We seem to be in the midst of a Sherlock Holmes revival.
In recent years we’ve had two Holmes movies, there’s a third one currently in production and the BBC has produced Sherlock, a wonderful miniseries that takes place in present-day England. To this list we can now add Elementary, a new American series that reimagines Sherlock Holmes as a procedural crime drama.
This approach has some successes, but unfortunately it lacks the charm that characterises both the BBC’s take and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.
In this version, Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a British expatriate and recovering heroin addict living in present-day New York. He lives with his “sober companion”, Dr Watson, who in this adaptation is a woman (Lucy Liu). Holmes spends most of his time solving cases for the New York city police department and has the support of a sympathetic police captain (Aidan Quinn). This is initially viewed by Watson as a distraction from the more important task of staying on the wagon, but she soon realises the value of Holmes’s detective work and begins to develop crime-solving skills of her own.
Miller is an engaging actor with a background in Broadway and in this role he has the additional advantage of being British in real life. His depiction of Holmes is appropriately charismatic and eccentric, although he is occasionally let down by too-generic scriptwriting. As for Liu, she is a relatable sidekick and it is refreshing to see her cast in a role other than a femme fatale.
The decision to cast her in the role of Watson is the show’s most genuinely innovative move and it works well. In other respects, however, the series is very conventional. The cases are standard television fare. Every episode begins with a murder and Holmes is called in to solve the case. He annoys the police by informing them that their interpretation of events is wrong, develops his own theory and appears to catch the bad guy. Then he annoys the police again by deciding that his own theory was wrong, before catching the real murderer. Rinse and repeat.
Elementary inevitably draws comparisons with the BBC’s Sherlock. The two shows are running concurrently and they are too similar to avoid evoking comparison. Unfortunately, the comparison is not a flattering one for Elementary. Sherlock is a darker series, the violence is starker, the cases are more interesting and the relationship with the police is more complicated. Everything that makes the Beeb’s version great has been toned down to meet the anodyne requirements of United States network television.
Elementary also faces competition from other TV detectives. There’s an entire subgenre of dramas that use the same basic template, including House, The Mentalist, Lie to Me and probably half-a-dozen similar shows. They all feature a main character who is intelligent, disdainful of social norms and who gets away with behaviour that would cause anyone else to be ostracised from society.
To be fair, these similarities arise in part because the now common archetype of the super-smart detective originated with Sherlock Holmes.
On some level, Elementary feels like a refreshing act of honesty: unlike other police procedurals, at least this one acknowledges where the inspiration comes from. Nevertheless, the field is so crowded that new entrants need to do something particularly novel or clever to stand out and this is where Elementary fails.
For those viewers are who looking for a Sherlock Holmes fix, my advice is to go out, rent the DVDs of Sherlock and wait for its third season to arrive. Elementary is competent in its own way, but it ultimately isn’t original or interesting enough to be worth investing time in.
Elementary airs on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on M-Net