Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Idiot Box: My Thoughts on Elementary

Recently, a new TV show premiered on CBS called Elementary, taking the classic characters from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Homles series and transplanting them into a modern setting, re-envisioning one of the greatest literary concepts in the only way they could possibly do so to make it more interesting - by turning it into yet another police procedural. Oh, and also they gave Watson a vagina, because apparently modern means leaving open the potential for Holmes and Watson to fuck, but just making them gay would be a little too modern.

Okay, sorry, I gotta stop myself. How fucking awesome would gay Sherlock Holmes be? Question for another time perhaps.

I joke about the gender change, but really, it's inconsequential. Any excuse to have Lucy Liu on TV is a plus in my book, and the many problems I have with this show have nothing to do with the casting or the acting. The most obvious problem is that we already have this, done much better, in Stephen Moffet's Sherlock. The creators say they aren't trying to make an American adaptation, and it seems like they took great pains to change just enough to keep it similar without it being an out and out rip off, but the idea that they came up with this project independently is ridiculous. Yes, there have been other modern incarnations of this story before Moffet did it, up to and including one of my favorite cartoons as a kid, which followed Holmes into the future with a robotic Watson sidekick (and yes, it was as awesome as it sounds), but when they're so close together, what's the point? Obviously the American version isn't going to be better than the British one, but even if it somehow managed to be just as good (which it doesn't), it would still be redundant.

And just how much does it fail to live up to the British version? It's weird to think about how much I disliked this show without any real major criticisms of the two main leads. You would think a big part of a show like this, centered around such iconic characters, would rely so much on the actors, and I don't really have any complaints in this area. I've always had a soft spot for Jonny Lee Miller, mostly due to his role on Dexter, an interesting antagonist in an underrated season, and I've always had a hard spot for Lucy Liu in my pants, so we're good here. Miller to his credit seems to be trying his best not to do a Benedict Cumberbatch impression, even as the production tries to force him into one, but the issue is the blandness of the character, which is par for the course in a procedural, but given the source material, it seems like a much greater sin here.

I think my biggest problem with the show is seen in the first few minutes after the teaser, when Watson first introduces herself to Holmes. First, he's half naked, which misses a perfect opportunity to have Lucy Liu half naked instead, or at least in addition to. But more to the point, their first scene together botches what is a staple in any Sherlock Holmes incarnation, where the world's greatest detective gets to show off just how smart he is for the first time. The BBC version has him take one look at the condition of a cell phone and rattle off a series of deductions about both its previous and current owner, while getting a few details wrong to demonstrate the limits of his abilities even as he impresses. In the American version? Holmes quotes a line in a movie that he has presumably seen before and memorized. Based on the way Holmes stories are constructed, I know what they're trying to do here, but it makes no fucking sense. I don't get the impression that he's smart, I get the impression that he just really loves this movie. I can quote Ghostbusters backwards and forwards, it doesn't make me a genius.

The point is, Sherlock Holmes should be smarter than me. Throughout the first case, Holmes bumbles through the clues in such a way that any reasonably intelligent viewer will guess the ending before he does. Not only that, but the solution is so obvious, it's actually in line with what the police would have naturally suspected and concluded anyway, making Holmes' involvement in the case irrelevant. In fact Holmes puts the cops off the scent of the real killer for a very poorly thought out reason in the first ten minutes, only to come back to him later, ultimately making their job harder than it otherwise would have been! Add to that how stupid the cops need to be to make this average to mediocre version of Holmes seem smarter, and I have to wonder if the real purpose of this show is just to shit all over the police profession. 

The archetypal Holmesian detective has almost become a sub-genre of the procedural at this point, with Monk and House being the most recent examples that come to mind. To shoehorn the actual Holmes into this formula ultimately does the character a disservice. This shouldn't be a whodunnit. The audience should not be allowed to follow along with Holmes and compete with him to guess the identity of the bad guy, especially if he's going to be so bad at it. Holmes should figure it out well before anyone else, with Watson being the surrogate for the audience who is mystified with how quickly and thoroughly he did so. In many ways, he's the only successful example of a Mary Sue in fiction, a nearly perfect character when it comes to the reason for our interest in him. His imperfections, arrogance, drug addiction, etc, are important, but should not interfere with his genius detective work. Here, his lack of genius interferes with his genius detective work.

So here's my pitch. Instead of just doing a retread of the BBC version but worse, change the set-up a little more. My idea - make it a kids show. It's called Elementary, set it in Elementary School. Make it as authentic an adaptation of the character as possible, but in a context where such an adaptation is obviously absurd. In terms of the tone, I'm thinking something similar to the kinds of shows I watched as a kid like Pete and Pete or the more recent Recess, where the relatively easy lives of children are treated by them with deadly seriousness, while the adults are oblivious. A child prodigy and his overweight friend solve school age crime on behalf of Hall Monitor Lestrade, all while dodging the master plans of the ultimate school bully, Moriarty.

Also, Lucy Liu is naked in it. Tastefully, you know, off screen away from the kids. Maybe just in a room somewhere with a pole and that Flashdance spray thingy. You know what? Forget the kids now that I think about it.

Now we've got a show.
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