Monday, October 8, 2012

The Sherlock Problem

So, today we’re going to talk about Sherlock and Elementary, and why making money isn’t a bad thing, and how you can’t call “dibs” on a literary classic.

Lots of people love Sherlock, Stephen Moffat’s modernized take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. They looooooooove it. They think, to paraphrase Miss Congeniality, it’s gorgeous, they want to date it, love it and marry it. And man, I know why. I’ve seen Sherlock, and that shit’s awesome. It’s funny, it’s clever, its leads have a hell of a lot of charisma, and it manages to (fairly) faithfully adapt the mysteries of Doyle’s stories while still keeping surprising you. What more could you want?

Well, less underhanded misogyny, for one thing. Less underhanded homophobia, too. More episodes, maybe; four and a half hours of television every two years isn’t a lot of time to spend with a show you love. For that matter, it would be nice to have a little more time to flesh out the characters. And you know, I love Doyle, but I know how his mysteries end by now, even in their funhouse-mirror Moffatized forms. Some completely new mysteries would be appreciated.

Enter CBS’s new crime procedural, Elementary, a modernized take on Sherlock Holmes, set in New York, with a female Watson, lots of character focus, and new mysteries every week.

Look, I’m not here to dis Sherlock. Like I said, I like Sherlock. But I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about how terrible Elementary is, and the stupid thing is that I’ve been hearing it from people who’ve never watched the show. The argument goes like this: “Elementary is just a rip-off of Sherlock. It’s just trying to cash in on its success. There’s no reason for it to exist, except to make money. It’s not bringing anything new to the table.”

So let’s take this apart.

  1. Elementary is just a rip-off of Sherlock.

    No, they’re both rip-offs (that is, adaptations) of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Yes, Elementary is a modernized version of Sherlock Holmes, like Sherlock is. But the shows have almost nothing in common other than that, unless it’s something taken from the original stories. Of course, to know that, you’d have to actually watch both shows. (See point 4.)
  2. Elementary is just trying to cash in on Sherlock’s success.

    Yeah, you’re probably right. Got a problem with that? (In other words, see point 3.)
  3. There’s no reason for Elementary to exist, except to make money.

    Do you have proof of that? Are you sure that creator Robert Doherty hasn’t been dying to have his own show for years? Are you sure he isn’t a huge fan of the original stories, or even of the BBC adaptation? Are you sure that this wasn’t a golden opportunity for him that he’d never get again? What about Johnny Lee Miller, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes? I’m sure he’s not excited to get to play an iconic literary figure, or anything. And Lucy Liu, who plays Watson, must be completely blasé about being one of the only women ever to get to play that iconic role.

    Then there’s the other thing. Maybe everybody involved does just want to make money. Maybe it’s rote to them. Maybe they’re all just hacks.

    Who the fuck cares? When I read a terrible book that someone has clearly poured their heart into, that doesn’t make it less terrible. It might make me more inclined to judge it nicely, but I’m not suddenly going to get more out of it, enjoy it more, learn more about myself and the world, because the author was in it for the art. On the flip side, just because a story is written by someone looking for a paycheck, that doesn’t mean it’s definitely bad. It doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, and it doesn’t mean (though I suppose it would make it less likely) that I can’t learn anything from it. The Avengers is a blockbuster sequel to a whole bunch of blockbuster movies based on bestselling comic books that have been rewritten a dozen times over in order to keep the story going and make more money, and it was pretty much the best movie released in 2012. The television show The Vampire Diaries is both an adaptation of a series of books and an attempt to cash in on the success of Twilight, and I dare you to find a television critic who thinks it should be taken off the air. (If you find one, let me know. I have some fighting words for them.)

    Do you know why (spoiler!) Sherlock Holmes falls to his “death” from Reichenbach Falls in the original stories? Because Arthur Conan Doyle was sick to death of writing about him! Do you know why he’s suddenly brought back to life? Because the money was too good for Conan Doyle to quit.

    So hear this, Sherlock fans: If artists never did anything just for the money, Sherlock would have stayed dead at the end of “The Final Problem.” Where would you and your Sherlock/John slash fic be then? (Okay, that was mean. Not all Sherlock fans are Sherlock/John slashers, and those who are have nothing to be ashamed of. But my point stands.)

    (By the way, one of the stories that was written by Conan Doyle during his “just for the money” phase was The Hound of the Baskervilles. So, you know, there’s that.)

  4. Elementary isn’t bringing anything new to the table.

    I’d like to reiterate that the people I’ve been hearing this argument from haven’t seen the show. They have reached their conclusion by watching trailers, which, as we all know, are extremely trustworthy indicators of a story’s content. So really, I could just say, “How do you know?” and leave it at that. But I’m not going to do that. Because I have seen Elementary, and – somewhat to my surprise – I like it. So what I’m going to do is talk about Elementary, about the things it does well, the things it does poorly, and – most importantly – the things it does differently.
So how about it? Let’s talk about Elementary.

