Saturday, 18 May 2013

Sherlock versus Elementary

I'm aware that the two television shows I've chosen to write about on my very second post do not match the primary aim and scope of this blog. And to add insult to serious injury, one of them is an American show. However, a few nights ago, I watched Jonny Lee Miller as George Knightley in the 2009 BBC adaptation of Emma. I was absolutely bowled over by him, and further research informed me that he was playing Sherlock Holmes in an American adaptation of the Conan Doyle character. Having been a stupendous fan of the character for sixteen years now, and the promise of watching an actor whose work I recently liked, proved too alluring for me to overlook. Hence I procured Elementary and watched the twenty four episodes in two days flat, finishing at exactly the same time as the show aired its season finale in the US. Being a fan of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock, I found it rather pertinent to question and compare aspects of the two series (especially Elementary, which aired three years later than its British counterpart). Hence this post.

At the very outset I think I should declare that of all the Sherlock Holmes adaptations on screen (and trust me, I've seen most of them), I find Jeremy Brett's portrayal of the detective (from 1984--1994) the most dazzling. Although I intend to devote a separate, detailed post to that one, I might at times refer to it here just to show what sheer brilliance is, and how some recent makers have missed it.


Interestingly, in many televised versions of Sherlock Holmes, the detective has been adapted to contemporary times. Basil Rathbone fights the Nazis in his incarnation of the detective during the forties; Moffat and Gatiss expose him to 21st century London, equipping him with all the modern gadgets; while in Elementary, Sherlock Holmes has been shipped to America, and he is identified first as an addict and then as a consultant detective. In fact Sherlock Holmes's addiction is a predominant strain in Elementary, and apparently the only way through which his paths cross with (Dr.) Watson. One cannot help but wonder that since the makers of Elementary obviously wanted to make a series on an ex-junkie and his female assistant, why didn't they just go ahead and do it? Why give the name of Sherlock Holmes and Watson to its protagonists, and include numerous intertextualities, not before diluting the references and making them seem utterly pointless?

NYPD, 11th Precinct

An interesting aspect of this series that struck me was Inspector Gregson of NYPD, 11th precinct. In Conan Doyle's books, Gregson was a Scotland Yard detective, smarter than Lestrade, and hence preferred more by Sherlock. However, in The Adventure of the Red Circle, we find an American detective Mr. Leverton from the Pinkerton Agency coming to England in pursuit of a notorious American-Italian criminal. It would have been more symmetrical for the sake of intertextuality for the makers of Elementary to bring Leverton into modern day America as an NYPD detective.
Anyway, Sherlock assists the NYPD, and of course he's not paid for it, because he's only a "consultant". Interestingly enough however, the NYPD seem to need him for every case, from simple to bizarre homicides, to catching a pair of thieving prostitutes, to finding out who makes an attempt at Gregson's assistant, Detective Bell's life. The sequence of events through the 24 episodes of Elementary is so consistent that a viewer can almost trace that every case follows one another in extremely close proximity. Any one would conclude that this particular police department is incapable of solving any case on its own!

In Sherlock, the relationship between our eponymous detective and Scotland Yard is much more complex. Apart from Lestrade, the others distinctively hate him, while the former has a begrudging mix of awe, respect, and irritation for him. A Study in Pink would at once reveal that unlike NYPD, who text him right from the crime scene, their British counterpart avoid involving Sherlock as long as it's necessary. Through all the episodes of Elementary, Sherlock introduces himself as working/consulting with NYPD, which frankly I find blasphemous.

New York versus London

Any avid reader of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes would agree that Victorian London assumes a character of its own in the books. In Sherlock too, we are given a clear glimpse of his eponymous knowledge of the bylanes, alleys, and shortcuts of the city. In the last double episode of Elementary, as Sherlock cruises Irene through the underground tunnels of Camden to reveal tablets from Roman times, we are reminded again of his vast knowledge of his own city. However this series fails to capture New York at all, and that is indeed a disappointment. Sherlock's famous homeless network in Victorian London is retained in his 21st century British incarnation. However, the Sherlock Holmes who has moved to America has failed to exploit the benefits of the homeless network of New York. Although he does employ the assistance of one such miscreant in locating the whereabouts of the serial killer M, that association is purely by chance, as the boy's tacit narration to Watson would reveal.


