Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sherlock versus Sherlock

I fell in love with the BBC series Sherlock five minutes into it. I was always a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and I enjoy many of the reinterpretations we’ve seen over the years. Whether it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downy Jr., or even Hugh Laurie as House (a character based, in part, on Holmes), I am a fan. Naturally, I was very interested in the new show Elementary, again setting Holmes in the modern day but putting him  in New York rather than London.

Immediately, this invites comparison to the BBC series Sherlock, since this show is an American adaptation of that British show. Today I’m going to compare both of these shows, comparing the three most critical factors: Sherlock Holmes, Watson, and the mystery itself. To be fair, I’m only going to look at the first episodes of each. For Sherlock, it’s “A Study in Pink” and for Elementary, it’s the Pilot episode.  

Let’s start with the most important factor for each show: The character of Sherlock Holmes. 
BBC Sherlock: This Sherlock is an eccentric who solves crime because it gives him something to do. The rest of the police force considers him a freak, but they tolerate him because he helps close their cases. However, they view him with suspicion because he doesn't do it for money, he does it for the thrill of it. 

Physically, Benedict Cumberbatch looks the part of Holmes, from his standoffish demeanor to his expression of barely restrained contempt for the rest of humanity. He is tall, lanky, and looks slightly out of place at all times. His hair is longer and always slightly unkempt.

This version of Holmes takes special care to remember where he came from. He plays the violin, has a similar drug habit, and many of the same personality flaws as the original version. Watching him for even a moment, you are without question that this is what Holmes would look and act like in the modern day.

American Sherlock: He's a British transplant to the United States, so he has the accent. He has a very advanced mind and is a keen observer of details. He can draw advanced conclusions that others might not see. However, this doesn't make him Sherlock Holmes, this makes him just another eccentric crimefighter in a procedural.

The problem with this version of Sherlock Holmes is that they didn't make an effort to translate the character of Holmes into the 21st Century, they simply took the template of past characters like House, or Thomas Jane or Detective Goren and simply called that character Sherlock Holmes. He's a brilliant and flawed character, true, but no Holmes.

Let's start with the fact that he's still under the thumb of his father. The reason Watson meets up with Holmes (more on that in a moment) is that he's fresh out of rehab and his father will cut him off if he doesn't clean up his act. Sherlock Holmes is many things, but this is not one of them. It diminishes the character and makes him subordinate. Sherlock Holmes might have issues with his family, but he is his own man. And while they did get the history of drug use correct, they took the exact wrong angle with it.

Something else that stands out is one line of dialogue he says just after finding a body: "Sometimes I hate being right." Holmes never hates being right. Holmes loves it, that's what he lives for. He hates being wrong and hates sugarcoating the truth because others can't handle it. This show no doubt wants to soften Holmes and make him more personable, but that's the wrong way to go. Holmes should always be less personable because he cares about the mystery more than anything else.

Another humanizing effort for this version has Holmes, in the very first scene, talk about needing sex, but only as a course of biology. However, Watson guesses that Holmes is lying and that he does need sex for more than biology, but for companionship as well. Part of his reason for being in New York, she figures, is because of a woman. While this would be normal for any other procedural, this should not be the case for Holmes. Sherlock Holmes should view sex in the same way as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. He never makes it a priority because, in his mind, he has better concerns.

Physically, Jonny Lee Miller doesn't have the stature of Holmes. He is a strong actor and can easily carry his own series, but looking at him, one does not get the sense that this is Sherlock Holmes. He just doesn't have the dominating personality. Instead, they went with edgy, as evidenced by his multiple tattoos when we first meet him. Not only does this not make him more Holmes-like, it actually takes away from his character. Sherlock would never be tattooed because no artist would ever be up to his standards.

So right off the bat, Elementary fails because they didn't truly understand the character and persona of Sherlock Holmes.

Moving on, there’s equally important role of Dr. Watson.

BBC Watson: John Watson is not just a sidekick, but just as compelling a character. He was a soldier who was wounded in Afghanistan, exactly like the original. Also like the original, he takes to writing about Holmes' adventures, this time in blog form. He is living with Holmes because he needed a flatmate and a mutual friend connected them. He accompanies Holmes on his adventures because he craves the action. While he is a doctor, he's also a soldier at heart. 

Martin Freeman never plays Watson as befuddled or incapable. He can easily hold his own against Sherlock and proves to be more than a capable foil. The two have a natural banter, even from the first episode, and they embody the iconic pair.

American Watson: To mix things up, they cast Lucy Liu as Watson. This might actually be one of the series' strong points, because Liu is a very capable actor who could do with Watson what Katee Sackoff did with Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica remake. My issue with her character isn't the gender switch, it's why she's with Sherlock in the first place.

She's Holmes' babysitter. More accurately, she's going to live with him for six weeks to make sure he stays sober. She's his sobriety companion. Overlooking the fact that such programs would never put people of the opposite sex together, this makes Watson a subordinate character who is tagging along his adventures. No longer war-scarred, she is haunted by a patient she lost on the operating table, which is why she quit being a surgeon to do this instead.

Making Watson female will inevitable lead to the "will-they/won't-they" question that arises whenever you have a male and female lead. We already have that in Castle and The Mentalist, and it's not needed for Sherlock Holmes.

Again, despite the strong presence of Liu, Elementary fails to offer a satisfactory Watson.

Finally, we have to look at the actual mysteries. Are they compelling?

Sherlock: "A Study in Pink" was an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story "A Study in Scarlett." As with everything else, this is a modernized take on the story, with plenty of nods to the original for those who've read the story. However, them odern touches were enough to keep you guessing, and the end was very satisfying.

Elementary: This first episode didn't seem to be based on any specific Sherlock Holmes story, but was the usual mystery you see in any procedural. There were no Holmes specific trappings of the story, and the plot would have felt at home in any other crime show. It wasn't terrible, and it had a few fin surprises, so it was enjoyable in of itself.

To be fair, since Sherlock only produces three feature-length episodes a season, it is better able to adapt the Holmes lore. Elementary will produce a lot more episodes, so it will have to develop its own stories. While it's not terrible to want to have a modern Holmes solve new mysteries, Sherlock does a great job of making these old mysteries new again.

My overall deduction: The BBC Sherlock is the true retelling of the Holmes story in the modern day. Elementary is Sherlock Holmes in name only. This American Sherlock Holmes is not a force to be reckoned with, not a person both respected and feared. Instead, he’s on a short leash and must behave himself or daddy will kick him out. While that might work for most shows, when you are looking at a character with the legacy of Sherlock Holmes, you need to do better. One series has.

To be fair, it’s possible we’ll see more of the Sherlock Lore established as the series continues. We could see this show evolve from just a procedural into something that also explores the Holmes lore. We have yet to meet Moriarty, and it’s possible this show will find its footing. I've seen other series get better past the pilot, and there's every chance Sherlock will figure itself out.

Until then, however, this show is no different than The Mentalist, Psych, Law & Order Criminal Intent, Castle, and Monk, to name a few. What those shows all have in common is that they are, in essence, all retelling the Sherlock Holmes story: brilliant, but misunderstood amateurs solving crimes for the police.

That is what I see as the biggest of Elementary's problems. It's just another clone of the Sherlock procedural, not the original. That's why it falls flat. Were it just another show about a brilliant detective, then it would fit right in with the others. However, when it tries to claim the Sherlock mantle, it needs to do a lot more than just call itself Sherlock Holmes. It needs to be Sherlock Holmes, and right now, it isn't.

More of my Musings

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