Why Can’t A Watson Be More Like a Man?: A Review of Elementary
- Monday, October 08, 2012
My, we're getting a lot of Sherlock lately, aren't we?
The last three years have seen the release of two big budget Hollywood films and two seasons (or was it one-and-a-half?) of the British TV series, Sherlock. Apparently, there's a new market for the wily detective and his sidekick from the surgery and, as they say, whatever the market will bear.
Written at the height of the Victorian era, Conan Doyle's original stories are charmingly staid. People come and go up the stairs to 221B with all sorts of problems. Yet within those smoky digs, things remain the same. Marshalling his facts over a pipe of Baker Street shag, Holmes is in his heaven, all's—well, if all's not right with the world, it soon will be. There's a comforting sameness to the original canon that still attracts readers, many of whom become aficionados of the classic tales. As Roger Ebert remarks in his review of the first Robert Downey Jr. film, block bookings aren't likely from the Baker Street Irregulars!
Of course, like most depictions of classic heroes these days, the new Holmes is definitely revisionist. The Downey detective is a lithe superman aided in his battle against evil by cutting-edge special effects. Benedict Cumberbatch's twenty-first century Holmes is as adept with an Iphone as the Doyle original was with bound volumes of newspapers. Both incarnations seem to have been filtered through a certain arrogant, not to say obnoxious, TV physician named Gregory House. The last phenomenon is ironic, given that Holmes was the inspiration for House.
Which brings us to the latest entry in the Holmes race, CBS' Elementary. It's easier to count the similarities with the original than the differences:
1. He's British.
2. He's a consulting detective.
3. He displays amazing deductive reasoning powers.
After that, everything else is up for grabs. Jonny Lee Miller is Holmes, a recovering drug-addict saddled with a disgraced surgeon, a woman named Joan Watson. Played by Lucy Liu, she functions as a kind of glorified babysitter hired by Holmes' father (I can just hear the Baker Street Irregulars: Father?!) to keep him from falling off the wagon. This Holmes is sexually active, albeit in a disengaged sort of way—and, so far, thankfully, off-camera. He stalks the hansom-less streets of New York in grubby clothes, a scarf about his throat (reminding me a bit of Tom Baker's Doctor Who). Oh, and he's as tattooed as a sailor.
In one of the series' nicer twists, there's no Inspector Lestrade to insult. Rather, Doyle's lesser-known detective, Gregson, finds sympathetic and intelligent form in the American policeman (Aidan Quinn) who first met Holmes in England. It's Gregson's blustering subordinates that suffer Holmes' most withering ripostes.
In the pilot, Sherlock is called in on the strange case of the apparent home invasion murder of a psychiatrist's wife. The trail leads away from the shrink, and then back again, as Holmes and a reluctant Watson eventually discover that the doctor has manipulated a patient into homicide.
The mystery itself is largely forgettable. Most of the tension is between the manic Holmes and the vulnerable Watson, a former surgeon trying to scrape her life back together after losing a patient on the operating table. Through most of the hour, a partnership between them looks doubtful. Indeed, if any real-life woman had to suffer her evening at the opera disrupted by a loud-talking male, her car smashed by that same male, to say nothing of a constant barrage of deductions fired directly at her, there'd be no question of a working relationship, let alone a friendship, between the two. But Holmes must have his Watson and, somehow, she manages to adjust.
In their next outing, Holmes and Watson investigate murders that trace back to sibling rivalries. The solution to the case is quite clever, involving a coma victim that isn't really a coma victim. The emphasis remains on the relationship, the inevitable sexual tension between a male Holmes and a female Watson. Here we meet the latter's former boyfriend, which provides Holmes an opportunity to cut loose with all sorts of rudeness. Thankfully, he finds his violin at episode's end, allowing him to show us his more agreeable side.
Thus far, Jonny Lee Miller is the best thing about this series. He's a grubby waif, a puppy dog having more in common with Harpo Marx than Sherlock Holmes. In the same manner as that legendary string-plucking iconoclast, he gleefully tears down the sham and facades around him. I first saw Miller as a young Woodrow Call in the ABC mini-series based on Larry McMurtry's novel, Dead Man's Walk. I remember how good he was as a severely repressed Texas Ranger. Clearly, the man loves playing people with issues—like Sherlock Holmes.
Fortunately for society, Holmes does what he can't help doing in the service of justice. Unfortunately for Joan Watson, what he can't help doing threatens her weak and vulnerable psyche. And herein lays the big problem with Elementary. Professor Henry Higgins may have overstated his case a bit, but the question, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" has real import for the Holmes-Watson relationship.
For Holmes, the great thing is to solve puzzles. When he can't solve puzzles, as you know, he turns to the needle. Holmes is interested in the case, the problem, not Watson (despite Sherlock's oh-so-fashionable jokes about a homosexual relationship between them). He's interested in the task at hand. And so is his friend, Watson. That's what makes them friends. Friends, as C.S. Lewis points out, aren't looking at each other but looking together at something else.
This is the great failing, then, of Elementary. It insists on turning friends into lovers. You say, "That hasn't happened yet." Wait. You know where this is going. And where it's going will be its downfall.
*Gary D. Robinson is a preacher and writer in Xenia, OH. He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com
**This Review First Published 10/8/2012
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