With the advent of Elementary, the American television show that is oh-dear-me-no-not-at-all a ripoff of the BBC’s Sherlock, the current Holmes craze can be seen to have reached what is probably going to be its tipping point. We’ve had so much Holmes lately that it’s hard to see how anything more can be wrung out of the poor man without sending him into space or switching his gender, both of which have already been done. In a strange but somehow logical counterpoint to the superheroes who have also ruled the last decade, Holmes has provided us with a sort of intellectual superherodom, with Watson tagging along as the audience surrogate. One pleasing element of the recent rerise of Holmes is, in fact, the prominence of the intelligent Watson figure: not the bumbling moron of earlier portrayals, but still a nice counterpoint to Holmes and his superbrain.
I’ve watched the first two episodes of Elementary and am slowly forming an impression of the show. Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Sherlock and am not entirely convinced that Elementary is necessary, though not, perhaps, for the reasons you might think. Sherlock is a great show, but it’s not the only possible approach to a modernised Holmes. I would actually argue that there’s already been a successful American modernised Holmes: Dr. Gregory House of House, M.D. That show, which ended last spring, never hid its debt to Conan Doyle’s character. Sure, the show got steadily worse as the seasons progressed, but early on, it was a brilliantly incisive take on Holmes, an exploration of the detective as outsider. The show also picked up towards the end of its run when it began focussing more intensely on the relationship between House and Wilson, the Holmes and Watson stand-ins. The cleverness of House as a Holmes adaptation lay not in its exact parroting of the Holmes stories but in its work with character, which was almost fan-fictiony (in a good way); the writers reimagined Holmes as an obnoxious American doctor and set him loose on the world
Sherlock‘s approach is entirely different but just as clever. Like House, it does plenty of character work, but it is also about the mythology of Holmes. Within the world of the show, we see an echo of the process that happened in the real world in Conan Doyle’s day. The voracious readers of Holmes’s adventures in The Strand appear in the show as the voracious readers of John Watson’s blog; the problematic iconography of Holmes’s deerstalker and Inverness cape, which originated in an artist’s illustration rather than in the text of any of the stories, turns up in the show when Sherlock tries to hide his face behind a deerstalker that doesn’t even belong to him, gets his picture in the papers, and is known forever afterwards as favouring that particular hat. The show deals with Holmes’s real-world fame by giving his fictional counterpart a fictional variant of it. In fact, fans of the show have taken it further in the “I believe in Sherlock Holmes” campaign (I wouldn’t advise clicking on the link unless you’ve watched to the end of Season 2, but the article does make interesting reading).
I say all this in token of my acknowledgement that there is more than one viable approach to a twenty-first-century Holmes. I enjoy both House and Sherlock. They are doing different things, and they are doing them well. Elementary, on the other hand, has problems of its own.
It doesn’t go the same route as Sherlock, likely deliberately; it is very much not about the mythology. So far, the show has been focussing on the relationship between recovering drug addict Sherlock Holmes and “sober companion” Joan Watson, who has her own dark past she is trying to escape. A marked difference between Sherlock and Elementary lies in the Watsons. Sherlock‘s John is damaged and, at first, in denial about the fact that he still craves the danger and excitement of war. His growing but difficult friendship with Sherlock forms the emotional core of the series. Elementary‘s Joan seems mostly to have informed damage; the characters keep mentioning that she’s kind of screwed up, but all we see is her dealing fairly competently with a rather aggravating person. The show is pretty clearly going to usher her into bed with Sherlock at some point, so obviously, it needs to start off with her unable to stand him. Startlingly for a Watson, her interference in the cases appears so out of place that it seems wrong that the other characters don’t comment. Again, the characters keep telling us that her presence is necessary, but we don’t see her being necessary.
None of this, however, is the real problem with the show. The real problem is that we’ve seen everything here before.
It’s likely more than a bit ironic that the latest Sherlock Holmes adaptation seems like a ripoff not of Sherlock but of House, Monk, Bones, Lie to Me, The Finder, The Glades, Numb3rs, The Mentalist, and even Psych, which is a parody of most of the above. All the works on that list owe something to Holmes, even though only House acknowledges it overtly. We’ve had Holmes as a misanthropic doctor, a genius with severe OCD, an emotionally stunted forensic anthropologist, an abrasive British expert on micro-expressions, a brain-damaged former soldier, a police officer capable of driving his partner to murder, a math prodigy, a former fake psychic, and a current fake psychic. All of these characters are hyper-observant, hyper-intelligent, and not very good at playing by society’s rules.
What the producers of Elementary appear to have done is to create yet another of these socially dysfunctional geniuses and happen to name him Holmes. The only elements I’ve noticed so far that have been taken directly from the stories are Holmes’s violin, his drug addiction, and his belief, stated in Episode 2, that his brain contains a finite amount of space and must not become cluttered with trivialities. Otherwise, there seems no reason that the characters should be called Holmes and Watson. If they were named Dixon and Jones, the show would seem just another in a long line of procedurals, most of them featuring a detective and his or her more ordinary sidekick. Not even the “radical” move of making Watson female is an innovation. Sorry, guys, but Mulder and Scully did it first and best, with Scully adding some sober common sense to Mulder’s brilliant maverick behaviour. In the animated 1999-2000 TV series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, Holmes gets a female Lestrade and a robot Watson, with the female Lestrade acting as the audience-identification character. So much of what Elementary is doing has already been done that it seems derivative not of the original stories but of the many, many knock-offs.
I’m going to continue to give it a chance; I do have a soft spot for procedurals. However, I think it may be time for the world to take a deep breath, step back a bit, and leave us to develop the incarnations of Holmes we already have. I’m not sure it’s an accident that three versions of “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” the Holmes story in which the great detective dies, appeared between December of 2011 and May of 2012. Holmes did have more adventures after fan pressure forced Conan Doyle to bring him back to life, but they were never quite as good as the early ones.