for next week’s episode. I don’t have the discipline (or the Tivo) to block a specific hour on a specific day into my schedule just to watch this week’s episode. I don’t have the heart to invest emotionally in a cast of characters that will eventually move away, die off, or just get rewritten into shadows of their former selves. To be honest, I’m pretty sure I stopped reading comic books for the same reason.
However, last Thursday CBS baited their 10:00 pm slot with my literary Kryptonite: Sherlock Holmes. As I’ve confessed in previous posts, my current enthusiasm for our ongoing Victorian-era game in the Dresden Files RPG setting is largely due to the influence of that most famous of detectives. In fact, one of my fellow players based his character largely on Holmes. As such, the super sleuth’s influence is stamped all over the game. So I was forced to set aside my animosity toward episodic television and watch the premiere of ‘Elementary’, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. I would be less than candid if I didn’t admit that Lucy Liu provided an almost equal motivation to watch the show as its main character did.
Despite Miss Liu’s involvement, I did have one misgiving. The CBS series reboots the Holmes mythos by setting it in modern day New York City. (Oh, and Watson is a hot Asian lady; but I digress.) I couldn’t help but spend the hours running up to the premiere turning over the same questions: “Is the allure of Sherlock Holmes largely based on his location in London?”. ”Will his methods, so shrewd and ingenious in a Victorian era that predates modern forensics, really translate in this new millennium?”. ”Without the British culture and Victorian setting, will Holmes just look like a very pale Adrian Monk?”. Clearly, you’ll have to keep reading to find out!
We’ve spent a good amount of time in our gaming group revising history and ‘hacking’ game systems to fit our desired setting du jour, so I wondered what it would be like to see how CBS’s attempts would fare on an episodic scale. After our recent online discussions about setting, tone, and establishing a cogent campaign world, I decided to take some notes and critique the network’s foray into ‘hacking’ a literary classic. I’ve concentrated on three major factors that define the overall tone, in my opinion: the detective, the doctor, and the relationship between them.
And yes, I actually took notes; see the accompanying photo above.
Ok, so bonus points right off the bat: CBS was smart enough to keep Sherlock as a Brit. Additional bonus points for actually casting a British actor, instead of just asking a stock television face to fake an English accent for 44 minutes. Jonny Lee Miller’s incarnation of Holmes has a lot in common with what I remember from the books, and what you’ll see in many film variations. The detective has an intense, addictive personality; the opening of the show explains that ‘Elementary’s version of Holmes is a recovering drug addict, perhaps an allusion to the literary equivalent’s penchant for narcotics. Miller’s version also displays several tattoos, and employs a dominatrix. Of course, those are things I don’t recall from the books. In addition to material addictions, Holmes is addicted to uttering the observations that drive his deductions. To say that he has no filter is an understatement; once he begins to connect the dots, he literally cannot stop. He is compelled by some inner demon to follow them to their logical conclusion, even if it means wounding total strangers or those he trusts most.
This version of Holmes shares some eccentric investigation techniques that have more in common with the recent Robert Downey Jr. version, as opposed to the Victorian super sleuth. He moves erratically at times, laying down or running out of a room without explanation. He sniffs the air like a bloodhound, uses a marble to find a hidden door, and at one point even tastes a Persian rug. What’s curious about taking the character in this direction is the juxtaposition of his very physical ‘forensic’ methods with the state-of-the-art technology available to a modern CSI analyst. It is reminiscent of the original Holmes’ use of ‘emerging’ forensic science when the local police were relying on more crude, physical methods.
His relationship to his city is somewhat similar, however. The current Holmes is a former Scotland Yard consultant, who works behinds to solve crimes, and resumes this service in New York. He spends a good deal of time with the police at crime scenes and in the station, generally making the police look incompetent but quickly catching their mistakes. In the end, of course, the cops get their guy and Holmes retreats to his somewhat solitary loft to quietly relish his own intellectual victory. He seems to take personal offense at those who believe they will escape detection in his city, and takes an obsessive interest in seeing that they are caught. It seems less about justice, and more about the thrill of the hunt. In that way, the modern Holmes and his literary inspiration share a fairly strong bond.
