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“Elementary” Dares to be Mediocre

This past May, Guinness World Records awarded our old friend Sherlock Holmes the world record for most portrayed literary human character on film and television based on their count of 254 appearances. If that award seems a little surprising, it’s because over his many appearances the character of Sherlock Holmes has been allowed to change and update. In order to succeed and stay relevant, Sherlock must keep with the times by adapting to new technologies even if he must endure a countless rehashing of the same familiar stories.  

This fall the newest Sherlock adaptation is CBS’s Elementary ,which sees our favorite British detective exploring the contemporary world of 2012. This Sherlock is different because he solves crimes in – gasp! – present-day New York City! And to show just how modern he is, this Sherlock uses Facebook to search for clues!  If CBS is really looking to create a cutting edge Holmes, they might start by recognizing that their own Sherlock is already trapped back in 2007 and this is only the pilot episode.

This time it’s Jonny Lee Miller picking up the deerstalker hat, Inverness cape, and pipe. Only since this adaptation is modern, he’s just going to wear lots of vests instead. In the pilot, Sherlock has just escaped from rehab and meets Dr. Joan Watson, his new sober living companion played by Lucy Liu. Liu turns Watson into a zombie character who acts painfully bland, practically to the point of bitterness: perhaps this air of boredom is just Liu’s disappointment that she can’t find another Charlie’s Angels movie in which to star?

 By the time Sherlock makes it to the crime scene of the victim of the week and finds several pieces of evidence that the entire NYPD has overlooked, enough of the expected Holmes tropes have been fulfilled to satisfy the casual viewer. Unfortunately, this is all within the first fifteen minutes and there’s still another half-hour of false arrests and suspect wrangling to suffer through.

CBS isn’t exactly known for earth-shattering programming. Sitcoms like Rules of Engagement and The Big Bang Theory are inoffensive and rely on their broad comedic appeal to get remarkably high ratings. Would there even be a network left if CBS executives ditched their reality standards like Big Brother and Survivor or cancelled every drama with CSI in its title? But Sherlock hits a new low by dumbing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters down to the rest of the network’s level of blandness.

Miller’s portrayal of Sherlock includes several everyman traits so that we can sympathize with and relate to Holmes. But Sherlock is supposed to be this brilliant, near-mythical mastermind who oozes insane knowledge about everything. In an era where anyone can become an instant genius in ten seconds by using Wikipedia, Holmes needs to be the man who wrote the page not the man reading from it. Similarly, Watson needs to react to this wild ride she has been invited to observe and Liu acts way too disinterested to ever draw out a real emotional response.

Of course, if you have also seen the BBC’s revolutionary Sherlock then you can understand part of this critic’s dissatisfaction. Benedict Cumberbatch is Sherlock in a way that is so novel and brilliant that BBC Legal has literally threatened to sue CBS if it looks like Miller and Elementary are borrowing too much from their British counterparts. It is hard to not view Cumberbatch as this century’s Sherlock – in the same way that Basil Rathbone will forever be identified with Sherlock last century- because Cumberbatch is able to so completely transform into that role. And having seen the National Theatre’s stellar production of Frankenstein in which Cumberbatch and Miller alternate playing Frankenstein and his monster, I know that Miller is capable of character brilliance on the same level.  He is not showing it here.

Elementary is predictable and it shouldn’t be. Watch, Moriarty will be introduced in the first season finale. Mycroft will show up sometime next season. And in a throwback to Moonlighting and every other show featuring a male and a female lead who need to work together to solve crimes ever, I predict that Holmes and Watson will sleep together by the end of season three. But, I hope I’m wrong. There are few things as sacred as the platonic Holmes-Watson bond unless you are watching Robert Downey, Jr.’s take on the character or reading slashfiction. Ultimately, every television show is based on some preceding series and there is nothing wrong with having two shows featuring the same lead character concurrently, if they bring something different to the mix. I would just rather spend nine hours watching six quality adventures from the BBC before I would ever watch thirteen adventures in mediocrity. Approximately twenty-seven minutes into the pilot for CBS’s Elementary, Sherlock Holmes looks toward the camera and mutters “It’s too simple. It’s too fast. Something’s off.” Case closed.



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