There is no question. The detective of choice of the second decade of the twenty-first century is Sherlock Holmes. He has spawned a couple of successful movies as well as two television shows, BBC’s SHERLOCK and CBS’s ELEMENTARY. So what is the fascination of modern artists with this nineteenth-century detective? And what is my opinion of Elementary? Read on to find out.
When Elementary was proposed, most people thought that the Americans were trying to appropriate the success of the highly honored BBC franchise, and they were right. The question was how closely would they copy the formula? Well, I’ve watched the first three episodes of Elementary and season One and Two of Sherlock so I finally feel able to give my assessment. The short answer is have no fear. Elementary is a pretty decent buddy movie, but it doesn’t compare to Sherlock, and it is not a copy.
The premise of Elementary is that a clever consulting detective from London recently released from a drug rehabilitation center in New York has decided to begin consulting in his new home. He is, however, saddled with a live-in guardian of sorts, former surgeon Joan Watson, who is employed to keep him off of the drugs.
The most obvious variation from the original, is that Watson is a woman, but the location is also different (New York vs. London) also Watson is not a veteran.
Sherlock is an updating of the original Sherlock Holmes stories to the modern day. The characters are sketched exactly as they were in the original. A genius criminologist and expert in chemistry meets an army doctor retired from the Afghan wars and moves with him into an apartment at 221B Baker street in London where they start taking cases together. Part of the charm of this series is watching how the writers integrate nineteenth century story-lines with twenty-first century technology.
Elementary, on the other hand, is inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories more than copying them. The cases that we have been shown (a child predator and serial killer, a series of murders hidden by secret plot) are more in line with other detective stories that we have seen before. In fact, Elementary reminds me most of a cross between buddy cop movies and the star detective dramas of nineteen seventies television.
Please don’t take this as a dig. I loved shows like Columbo and Kojak. Shows that were inspired in turn by Sherlock Holmes. I see Sherlock from Elementary as being on par with those other detectives (Actually Columbo may have been a bit smarter). I can see Sherlock’s genius, but it seems generic. I could imagine him going into other careers such as becoming the world chess champion, or a master chef. His observation, precision, and dedication are admirable, but not necessarily unique, and as to his relationship with Watson, they get along well, but in many ways he seems not to need her at all.
I think that the fear that this would simply become a romance is unjustified. I see no sexual chemistry. The characters are adults, and I could imagine them having sex with each other, but there is no feeling that this would affect their intellectual relationship. The thing that they seem to have in common is an ability to divorce their emotions from their goals.
For example, in one scene Sherlock plans to stay up all night looking through case files. He fears that Watson will insist that he get sleep and rest like a normal person. Watson, med school valadictorian, shows him a trick to keep him awake that she used when she crammed for tests so that he can finish.
Sherlock has a completely different feel. The title character in BBC’s Sherlock varies from the cannon Sherlock Holmes by being younger, and less emotionally stable. His genius is sharp and easy to see, but like a candle burning bright, he seems constantly in danger of being snuffed out. John Watson is personable, but depressed at being retired from the one job that gave his life purpose. It doesn’t take much for the audience to see that they were made for each other.
The emotional stability aspect of the show is introduced in episode one and is a major part of the series. In many ways, it overshadows the crimes which are derived in part from adventures by Sir Conan Doyle.
For example, (SPOILER FOLLOWS) the cliffhanger at the end of season two shows Watson watching Sherlock fall to his death after a confrontation with his nemesis Moriarty. Why is this a cliffhanger? The bad guy is dead, and Sherlock survived. The tragedy is that our two main characters have been violently separated. They have survived, but they must live with the aftermath of having been temporarily happy, and now they are thrust back into the chaos they felt at the beginning of the series when they were alone, only this is worse because they remember what it felt like to be whole.
Sherlock in Elementary is a recovering drug addict. Even so, he seems pretty stable crashing cars notwithstanding. He seems like he is, at most, a menace to himself. We can’t see him becoming a serial killer or bomber. What we do see in him is the spark of genius. A genius that could be released in many ways. Generalist.