Ultimately, the Holmes portrayed in ‘Elementary’ and the one penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle share one powerful defining trait: They cannot help themselves. By the end of the episode, the show really did a great job at convincing me that their version of Holmes had little control over how much he observed, how his mind processed it, or how far he would go to discover the truth. Likewise, this single-minded focus puts Holmes in a position to constantly depend on others, primarily Watson, to usher him through normal, polite society. When he becomes so immersed in the case that he cannot breathe, he needs others to force him up for air.
Sherlock Score: 9 of 10
Just as this drama recasts merry old London as gritty NYC, they also recast the right proper wartime doctor John Watson as right proper disgraced surgeon Joan Watson. Lucy Liu’s Watson is Holmes’ court-sponsored ‘companion,’ essentially a nanny for recovering addicts after they’ve left recovery. As she arrives at Holmes’ flat at the beginning of the episode, she is all business and clearly in control.
Once again, however, she quickly shows some connection with her male namesake as she is easily disarmed by Holmes’ abrupt, incisive manner. As with some of the older film versions of Watson, Liu’s modern doctor can’t seem to keep up when the game is afoot. In fact, she appears fumbling and vulnerable as Holmes dissects the scene of a recent murder. My disappointment was immediate, both because the Watson-as-bumbling-sidekick treatment is a disservice to the character and because I couldn’t believe an adult surgeon could be that dense, even when she’s not in the hospital.
The joke was on me, however. Far from being a deficiency in the direction of the show, Watson’s timid demeanor was merely a natural reaction to being confronted by Hurricane Holmes. Once she is attuned to his idiosyncrasies, she has no trouble keeping pace with his plans, or putting him in his place when he forgets himself with a witness or a suspect. Watching this Watson tell Holmes, “you’re done here, go wait in the car,” made the entire episode worth it.
This is not to say that Liu’s version of the doctor is fully in command of herself. She is obviously haunted by her past, as Doyle’s version was by his time in the military. Likewise, while the modern Watson is a sharp, confident professional, she clearly struggles for opportunities to establish herself next to the unbridled brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. That she does so while still retaining her dignity makes her more like Jude Law than Nigel Bruce.
Sherlock Score: 8 of 10
Of all the compliments I could pay the show, I think this category would be the most telling. ’Elementary’ quickly establishes the symbiotic relationship between Holmes and Watson, showing their give-and-take teamwork in equal measure. It’s obvious that the show is called ‘Elementary’ because featuring one character’s name above the other would betray the rhythmic rise and fall of that bond between Holmes and Watson. At the end of the episode, I not only felt attached to and intrigued by each character in turn, I also saw an electricity in their bond. Curiously, however, it’s not a romantic spark. In fact, it would be easy for a producer to overplay the “Will they or won’t they?” sexual tension between partners of the opposite sex. (Chris Carter, I’m looking at you.)
Instead, the energy shared by this Holmes and this Watson is a sense that they both fill an odd void in the other that neither party would’ve believed “fillable”, to coin a phrase. There are even hints throughout the episode that other relationships in both of their pasts have failed to calm the turmoil that seems to ease once Holmes and Watson really hit their stride. In short, their inner demons seem very compatible.
There are certainly some tense moments that arise when these demons are disturbed though. Holmes cuts deep into Watson’s psyche as he deduces her secret shame over losing a patient, and (as described above) Watson is forced to rebuke Holmes’ petulant behavior when he begins to abuse a witness. Somehow, these painful exchanges only seem to add urgency to their efforts when they work in concert. Again, the turbulent comparison between Miller & Liu and Law & Downey is easily made. It becomes readily evident that neither would likely survive without the other around.
The show constrains this relationship by making the premiere primarily about the efforts toward solving the case, as opposed to a lot of self-serving ruminations on their burgeoning relationship or their painful pasts. This focus on the crime at hand, and the deductive genius that made Holmes famous, is a smart move on the part of the producers. There are more than enough dramas on television about… well, drama. So far, ‘Elementary’ shows clues of existing somewhere between forensic crime show and psychological character study.
That is definitely my cup of tea.
Sherlock Score: 8 of 10