Elementary tells the story of Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller), a brilliant consulting detective from London. Holmes has recently moved to New York City, after completing rehab for an uncontrollable addiction that he fell into after some unspecified incident involving a woman. His wealthy father allows him to live in a cushy New York brownstone, but only on the condition that he live with a “sober companion” for six weeks. This companion will accompany him at all times, easing his transition into sober life. The companion is Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), a former surgeon who is haunted by a patient whom she accidentally killed on the table. Together, they assist NYPD Captain Gregson and Detective Hill in solving complicated crimes.

I’ll start, in the interest of fairness, with the bad—or at least, with the not-as-good, since there’s very little that’s outright bad about the show. Elementary isn’t breaking any genres, here. It’s a crime procedural. It’s a good crime procedural, one that understands its genre and cares about its characters, but that’s still what it is. It’s not aiming to redefine Sherlock Holmes for you, or to redefine procedurals for you. It’s aiming, as far as I can see, to tell a good story well, and to explore some unexplored aspects of the psyches of two of literature’s great characters. The mysteries aren’t terribly plausible, but in this, at least, Elementary has a leg up on the other shows in its genre—Sherlock Holmes mysteries are supposed to be outré and complicated. What a shame it would be for a brilliant detective to solve a boring mystery. On the other hand, the mysteries also aren’t particularly hard for the viewer to solve, so if what you’re really here for is an ingenious puzzle plot (is that what you’re here for?) you’d be better served elsewhere. I hear Agatha Christie’s good, if you can find one you haven’t been spoiled for. (I joke. Of course I’ve read Agatha Christie.)

Enough with the bad-ish. On to the good!

I tend to judge Sherlock Holmes adaptations by their Watsons, and I think Elementary made several smart choices with theirs. The first was casting Lucy Liu. Miller and Liu have excellent – but Platonic – chemistry, and Liu is more than capable of portraying shades of characterization. There have only been two episodes so far, so some things are up in the air, but in Liu’s hands, Watson definitely has the potential to be a complex, interesting character.

But a well-acted, well-rounded Watson with good chemistry with Holmes is nothing new, is it? And we’re not aiming for good here, we’re aiming for new. So let’s talk about the new choices that Elementary has made with Watson.

Well, for one thing, they gave her a past. Watson has a tendency to turn into a cipher in Holmes adaptations – unsurprisingly, considering he’s kind of a cipher in the original. We meet his wife/wives (oh, the torture that is trying to tell Watson’s wives apart) and we vaguely know that he has a medical practice, but he doesn’t really get a background. He’s there to talk about Holmes. He doesn’t need a background.

Elementary’s Watson, though, has a history. She has parents—we hear about them and see their picture in the pilot episode—and an ex-boyfriend who is still a friend. She has a huge, haunting regret, in the form of a patient she let die. She has a life. She has a story, and some of it is completely unrelated to Sherlock Holmes. Now tell me: Is that true of Sherlock’s John Watson? (Okay, I’ll answer that one for you. It’s not true of Sherlock’s Watson. That is, in fact, the point of that version of Watson: Sherlock made his life better, and gave it purpose and meaning again after he lost all of that meaning upon coming back from the war, so he’s willing to trade everything else in his life in order to keep his relationship with Sherlock.)

The other new thing that Elementary did—and this one is really new, as opposed to “different from Sherlock”—is tethering Watson to Sherlock with a job. Sherlock Holmes is such an abrasive character, at least in most adaptations (he’s much less so in some of the original stories, although that aspect of his characterization hops around a lot) that one of the big questions that writers have to answer about Watson is why he stays with Sherlock at all. Elementary solved that one neatly, and it gives them room to play. In Elementary, Watson and Sherlock don’t have to like each other. They can fight. They can also talk to each other in ways that other Watsons and Sherlock’s can’t—there’s an element of the therapist/client relationship there, so they can get away with a little psychoanalyzing. The other big question Sherlock Holmes adapters have to answer is the question of why Sherlock latches on to Watson, when he has little use for most of the rest of the world. The “sober companion” thing takes care of that, as well.

Moving on from Watson—as much as any discussion of Sherlock Holmes can ever move on from Watson—to the other nice (and new!) things about Elementary. As you might imagine, it’s a much looser adaptation than usual; it’s somewhere in between House and Sherlock. Certainly, though, it’s closer in spirit to the original stories than the 2009 movie, much as I loved that movie (and its Watson!). The mysteries are entirely original, but they definitely retain a Holmesian flavor. (It’s hard to describe what about them makes them feel like Conan Doyle plots, but they do.)

But it’s not entirely loose. Elementary’s Holmes and Watson are recognizable as versions of the original characters. They even get some of the same moments that Holmes and Watson get in the original stories—the moments are just achieved very differently.

