Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Elementary (Season One)

Elementary is an American crime drama and a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. It was originally intended to be an American remake of the BBC's Sherlock. The show airs on the channel CBS and was created by Robert Doherty. Elementary's Sherlock Holmes is a recovering heroin addict because of a dark incident that involved a mysterious woman. Sherlock is a former consulting detective to Scotland Yard but now lives in modern-day New York and in an expensive brownstone house that's owned by his wealthy father. To make sure that his son doesn't fall back on his old habits, Sherlock's father has also employed a former doctor called Joan Watson to be Sherlock's sober companion. Sherlock is now working as a consulting detective to the New York City police under the watchful eye of Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn). Joan soon finds herself assisting Sherlock in his cases.

I was very suspicious of Elementary when I first found out about it. A modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation coming out so soon after the BBC version?! It sounded like a cynical cash-in to me. When I found out that CBS originally wanted to remake the BBC's Sherlock before they decided to make "one of their own" I became even more suspicious of it. Then I found out that the show had changed John Watson's gender which gave me nauseating visions of Sherlock and Joan having a romance! Finally, the title of the show is lame and I wonder how many clueless viewers have been left confused by the show not being about a kindergarten class? :D

Now that I've seen the first season of Elementary I now realise that Elementary is a very different show to Sherlock. In fact it's so different to Sherlock in terms of its tone and style that I'm not even sure if it's fair to compare them. I'm going to make a real effort not to do very many Sherlock-Elementary comparisons in this post. Instead I'll attempt to rate Elementary as a Sherlock Holmes adaptation and as a TV show in its own right. In a nutshell: as a Sherlock Holmes adaptation I think Elementary is really bad and as a TV show in its own right I think it's only mediocre. I do understand that Elementary has quite a lot of fans so if you're an Elementary fan who happens to be reading this... I'm sorry, I just don't like the show. Now I'll explain why in some more depth so you might want to stop reading altogether.

To me, Elementary is a Sherlock Holmes adaptation in name only. There are Sherlock Holmes purists out there that think that any modern day update of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories at all is unacceptable whether it's by the BBC or the CBS. But Sherlock is still far more popular with the fandom because it's a show that's made by passionate Sherlock Holmes fans and you can tell. That's not the case with Elementary. I don't consider myself to be a purist these days but I have my limits. There wasn't a single episode in Elementary where I got the sense that I was watching a show made by passionate fans of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. References to the canon only show up occasionally. Only one of season one's 24 episodes is a direct adaptation of an Arthur Conan Doyle story (Dead Man's Switch is an adaptation of The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton). Also, Elementary fails to capture a hugely important aspect of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories: that they're not just mysteries. They're adventures! This is a hugely important aspect of the ACD stories that Elementary has completely missed. Instead Elementary is really more of an American procedural show in the style of The Mentalist. If I enjoyed procedurals then I suppose the tone of Elementary being so different to the tone of the ACD stories might not have bothered me so much, but since I've never been a fan of these shows this was a major deal breaker for me.

Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as John Joan Watson. Some readers might be interested to know that Jonny Lee Miller had prior connections to Sherlock Holmes even before he started playing the role. One of Miller's closest friends is Jude Law who plays the role of John Watson in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. Miller also acted alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle's stage production of Frankenstein. The pair of them alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature and won a joint Olivier Award. Jonny Lee Miller is a great actor. I love him in Emma (2009) and he was excellent in Frankenstein. I think he could have made for a great Sherlock Holmes with better material. Sadly the writing in Elementary doesn't help Miller at all and, to date, his Sherlock is the only one I've seen that I truly dislike. There are several reasons for this...
  • Elementary's Sherlock has a drug addiction. Sherlock Holmes isn't a drug addict in the ACD stories! He only indulges in opium on those occasions when he hasn't got a crime to solve. It's a means of assuaging his boredom. If Holmes has got an addiction to anything it's crime-solving, not drugs. But in Elementary Sherlock is a recovering heroin addict and it's all because he lost the love of his life who is... Irene Adler. *Groans* 
  • Elementary's Sherlock is far too emotional. The majority of the time it's actually Watson who comes across as the more calm and rational of the two!
  • Elementary's Sherlock isn't intelligent enough. The deductions that Sherlock makes in Elementary are the sort of things that all crime scene investigators are trained to pick up on e.g. in the Pilot episode when Sherlock says that one of the suspects can't be the killer because his feet are smaller than the footprints on the floor.
  • Elementary's Sherlock has sex with prostitutes. Did they really think a modern-day version of the character would do this?! 
  • Elementary's Sherlock Holmes comes across as a spoilt brat. Many Elementary fans believe that their Sherlock is "nicer" and "more likeable" than the BBC character but I completely disagree. Elementary's Sherlock complains about his father constantly - the man who gave him an expensive house to live in, paid for his rehab treatment, and provided him with a sober companion. He sleeps with prostitutes. He's sullen and doesn't seem to have the slightest sense of humour. He lacks charm and charisma. He isn't intense enough. He needs someone to look after him. When he's rude to people he's clearly being rude on purpose, and often without even the slightest provocation. The BBC's Sherlock can be rude at times but the majority of the time he doesn't seem to understand when he's being rude, and the BBC's Sherlock is kind and affectionate to the few people that he really, truly cares about.