My first tryst with Moriarty onscreen was with Eric Porter. He was posh; he was grey-haired; he was steely-eyed; and having read every thing about him, I knew what he was capable of. In fact that image from the 1984 series of Jeremy Brett and Eric Porter hurtling down the Reichenbach Falls had haunted me for days. However, that was nothing compared to the fright Andrew Scott gave me as Jim Moriarty in Sherlock. That is how a contemporary Moriarty should be: properly frightening. On the other hand, one must admit, that the makers of Elementary were trying something novel with the concept of evil and Moriarty when they merged Moriarty with Irene Adler. After my first bout of laughter, I was merely curious to see how they would sort this mess. They didn't make a very good job of it.

Dr. Watson

In all the adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, not even one toyed with the idea of making Dr. Watson as female. Probably knowing Sherlock Holmes's misogynist attitude, they didn't think it would be feasible to make his associate a woman. Being a feminist, I would like to applaud Elementary for this novel idea, had it not been for Lucy Liu. I'm afraid she was the only element in a rather decent series which made me physically revolt against it. As if the nightmare called Charlie's Angels  wasn't enough, we might now have to suffer through a ridiculous sexual encounter between Holmes and a female Watson in an American version in the near future. I could almost remember a Brett-esque Holmes saying (in The Adventure of the Second Stain, 1904), "Now, Watson, the female sex is your department", and then nearly a hundred and eight years later, a bunch of writers taking the words too literally.
As if this was not enough, we are subjected to the zero acting capacities of the actrice. Through each episode I have found the existence of Joan Watson so disturbing, and I have so obsessively picked on her several glaring and atrocious faults, that writing this down in a calm state of mind won't be easy. Beside the sheer brilliance of Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock, it is indeed an insult to the faculties to watch Lucy Liu's pasty, expressionless Watson. In every fraction of a second you simultaneously experience climax and denouement, as your eyes flit from Sherlock to Watson.
Joan Watson is Sherlock's "sober companion" -- a profession about which I had no idea. Her explanation with a dead pan expression provided my answer: she is supposed to see that Sherlock doesn't have a relapse. But why does the importance of her profession keep her from showing the slightest signs of animation is something which I fail to understand. I constantly get flashbacks of Martin Freeman's incredulity on first discovering that Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is a "consultant detective". His restrained excitement in a crime scene is palpable. The masterstroke comes with Sherlock hinting that Watson actually misses the action (he was an army doctor in Afganisthan, very much like his literary counterpart). Joan Watson, on the other hand, is not wide-eyed by Sherlock's unusual profession and capabilities. It seems as if it is her wont to walk into a gruesome crime scene every day and find an unusual specialist making exact deductions within seconds. She also doesn't bat an eyelid when she ventures to inquire about Sherlock's past. She shows no signs of ecstasy when Sherlock decided to turn her into his (heftily paid apprentice), and similarly shows no sign of distress during Sherlock's particularly darkest moments. Even if she feels anger, she can't show it. When she moves on from being an informal associate to apprentice to partner, she is often nudged by (the extremely kind) Sherlock to make deductions. Joan Watson makes it with a dead pan expression. On deducing that the drycleaners in their neighbourhood are actually smugglers, I imagined how Martin Freeman's Watson would burst into the room to declare his success to Sherlock. Lucy Liu of course, makes an extremely poor imitation of happiness at her own success.
The greatest discrepancy in the script is Sherlock's stultifying respect for Watson. I am struggling to understand if that is because of her mute presence beside him, or observations made in a flat voice not louder than a whisper, or her failing to show any animation. Since she doesn't have any other traits to her character, it must be one of these.
If it was just another mediocre American crime drama, one wouldn't really mind these glaring faults. It is simply because Jonny Lee Miller is so brilliant and so complete in his portrayal of Holmes, that Watson's extremely poor performance stands out distinctly and disturbingly in the frame. The brilliant Victoria Coren in The Guardian's Observer, gives her eloquent voice to this outrage, and I think it makes up for the ultimate read on Joan Watson.

