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57 Channels (And Nothing On)

March 4, 2013

That might have been Bruce Springsteen’s problem back in 1992 but I’ve got the opposite issue these days – there’s just too much on the telly that I want to watch. These days many households – including my own – have the old Sky+ box (or On Demand, Tivo, DVR, whatever you want to call it). The best thing about this kind of device is the fact that you can’t miss anything, but I’d argue that their biggest drawback is that you can’t miss anything.  Before the advent of such convenient recording if I didn’t have time to watch something I simply didn’t (I could never be bothered fussing on with the video recorder, looking for a usable tape and so on) and just coped with it, but now everything is neatly recorded and stored for me by the wonders of Series Link and joins an ever-growing backlog of stuff to watch.  At the moment we’re trying to keep up with Arrow, Person of Interest, Grimm, Being Human, NCIS, Elementary, The Walking Dead and American Dad among others. And that’s before me wife tries to fit in Emmerdale and the new Dallas. It’s no wonder I end up fast-forwarding through all the intros and between rounds when I watch UFC events – I can usually squeeze a three-hour card into half that time by doing so. Ripper Street finished recently which eases the burden somewhat but I fear there are things like Dr Who, Game of Thrones and The Borgias lurking on the horizon, ready and waiting to make demands of my precious time. Staying abreast of all the shows I want to watch is increasingly feel like a second job.  I don’t want to spend all my time stuck in front of the TV as I’d rather be getting on with other stuff like spending time with my family, writing, painting models and so on, so I should probably start making some decisions about which shows to persevere with. If I do have a cull one of the shows that would be guaranteed to survive would be Elementary.

When I first heard an American network was making a Sherlock Holmes adaptation set in New York with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson respectively it would be fair to say I was a bit cynical.  OK, I was extremely cynical. If I recall correctly the show was announced just as the second series of BBC’s Sherlock was coming to an end. As a bit of a fan of the Conan Doyle stories I really enjoyed Sherlock. It was not only an intelligent, witty and well-acted drama series but it was also a loving tribute to the original stories, cleverly updating them for the modern age and featuring lots of little references for the die-hard fans to pick up on. Having watched that the prospect of watching a crass, Americanized version left me cold. So imagine my surprise when it turned out to be really quite good.

(Public Service Announcement – some minor spoilers for Elementary/Sherlock may follow.  You have been warned)

At it’s heart Elementary is basically a traditional American police procedural show. While Sherlock drew deeply on the Holmes canon for inspiration – such as the excellent episode ‘The Great Game’ which is built around a modern version of the classic story ‘The Adventure of the Bruce Partington-Plans‘ – Elementary sticks to the basics and uses little more than the characters themselves.  It does feature an interesting spin on Holme’s drug habits that were mentioned throughout the original stories however, and recently there have been references to Irene Adler and the mysterious ‘M’ (I wonder who that could be, eh?) so that might change as the season comes to an end. I’ve also heard a little bit of internet chatter that says classic villain Sebastian Moran will be making an appearance soon. But what little Holmesian influence the show has makes a big difference. Incorporating the famous (and occasional quite ludicrous) deductive reasoning powers of Holmes is far more entertaining than the dry, tedious forensics waffle inflicted upon us by shows like CSI and often NCIS. And what really sets the show apart for me is Miller’s excellent take on the role of the master detective.

It's like one of those mirror matches from Street Figher 2. Holmes Vs Holmes... FIGHT!

It’s like one of those mirror matches from Street Figher 2. Holmes Vs Holmes… FIGHT!

There was always going to be a lot of comparison of Jonny Lee Miller and Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch and their portrayals of Holmes.  Both shows portray Holmes as an almost autistic super genius who might be able to deduce highly detailed information from the way a fellow combs his hair but has no little idea how deal with people in everyday social situations. Personally I think I prefer Miller (though not by a great deal) here, as I find his scruffy, chaotic, energetic, recovering addict Holmes to be a little easier to like than  Cumberbatch’s cold, snooty, highly-strung and (arguably) more traditional Holmes, but I think both guys do a great job.  Interestingly at about the time Elementary was announced Miller and Cumberbatch were appearing in a theatrical production of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, with the interesting twist they alternated between playing the two lead roles each night – one night Miller would be the Monster and Cumberbatch would be Victor Frankenstein, and the next night they’d swap over.  According to the reviews I read Miller was far and away the better Monster and Cumberbatch was clearly the better Frankenstein.  Based on their respective portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, this really doesn’t surprise me one bit. 

