First Impressions: Elementary
By the aloof, yet wonderful, Hedge
As an English teacher, I’m a huge fan of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: the intrigue, the clever plot twists, the depth of character – quite uncommon amongst shorter works of fiction. As a nerd, I’m a huge fan of the BBCs Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson: the portrayal of Holmes as a strange, antisocial weirdo with a ridiculous intellect and a collection of symptoms that make for a convincing diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome and Watson as his much more functioning, and incredibly tolerant best friend and companion was a truly inspired piece of dramatic adaptation.
As a human being, and a consumer of a fair amount of American television I am not, I repeat not, a fan of Elementary.
Beginning this week on CBS, Elementary features Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant, misunderstood drug addict fresh out of rehab and ready to resume his work as a consulting detective for the NYPD. Joining him is Dr Joan Watson, a disgraced surgeon played by Lucy Liu. Neither very convincingly.
Holmes is self confident to the point of arrogance and socially inept to the point where I’m thoroughly convinced he was raised in a cupboard. It’s the only way somebody that irritating could have survived as long as he has. He’s not just clever, in this series; he borders on prescient. He discovers evidence with the calm, monotonous demeanour of a serial killing android. The volume of shards in a glass leads him directly to the discovery of a second base beneath the fridge, he is able to detect a virtually imperceptible lean to a room just by walking on the floor and he knows Watson used to be a surgeon because she smells faintly of beeswax, and “many surgeons, as you know, use a beeswax cream to protect their hands from the dehydrating effects of repeated washings”.
Oh and he’s writing a book. In his mind. Would you like to hear the last few paragraphs of Chapter 19? No. Me either, because it’s irrelevant pomp designed to make him seem aloof yet wonderful for the sake of being aloof yet wonderful and not to add any character to this series.
Watson is… well she’s kind of bland, to be honest. She doesn’t do much in the episode besides follow him around, offering little in the way of character or emotion. She does point out a few medical things throughout the episode but it all seems a token gesture. She stands up to him when he’s being a jerk (because he’s aloof yet wonderful) to a rape victim and she is the court-mandated human side of his personality.
Mostly, I just don’t buy Lucy Liu as a doctor. Not because she’s Asian, I know several Asian doctors. Not because she’s a woman, or attractive because I know more than one attractive and female doctor personally. Mostly it’s because she’s Lucy Fucking Liu and I don’t particularly think she can act.
She was good in that episode of Futurama, I guess.
It’s all just so fucking mediocre. Despite the insistence of CBS prior to the series premiere that the series was completely unrelated to, not inspired by and totally different from the BBC series that just happened to air in recent years the entire thing reeks of carbon paper. From the way Holmes carries himself throughout the episode, to the forced awkwardness between Holmes and Watson, to the relationship Holmes has with the other crime scene detectives.
It couldn’t be more of a rip-off of Sherlock if it was trying. Which actually I think it is trying, and not doing a very good job at.
Cumberbatch’s Holmes is arrogant, aloof, bitter, angry, gleeful and meticulous. He’s a firecracker.
Miller’s Holmes is a fact spewing machine who offends everybody because the writers think it’s cool to be aloof yet wonderful. There’s no deduction here, it’s just leaps of exposition and even when Miller is emoting, there’s no emotion. He’s an android. He’s Data without the quirky charm.
Freeman’s Watson is desperate, clever, witty, snappy and fierce. He’s a war hero, a fallen soldier and a man who struggles with his past.
Liu’s Watson is furniture for Johnny Lee Miller to talk at and who occasionally fills the role of ‘speak medical things lady’ or ‘I like baseball, see how “everyman” I am’.
This is Law And Order: Irritating Jerk Squad. It’s NCIS: Holmes. It’s CSI: Let’s Do Everything Steven Moffat Did Just Not Very Well. It’s a way to cash in on the current nerd-obsession with Sherlock Holmes without understanding, nor very competently replicating the things that make Sherlock so easy to fawn over.