The man is unstable. We seriously doubt that he will live to be forty. He enjoys danger too much. He pushes dangerous people to get a reaction, and forges ahead without backup. The instability of his character means that some of the most stressful moments in the series are when he has nothing to do. Once he has a case, we know exactly where he will be, on the trail. He is a hunter of big game, and like them we fear that when all the game are gone, he may come gunning for us out of boredom. Specialist.
Set in NewYork, but it could be somewhere else. They say New York is a character, but the shots are mostly typical two shots. I don’t see the kind of cinematic photography that is the hallmark of Sherlock. I see very pretty colors, I see warm views, interesting sets. I don’t really get the feel of a big city, because most of the images look suburban.
Elementary could be New York, or Chicago, or even LA. Where they live doesn’t seem so important. New Yorkers will probably violently disagree with me, but for most people who don’t live there, one hot dog stand looks much like another.
Sherlock is super-urban. Other than in the Hound of the Baskervilles, they are in a big city doing things that can only be done in a big city. This gives it more of a fixed setting, It couldn’t happen anywhere else.
Also, “Britishness” is a character from the union jack pillow to Buckingham palace.
Case in point, tea with Moriarty. What could be more British than enemies sitting together and sharing a cup of tea like gentlemen. The tea cups even have a map of the UK on the side.
As an adaptation of a nineteenth century work, there is a juxtaposition between the future and the past in Sherlock. Sherlock feels like the future. His phone is definitely a few years ahead. Nobody has such good phone service.
Elementary feels like the past to me. It harkens back to the buddy police dramas of the seventies, but in a good way. They use paper files and there is less conspicuous technology. It shows more of a focus on brainpower and psychology to solve crime.
Elementary feels cozy, one story in a city full of stories. Their story is more interesting than most, and that is why we are here. We feel the possibility of success, and we want to see it through.
The cinematography is excellent. The show is shot like a film, and many shots are ones that are traditionally too expensive for a television show. That is because a series for Sherlock is three episodes.
The look varies from bright grey-white and shiny, to darker yellow-orange and intimate. There is a overabundance of reflections and shimmering tones that prevents it from drifting into noir.
Art is often apparent in the composition, and although it is a crime to make the look more noticeable than the plot, the cleverness of the shot usually ends up amplifying the cleverness of the characters. One also has to mention the clever use of on screen text to prevent slowing down the story by having someone repeat what is seen or observed.
Elementary is shot as a television show. It is not overly cinematic and the shots are dominated by more typical two shots. This is not to say that it is poorly shot. Actually, it looks very nice. The images are crisp and colorful. The pallet warm. His house is quirky and comfortable, and the police station looks comparatively colder and more impersonal as it should.
I like the title sequence. It shows a Rube Goldberg machine following a marble down a clever path. It is cute, and this suggests the cleverness of Sherlock Holmes, but other than being intricate and having a revolver it has little to do with the show. There is no revolver in the show at all.
The publicity shots for Elementary look like copies of the title photos for the BBC show. The principles are wearing black coats, and Sherlock has his scarf tied in a way that has become a hallmark on Sherlock. Perhaps the producers felt that they would get increased DVD sales if people mistake which show they are buying, I don’t know why they are dressed this way, because they don’t look that way most of the time in the show.
The look is casual bordering on trashy. Knits, low cut shirts, and layered sweats.
Bare midriff and showing lots of skin (I’m talking about him). These things betray a desire to raise ratings by showing off their actor’s pretty bodies. It is true that Johnny Lee Miller is quite fit, and the tattoos are surprisingly sexy, but it’s a totally different vibe from the other Sherlock Holmes.
They say that women go crazy for a sharp dressed man, and that is certainly the case for Sherlock. The main character is rarely shown without a suit. Sir Conan Doyle wrote that Sherlock dressed neatly and conservatively, and suits are definitely conservative. But the costumers have gone above and beyond by fitting many of their characters in exceptionally good-looking designer clothes. So much so that Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch received a GQ style award.
The clothes for Sherlock, his brother Mycroft, Irene Adler, and the main villain Moriarty were exceptionally fine. They have their own fan pages.