Moving on to Holmes’s sidekick, I found the idea of having a female Watson in Elementary to be an intriguing one. A notable feature of the original short stories is that Watson tends to be (if we’re honest) really quite useless.  He rarely achieves anything of any worth or manages to answer any of the queries Holmes puts to him. In ‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client’ Watson is charged with becoming an expert in Chinese pottery in order carry out a sting operation on the devious Baron Gruner. When I was reading this story for the first time I thought ‘at last, it’s time for Watson to take centre stage and save the day!’ Unfortunately Watson’s subterfuge lasts about ten seconds before he balls it all up. Watson as played by Martin Freeman in Sherlock is not quite as bad as the original but he’s still portrayed as a bit hapless.  The sequences in the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ themed episode from Sherlock’s second season sees poor old Watson comically chasing Doggers across the moors and being used by Holmes as an unwitting guinea pig for a psychotropic drug. The female addiction counselor version of Watson in Elementary is somewhat different.  While she’s not on Holmes’s intellectual level she plays much more of an active role in his investigations, utilizing her medical knowledge or people skills to get some palpable results occasionally. I think this makes a pleasant change to the status quo as it adds a little bit more to the dynamic while still allowing Holmes to be the star.  As far as I can see it there are three reasons possible reasons the programme makers took this route –

1. They weren’t particularly interested in being faithful to the source material and automatically went with a more modern partner/sidekick relationship.

2. They thought a more active and involved Watson would be more interesting, meaning the show was less reliant on Miller as Holmes to carry it along.

3. They had Lucy Liu interested in the show and wanted to include her in a main role as she’s a decent draw, but once they cast her as Watson they didn’t want to go down the bumbling sidekick route in case it prompted accusations of sexism.

Whichever it was, I quite like the outcome. I do have my fingers crossed however that the writers resist trying work any kind of romance between the two leads into the show.  Not only would this really screw up the entertaining relationship the characters currently have, the thought of Holmes getting down and nasty with Dr Watson is a bit too surreal for me to handle if I’m honest.  

There have been a couple of weak episodes so far but that’s always a problem with the 22-24 episode season format as there’ll always be a couple of fillers in there. Even the weaker ones are entertaining to some extent though if only because you get to play along and try and work out the mystery before Holmes gets there.  Sometimes it’s a bit obvious, but there have also been some cunning little twists in there as well.  All in all it’s better than a lot of other stuff on telly at the moment and certainly worth checking out. Anyway, I can’t sit around here writing all day – I’d best get back to the Sky + and get some more of my episode backlog watched.  I think I might pick up the last episode of The Walking Dead first. I could do with chewing my fingernails off and feeling tense and scared, and there’s no better show for giving your emotions a good kicking than Walking Dead. Or maybe I’ll just go with a bit of poorly acted but entertaining vigilante action with Arrow. Either way I really don’t feel the need to copy Mr Springsteen’s tribute to Elvis and put my TV out of it’s misery with a .44 Magnum just yet.

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From → Musings

2 Comments
  1. Great review. I was surprised how much I liked Elementary, but I’ve never been a big Sherlock Holmes fan. I started watching because CSI, NCIS, Mentalist, and their ilk had bored me to the point where I was figuring stuff out too early. I was expecting the same from Elementary and was really surprised that I can’t always figure things out before the 30-minute mark. I’m still at odds with the CSI fans of the household, but I think I’m wearing them down on this one.

  2. It’s a nice change that not everything needs to be solved in a lab or by an autopsy. If you haven’t seen Sherlock I’d recommend you give it a go. There’s only six episodes thus far and I don’t think a grounding in Holmes is essential to enjoy it.

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