Take, for example, the “Watson’s phone” scene from Sherlock. On the off-chance that you’re not aware, Moffat adapted that scene almost verbatim from the Conan Doyle story "The Sign of Four.” The cleverness and newness in Moffat’s adaptation comes in how he reenacts the scene so closely in such a different setting. Where Moffat’s Holmes analyzed a phone, the original Holmes analyzed a pocket watch; where Moffat’s Holmes recognized that the former owner was an alcoholic by the scratches around the socket where the charger is plugged in, the original Holmes recognizes it by the scratches around the hole where a key would be inserted to wind the watch. (The pocket watch is a famous bit of Holmesiana—it makes an appearance in the 2009 movie, as well.)

Elementary doesn’t have an “item” the way that Sherlock does, and it certainly doesn’t quote Conan Doyle like Moffat does. But who cares about watches and phones? The heart of the scene is this: Sherlock deduces information about Watson from small details, providing both Watson and the reader with proof that he is a brilliant detective, and giving us some insight into Watson’s history.

The pilot of Elementary stretches that scene out into an entire episode. Holmes deduces from Watson’s hands (which smell of beeswax) that she was once a surgeon. He deduces from a photograph on Watson’s phone (and Google) that her parents are alive, and that her father cheated on her mother (but that her mother took him back). He deduces from a parking ticket that she has killed a patient on the table, and that that is why she is no longer a surgeon. (Fun deviation: he originally lies about that deduction, and says that she lost someone to addiction, and that’s why she stopped being a surgeon, to spare her feelings. It’s fun when Sherlock is willing to spare people’s feelings from time to time.)

See? Same idea, different execution. Very different execution, but still.

Or take Holmes’s dismissal of certain areas of learning. You Sherlock fans out there probably remember when John teased Sherlock for not knowing that the Earth orbits the Sun, and not the other way around? And then Sherlock said that he only has room for useful facts in his brain? Yeah, that’s a scene—again, almost verbatim—from the original stories. Moffat didn’t even have to change much.

Elementary has that scene. Well, okay, like the pocket watch scene, it really turns that scene into an entire episode. See, Sherlock is supposed to be attending AA meetings, but he finds the stories told there to be useless information, so he hypnotizes himself so that he doesn’t accidentally fill his brain up with pointless memories. When Watson complains, he describes his “attic theory” of memory (the memory is an attic filling up with useless junk), which is the same theory Sherlock and the original stories used. But Elementary’s Sherlock has taken the attic theory a step further. He won’t let himself play his beloved violin, because it might use up memory space. Watson points out, correctly, that that’s not the same kind of memory at all, and that you can’t just unremember how to play. But Sherlock ignores her, because the attic theory is really just an excuse to punish himself (and avoid listening to people’s uninteresting stories). He believes in it, of course, but it’s still an excuse. By the end of the episode, one of the AA stories turns out to hold the key to solving the mystery—Sherlock fans should recognize that narrative twist—and Sherlock takes up the violin.

One of the other complaints I’ve heard about Elementary is that it’s not really Sherlock Holmes—it’s just putting Sherlock Holmes’s name on an unrelated story with unrelated characters in order to draw viewers. So I guess I have to ask: What makes something really Sherlock Holmes? Is it the Victorian setting? No, because then Sherlock wouldn’t really be Sherlock Holmes. Is it the style of mystery? Can’t be; the 2009 movie’s mystery was completely off the rails of Conan Doyle’s style, and no one argued that wasn’t Sherlock Holmes. Is it the pocket watch, or the fact that Sherlock doesn’t know that the Earth goes around the sun? Is it the address of his apartment, 221b Baker St? Is it Watson’s gender? Is it the pipe and deerstalker? Is it Inspector Lestrade—has the good inspector been the heart of the series all along? (And then what of the stories he doesn’t appear in?!)

Or could it be that the moment you adapt a story, you’re blurring the lines of what the real story is? Could it possibly be that there’s no good way of delimiting what constitutes really Sherlock Holmes? Could it be that the characters’ personalities matter more than their verbal tics and costumes, and that relationships matter more than location?

Elementary has a brilliant, troubled, addicted, brusque Sherlock Holmes who solves mysteries by seeing the clues and making the deductions that others can’t. And it has a straight-man Watson, by turns irritated and enthralled by Sherlock, capable of insight into both Sherlock and the day’s mystery—though perhaps not as much insight as Sherlock. The characters feel both familiar and a little new, just the way they should.

I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t call squatter’s rights on Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock adapted Conan Doyle’s stories, and it’s awesome. But do we really think there’s nothing more to be done with the stories? Do we really think there’s no more room for telling the stories well, but differently?

Do we really have nothing left to learn from the world’s greatest detective?