There is something refreshing about the return to formality found in the show. It speaks of money, and success, and an attention to detail of appearance that the casual clothes of the last fifty years do not. It is just another thing that sets the look of this show apart from the others on the air. A fan could tell from a shoe, or a coat what show they were watching, and the clothes that are shown invariably sell out soon after the show airs. Good luck trying to find a coat like Sherlock’s. They were one of the first things to sell out (at least in the ladies sizes).
Elementary has two interesting characters. A genius detective just out of rehab, and a former doctor who left her career under mysterious circumstances. Sherlock as a recovering drug user is weird. I don’t believe him as an addict. We don’t see him showing much addictive behavior, although he does act sometimes as if he is on speed. I don’t see any remorse about the drug use for Sherlock. I feel that Watson could leave the house, and he could shoot up the next hour, or never again. I can believe that he was an addict, but I don’t know what he’s addicted too.
the back story of the characters is introduced in the first episode. It is interesting, but I am not overly curious. I don’t feel a strong desire to delve into it. Overall, I like them. I find them interesting to watch, but when I am not watching it, they fall from my thoughts like melted snow.
The characters in Sherlock are compelling. They are not us, but they evoke our empathy. The show is perilous not only in the physical landscape (chasing criminals through the streets of London), but also in the emotional landscape (John’s depression and PTSD, Sherlock’s bipolar impulsive personality). It’s as if there is a puzzle placed before us that we know how to solve (just keep Sherlock and John together), and yet we must watch the others struggling to find the answer.
This emotional dynamic pulls us along for the ride so that we feel more for them than other characters. We want them to heal each other and to find their own form of peace, but every new case adds the danger that they might be separated by the finality of death, so they should live each day as if it may be their last. Compelling.
In Sherlock, we know that Sherlock is a danger addict, jumping from building to building for the fun of it. We can believe that he is titillated by the thought that he might die at any moment. The funny thing is that we don’t see him as suicidal.
(Spoiler Alert) This makes it all the more poignant when he jumps from the roof at the end of the final episode of season two. John knows, as do we, that Sherlock is not generally suicidal, so why jump? This unanswered question is left there to tear John to pieces for the entire gap between series two and three, and this is why the fans have gone insane about this ending. They feel for John.
Elementary is trying to copy some of the online games and activities that were used to advertise Sherlock, but I don’t think that this will succeed. The fanbases are different, and I don’t think that the kind of fans that Elementary will attract will be the sort of obsessive fan women that are attracted to Sherlock. My best guess for a fan base will be men 21-32 who think Lucy Liu is sexy and want to imagine being smart and living with a hot babe. Also, a subset of females 15 – 25 who think that Johnny Lee Miller is cute.
The Sherlock fandom is overwhelmingly women. Benedict Cumberbatch is an acquired taste when it comes to beauty, and Martin Freeman is older and shorter than your basic heart throb, but the combination of them and their characters is enough to make millions of women go weak at the knees.
Sherlock is also intellectually challenging, because it encourages one to read the original works and figure out how they will be adapted to the modern day. When the names of the episodes are announced, there is a burst of speculation on how it will be presented. Just look at the old posts about The Hound of the Baskervilles. Would it be a real dog? If not, then what? Would it be scary? Fans went wild.
The other thing that affects the fandom is the format. Because of the extremely long time between seasons, fans have only each other for company for long stretches of time. This means that they talk about the show, and blog about the show, and write stories about the characters until there is an entire mythology of Sherlock that is completely different from what was ever aired or written. If you want a peek, look for the following keywords in association with Sherlock (hedgehog, otter, purple shirt of sex, crazy kitty jumper, jam).
Elementary did not merit the fears expressed before it was shown that it was a straight copy of the BBC show. The fact that it is filmed as a regular series, that the plots are not based on the cannon work, that the writers are not obsessive Conan Doyle fans, and that the setting is not London make enough of a difference that the shows feel miles apart from each other.
So, although I think that Elementary is an admirable effort, and a decent show with the feel of classic detective television, I’d much rather be watching Sherlock.