Wednesday, October 24. 2012
Presumably not coincidentally following the success of Sherlock on the BBC and BBC America, one of the American stations decided to do a series about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They also decided to keep the contemporary setting. After that, possibly with advice with their lawyers, they took a number of decisions to make it a distinctly different take on the characters. And casting Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, a surgeon who quit after accidentally killing a patient, is not their biggest 'new take' - in fact, a few episodes in and they've done next to nothing to make her clearly female that I saw. She has an ex-boyfriend, but that could just as easily be an ex-girlfriend, and parents that worry about her - that's perhaps the biggest one, although they worry in a way that makes me think they'd worry about a son that way. None of the "when are you going to settle down with a nice boy" that just about all my Chinese female friends talk about, instead it's "They're worried because you quit your nice job as a doctor and look at what you're doing now!" Not making her clearly female, of course, is not necessarily that bad - we've been spared some of the tired stereotypes of professional women, except that little sneak of the ex-boyfriend might hint at a touch of the "professional women can't keep their men" trope that gets trotted out occasionally (don't you know you're meant to be at home doing the laundry, cooking and having babies, not working dammit!). It doesn't show more than a hint of that though - in the small amount of time we get to see it.
Moving Holmes from London to New York is... predictable enough for a US TV show I guess. But, honestly, there's not a huge amount to make it feel like New York save the police shouting "NYPD!" Sherlock, on the other hand, gives a sense of Englishness and for most of its episodes a strong sense of London as well - the Hound of the Baskervilles episode can be excused for not giving a sense of London being set in Devon. So in that sense, the relocation seems to be a bit of a window-dressing and nothing more - and another wasted opportunity.
Unfortunately one big change is in the Holmes-Watson relationship. To my mind it looks like they started developing the script and someone (a producer maybe?) said "zOMG, I never knew Holmes was an addict. That's terrible, we can't support addicts on this channel!" And to avoid that embarrassment they sent Holmes to rehab, set Watson up as his (hired by Sherlock's father) 'sobriety companion' and I've come away from the first two episodes with a strong sense that I'm watching a moral crusade about how wonderful Alcoholics Anonymous is. I honestly have nothing against AA - they do a fine job with many addicted people. But if it plays such an overworked part of the show as it has so far - Elementary will move, for me at least, from 'the watch if I have time' to the 'don't bother' list. I can't decide if they're trying to develop some sexual chemistry between the two or not. If they are, I'm not seeing it between the actors which makes it fall rather flat for the characters. But there are bits of dialogue that make me think we're meant to see some chemistry there.
The stories too... ACD's works are out of copyright. I guess the lawyers might have advised original stories since Sherlock is retelling the originals so cleverly. And there are elements of smart Holmes stuff going on. There's not a lot of exposition, so not much room for "Elementary my dear Watson" but we've had a couple of "Eliminate the impossible, and whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth" moments already. In that sense, they're suitably crafted stories. But, sadly, the improbable was presented on a platter in the shows to date. I found it distressingly easy to work out what the thing that Holmes was going to uncover was. From there, I found it far too tempting to fall into a problem solving challenge - not of the murder but of the ways to convert the seemingly impossible to the merely improbable and thus the truth. And that, sadly, is not a good place for the show to move me. Holmes is meant to be almost supernaturally smart and observant. Hard to the right on the bell curve. ACD made that work. Sherlock portrays it nicely, even when you more or less know the story because it's a riff on an old, familiar tale - there's still that sense of the unfolding and his genius. In Elementary, he seems less like a genius to me. That's not a fault of the actor, but of the writing. And that's a shame.
American network TV is often quite anodyne to my mind - can't offend the advertisers and their almighty dollar. The Holmes and Watson of Elementary are rather more anodyne than the characters in the original story and certainly more anodyne than any film/TV representation I've seen before. That might have worked a decade ago, or in another 10 years from now, but up against Sherlock which is rather edgy by today's standards while staying (more or less at least - opinions are strongly divided about the portrayal of Irene Adler as a minimum) true to the original characters this is really looking bland and unfulfilling to my mind.
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