Sherlock Holmes

I think it would be criminal for any one to even begin to attempt to compare Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes. They are both such talented actors, their interpretation of the character are two works of art, and they need to be marvelled at separately.
Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock fits the classical model of the character more perfectly, interspersed with more rudeness; and his typical character traits have been intensified. That is understandable for the twentieth century.
Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock is more human than Conan Doyle had first portrayed him to be. He is wasted of course in the mediocre cases of New York. None of the cases of Elementary are baffling enough to make one recognise the sheer ingenuity of Sherlock's faculties. He was in love with Irene Adler in London, and on her death, he descends into depression and drug addiction, and moves to America. After his decision to quit, and on going into rehab, his rich father engages the services of a sober companion for six weeks to prevent him from going into relapse. He lives in his father's slightly dilapidated and messy mansion in Brooklyn, and informs that this is one of the latter's five properties in New York City. He doesn't share a fulfilling relationship with his father, having been packed into a boarding school when he was very young, and where adjusting to a new set of rules wasn't easy. He claims that his father has never been there for him since, and has engaged Joan Watson (without ever meeting her) out of a sense of obligation towards his son who seemed to be sinking too low. He often engages prostitutes, admitting that although he doesn't care too much for women, his bodily needs require occasional addressing. He is not as misogynistic as BBC's Sherlock, and seems to have immense respect for Joan Watson. When her six week term is nearly over, Sherlock plans ways and means to make her stay. On learning that she stayed on her own accord, he offers her a weekly stipend equaling the amount his father paid her, and trains her to be an apprentice. Especially since then, he continually nudges her to make deductions at crimes scenes and of possible suspects, and makes her set on her own to follow a trail.
However, Elementary's Sherlock's obsession with justice is very baffling. He is more intent on bringing an errant into justice than for the thrill of solving a case. This I feel is a gross error of misunderstanding on the writers' part. Sherlock Holmes doesn't care for the law, he declares (in The Blue Carbuncle) that he is not here to make right the wrong by the police. But in Elementary, apart from his one-time decision to torture and murder M (because he thinks he's killed Irene), Sherlock never does any thing else without overtly involving the NYPD. On learning about Moriarty's hand in killing Irene, he promptly decides not to avenge himself, because this time he has Watson with him, and hence a reason to look forward to life and future partnership.
Another aspect of Sherlock that I missed in this series is his ingenious capacity for disguise. Although in the last few minutes of the last episode he does fake an overdose, disguise is an expertise of Sherlock where much can be explored.
When Sherlock discovers that Irene is alive, he breaks down. This would of course be unthinkable for the literary or the BBC Sherlock. But after twenty one episodes with Jonny Lee Miller, one can't feel surprised by this -- his intensity affects the viewers very deeply too.
But perhaps the most important reason why I liked Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock is because he shows how vulnerable he is. He makes several mistakes with his deductions, goes in circles, is defeated by his intense emotions, is passionate, yet rude, grounded, ever-so-slightly vain, extremely eloquent, humourous, saucy, sarcastic (none of which is understood by Joan Watson of course), and erudite. He always furrows his brows when deeply in thought, and routinely cleans the fridge in exchange for other housekeeping duties. He talks about his cases (amusingly The Crooked Man and The Blue Carbuncle) in the drug recovery meetings to life up the grim mood; otherwise he never speaks or listens to anything in these meetings at all. He doesn't want his cranium to be stuffed with unimportant information, knowing that it's capacity is only finite.


It is without dispute that in matter of content and in most of the casting, BBC's Sherlock far excels its American counterpart. However both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller undisputedly share the vistas of excellence through their individual brilliant interpretation of the same character. It's only a pity that the latter wallows his talent in an extremely mediocre production.

I shudder to think what these two actors brought to stage together in the 2011 play Frankenstein, where they alternately played both the roles of Viktor Frankenstein and the Monster.


  1. Having read your post, I can't understand what Elementary has to do with Sherlock Holmes. Like you said, the writers either do not understand Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing or they just think that the American audience wouldn't care too much.
    By the way, I love the Brief Encounter cover picture. :)

    1. I'm sure it's both. What I concluded about the series, was that the protagonist is a very smart detective whose name just happens to be Sherlock Holmes.
      And thank you. I couldn't think of any other cover picture save this particular one from 'Brief Encounter'. :-) The background picture is from 'I Know Where I'm Going'. Have you seen that?

  2. No, I haven't seen that movie. Added it to my mental to-do list. :-)