Elementary has received quite a lot of attention because of its female Watson but it's not actually the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation to change the character's gender. CBS actually produced a made-for-TV film pilot way back in 1987 that featured a female Watson. Initially I was very much against the idea of a female Watson at first because it sounded gimmicky and I was afraid that they were going to turn Holmes and Watson into lovers. But in the end I was far more upset about the changes to Watson's backstory than the character's gender change. Like Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu does a competent job at playing her character - I think she gave the better performance of the two actually - but her character is just so different to the Watson of the canon. There are basically three intrinsic aspects of Watson's character that should remain intact in any adaptation of the story:
  1. He's a former soldier who fought in Afghanistan
  2. He's a doctor.
  3. He's a writer.
Elementary only just about manages to get one of these things right! Okay I suppose that they might be planning for Watson to take up writing later on but why get rid of the character's military background?! In the canon, Holmes can definitely take care of himself but Watson's military background was still useful to him. So why did Elementary choose to get rid of one of Watson's key skills?! We actually live in an age where women are serving in the military! It would have been awesome if they'd made Joan a badass ex-soldier! Instead they just give Watson a tragic, cliched past. In Elementary Watson is an ex-trauma surgeon who accidentally killed one of her patients and then chose to retire because of her guilt. Watson's uncomfortable reactions to dead bodies at crime scenes really bothered me as well. She was a doctor for crying out loud! Yes at one point Watson points out to Sherlock that seeing a dead body at a murder scene isn't the same as seeing a dead body at a hospital but still, she was a trauma surgeon. She would have seen victims of vicious attacks before. It doesn't make any sense for Watson to be so uncomfortable at murder scenes. I have the horrible feeling that Watson is only acting like this because the writers thought that's how any woman would react but imho it only made the character look weak. The writers also chose to up Watson's intelligence. Watson makes breakthroughs and often turns out to be in the right about the cases. Later on in the season Sherlock turns around and says to Watson "Hey Joan, you're pretty good at this detective stuff too! Now that you're no longer my sober companion why don't I train you up as a consulting detective?" But this isn't what Holmes and Watson's relationship is about! The reason why Watson isn't as intelligent as Holmes isn't because Watson is stupid, it's because Holmes is a genius! If the show wanted to have a female character, and for that character to be on more of an even footing with Sherlock intellectually, then they should have made Mycroft a woman. Finally, it also really bothered me that Watson wasn't English in this show. This is partly a personal reason - I am English - but I also feel that having Sherlock and Watson both English but living in a foreign city would have given the two of them something to bond over. In fact the tone of Elementary in general was just so... American. I guess this really shouldn't have been such a surprise to me! After all the show is made by Americans, is set in America, and has a mostly American cast. But since the ACD stories have such a British feel the American tone of Elementary felt really weird to me. Again, the show is really more of an American procedural show with the characters sharing the names of ACD characters.