The target audience for Elementary is pretty clear; it’s Sherlock for people who either won’t watch ‘foreign’ shows or who tried and just don’t get it and as a less-clever version of a really clever show, it’s fine or whatever. Overall though and despite the claims otherwise, this is another disappointing US version of an excellent UK series like The Inbetweeners and Life On Mars (amongst others) before it.
Watch it if you’re desperate. Or just watch Sherlock. It’s better in pretty much every way.
You can harass the author of this post via Twitter: @CAricHanley
It just seems unfair. America has been producing Holmes-derivative work for ages. House and Monk are some of the most recent examples, yet for some reason, I keep reading about how Elementary is ripping off BBC’s Sherlock specifically, with very few people claiming they are ripping off the books. That is, unless their is an interview where the creators of this show have noted Moffat as a specific source of inspiration that I am not aware of.
Elementary is seen as copying Sherlock because it’s exactly mimicking the tone, delivery and concept of the series. It’s not a reproduction of the novels or short stories; it’s CSI with a lead who happens to be named Sherlock Holmes, as played by Johnny Lee Millar trying really hard to play the character exactly like Benedict Cumberbatch does. The character of Holmes in this has far less in common with the Conan Doyle version than with the Moffat version.
So the problem isn’t that it’s a Holmes derivative; pretty much all police procedurals are Holmes derivatives from Law and Order to Castle. The problem is that they’ve gone out of their way to claim that this isn’t a copy of, or even influenced by, the BBC series yet the delivery, both in terms of style and the character of Holmes himself is identical down to the poor social skills (not part of the original novel character), the almost ridiculous intellect (not part of the original character, who was intelligent but not some bizarre savant as he has being portrayed in these two series) and his relationships with the other cast.
They aren’t doing anything new here. They’re cashing in on the popularity of Sherlock Holmes by doing everything the BBC is doing, only not as well and while simultaneously acting like they are doing something completely fresh.
I can’t judge the show, haven’t even seen it yet. But I already suspect that probably 95% of the BBC Holmes fans hate it… I guess I should read a review by someone who doesn’t know the BBC version and thus doesn’t feel the need to compare them…
I didn’t “feel the need” to compare them because I like the BBC series.
They’re two contemporary series based on the same character and one came first, thus making it the benchmark; any reviewer who doesn’t judge Elementary by what Sherlock has already done, isn’t doing their job.
Put it this way; if Elementary had come first, I would be judging Sherlock based on what Johnny Lee Millar had done with the character and the Brits would still be coming out on top because (as I said in my review) Miller just isn’t putting any emotion into the role. He’s a fact spewing machine. He’s just forwarding the plot. There’s no character there. The vast majority of my dislike of this isn’t that it’s copying the BBC series, it’s that it’s doing such a poor job of making a nearly identical production.
Case in point, I prefer the US Being Human to the UK one because of the higher production values and clearer narrative direction. The first isn’t always better. Just, in this case, it is.
Sorry, but I disagree. It’s just two different approaches. A comparison is not necessarily needed. Of course, it’s okay to do it. But it’s also okay to not take Sherlock into account.
I nevertheless respect your opinion. I wouldn’t read your reviews if I didn’t. 😉
Comparing them may not be needed, but it’s what most people looking for reviews will want to hear.
Well, since network TV is not at all the same as cable TV, and it is not likely that very many Americans have seen “Sherlock Holmes” on BBC America, it makes sense to copy something that is successful here in the U.S. since we do it to make money; success begets success. The show is still good, but I agree C. Aric Hanley; it doesn’t resemble the books much at all. I tend to watch TV on my lunch breaks at DISH, using the Dish Online website. I was glad when I saw that the “Elementary” pilot was on there, because I heard about it and wanted to see it, only I don’t have time at home. Now that I watch TV at work, my lunch has become a great time to relax and get away from the pressure.