One of the more controversial aspects of Elementary that I haven't even talked about yet was the portrayal of Irene Adler. She's played by Natalie Dormer. I love Dormer's performances in Game 
of Thrones
and Neverwhere. In Elementary Dormer does the best she can with what she's been given. I just hated what she'd been given! Most Sherlock Holmes adaptations really struggle with Irene's character. They tend to turn her into a criminal or make her Sherlock's love-interest. Even the Sherlock episode A Scandal in Belgravia didn't portray Irene all that well imo. Irene Adler is an important character in the canon. She outsmarted Sherlock and made him realise that he shouldn't dismiss women. Despite Irene's scandalous past she was a woman of integrity. She didn't pine after the King of Bohemia. She married a better man and moved on with her life. Elementary's Irene Adler is the worst portrayal I've seen so far because the writers chose to make her Sherlock's lover and to make her and Moriarty the same person! Apparently even many Elementary fans thought this was stupid! Now I actually kind of like the idea of a female Moriarty. The character is supposed to be an evil criminal mastermind after all so a female Moriarty kind of makes sense in a weird way. People tend to think of criminal masterminds as male. An evil female criminal mastermind would be able to fool people into thinking they were good and harmless much more easily. They would be really dangerous. So I'm fine with Moriarty being female. I'm just not fine with Moriarty having a sexual relationship with Sherlock and also being Irene Adler! This is completely ridiculous! Oh yeah, Moriarty ends up being defeated really easily in this show too. Joan uses a simple trick on her that Sherlock had already used on a different villain earlier in the season. So much for Moriarty being a criminal genius!

I can see how viewers who haven't read the ACD stories could enjoy Elementary and I can understand how procedural fans could enjoy it. I'm done with the show though. It didn't work for me at all. I had so many issues with it and I doubt I'll ever watch it again. I still think that there's plenty of room for other Sherlock Holmes adaptations though, adaptations which are different to Sherlock but still manage to stay true to the ACD stories. I would welcome a version with a genuinely well-done female Moriarty. An adaptation set during the Great Hiatus would be really interesting. Most of all, I think I would love an adaptation on Moriarty's life as a consulting criminal that also focuses on his relationship with Sebastian Moran :D Or how about a Mycroft Holmes spin-off?! The possibilities are endless...

Rating: 1/5
Age Certificate: 15


Mizzie-Me said...

Ooooooh lord, this show has given me so many "What the heck did I just watch???" moments that I've lost count. Your thoughts are so exactly similar to mine that it's actually quite scary :D I think you'll notice that when I get my own Elementary rant out on my blog. For example, what you said about Joan Watson – I, too, wasn't so much bothered by her gender change as all the... other changes. I just can't make sense of why a SURGEON who surely handled more or less critical patients all the time had to give up her job just because one guy died. And then she flinches at the sight of dead bodies, that's just... Argh. Yeah, my take on Elementary is definitely coming and it will be LONG.

samara said...

Thank you for another reason to put off watching this :P

Mònica said...

Oh my, that sounds... not so good. I don't understand *why* they had to change Watson to a woman, but they could have at least done something with it and not make him/her so generic. I hope they show doesn't try to pair Watson and Sherlock together. :P
Really? That's Mr. Knightley from the 2009 Emma? *looks closer at picture* Wow, I wouldn't be able to watch this seriously anyway, because he'd just be Mr. Knightley in my mind. :D
Well, on behalf of America, I apologize for our butchery of such a beloved part of British culture.

Hamlette said...

I know a Sherlock Holmes fan who quite likes Elementary, so on his recommendation, I watched an episode. I've been an Aidan Quinn fan for years, so I really wish I could like this show, but I haven't wanted to watch another ep at all. I do like procedurals (NCIS and Bones, and Castle is kind of a procedural), but nope, wasn't digging this.

Have you read Laurie R. King's Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series? The first one, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, is one of my top ten favorite books, and the series as a whole is very enjoyable. The best non-canon Holmes stories I've read. You can read my review here if you want to know more -- this comment is already long enough :-)

Hannah said...

Mizzie - Oh I am sooo looking forward to your Elementary review (and your Sherlock review!). This gif sums up my feelings:


Monica - Don't worry about it. You gave us Disney, rock music and superheroes. All is forgiven!

Hamlette - My brother's been a huge fan of 'Bones' for years and I have sat down and watched some episodes with him in the past. I find the episodes enjoyable enough while I watch them but only minutes after they've ended I'll be struggling to remember what the actual cases were about. That's my problem with procedurals really. I just don't find their stories very interesting. I think I might like 'Castle' though but mainly because of Nathan Fillion.

It pleases me that you're a Sherlock Holmes and a procedurals fan who still didn't enjoy 'Elementary'. Hehe!

No I still haven't got round to the Mary Russell books yet but I read your review of 'The Beekeeper's Apprentice' and I really enjoyed it :) This year I'm aiming to do a review of Basil the Great Mouse Detective. Next year I want to read all of the ACD stories and start watching the ITV Granada programme. I'm going to try to fit TBA into that year or in 2016. And yes I do plan quite far in advance! :D