If you know me, you know I’m kind of a snob about Sherlock Holmes. I’m a snob about pretty much any work of literature that’s adapted to film or television (except for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Yes, I know that’s the weirdest of all possible exceptions). And I love Sherlock, but–except for Jeremy Brett–I tend to get irritated by his on-screen versions. When I heard that Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law were starring in a Sherlock movie, my first reaction was that it had been cast backwards. Why wasn’t Jude Law playing Sherlock? Surely that made more sense? The movie allayed my suspicions somewhat (and, in all honesty, my one criticism of Brett’s Holmes is that he’s too much of a staid, inactive British gentleman, so I was happy to see Sherlock finally kicking some ass, as he does in the books), and Sherlock Holmes is enormous fun to watch, but I don’t see much of Arthur Conan Doyle’s world in Guy Ritchie’s interpretation. If the old Granada series, with Jeremy Brett, skewed Sherlock too much toward the brainiac, Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock skewed too much toward the action hero. There’s a couple of Holmes pastiches that I like, but for the most part, I don’t think they’re worthy of the character name Sherlock.
When I heard about the Moffat/Gatiss BBC adaptation, I was curious, and ready to be dismissive. Sherlock with a cell phone? With a DNA lab? Is this just going to be CSI in the London fog? So much of Sherlock’s ability to infer and deduce is dependent–at least in part–on the staid, predictable, class-defined society that was Victorian England. What would Sherlock do in a chaotic, modern metropolis? What would Moriarty do? Collude with Tony Soprano? But Sherlock redeemed itself, mostly on the strength of its incredible casting and acting. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman get the friendship of Holmes and Watson closest to right–by which I mean closest to what’s in my head.
But Hollywood isn’t done over saturating us with Holmes. It’s like it’s trying to make up for the previous twenty years of leaving us alone with Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. Now CBS is making its own series. Sherlock will fit right in with the rest of CBS’s stable of off-kilter geniuses who solve crime with various brands of genius and varying degrees of social hostility (Numb3rs, The Mentalist, Gil Grissom on CSI, etc). But it’s not so much Sherlock I’m suspicious of. Sherlock’s character, abrasive yet courteous, is relatively easy to grab onto and focus on the one or two aspects of his personality that a writer wants to focus on. Sometimes Sherlock–literary Sherlock–is oblivious to social norms and cues, and sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he cares about offending people, sometimes he doesn’t. He’s impatient and efficient and doesn’t want to waste time with small talk or explanations (until it suits him). He likes to put people off their guard by making alarmingly personal observations about them prior to interviewing them about the problem he’ll be investigating. And that’s the sort of character that’s fun to play with and relatively easy to write, once you crawl into his head. But a character lurks in the background of the foreground, one much maligned and mistreated in previous adaptations, reduced to either comedic relief or source of expository dialogue. Much subtler, much slipperier, and much more beloved than Sherlock Holmes–at least as far as I’m concerned–is John Watson. Who, in CBS’s version, is now a woman.
For obvious reasons, adaptors of Conan Doyle’s work have trouble with the female characters. First of all, there aren’t any. Mrs. Hudson answers the door at 221B Bakes Street and Mrs. Watson shows up just often enough to tell her husband to ditch work and go hang out with Sherlock, and other than that, all the female characters are clients of Sherlock’s. So many adaptations have taken it upon themselves to inflate this client or that client’s importance and give them larger roles, usually Irene Adler, The Woman, the one who actually foiled Holmes, but whose role in the books is nowhere near as primary as it is in so many adaptations (both Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the BBC’s Sherlock have her colluding with Moriarty, which is just flat wrong, especially when you consider that she isn’t even a criminal in her story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”). I wish I knew why nobody has thought to do anything with Helen Stoner from “TheAdventure of the Speckled Band” or Violet Hunter, the brave governess from “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” Nobody’s interested in getting to know Watson’s wife (wives?) better, no, we want to watch Holmes bounce around and be obnoxious, but our late 20th century niceties won’t let us leave Mrs. Hudson all alone to represent her gender. So, turn Watson into a woman. Okay. Maybe it’ll be interesting, and maybe it’ll work narratively. It certainly gives the new series territory to explore. On the other hand, I wonder if CBS is using is progressiveness and creativity in one direction (yay strong female characters!) to cover up its conservatism in another, and avoiding the implication, or even the discussion, that Holmes and Watson might be gay.
Full disclosure: I don’t believe that Holmes and Watson are gay. Arthur Conan Doyle–bluff, straightforward, blunt and upright British chap that he was–would never write such a thing. It wouldn’t even occur to him. But in the network television world, in the internet world, in the world of fanfic, it’s really hard to have a show centered around two characters and not have those two characters get it on eventually (the only exception I can think of is Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU). It’s easier to avoid sexual tension between two particular characters in an ensemble show (mostly because you can take up all your time using other combinations of people for sexual tension), but Holmes and Watson aren’t, and never can be, part of an ensemble. A female Watson allows the show to play with sexual tension in a way that’s socially acceptable. So we’ll see how this goes.
Watching the Elementary pilot, I kept waiting for that moment of recognition that I sometimes get watching a good adaptation. That moment when the character that you’re watching collides for a moment with the character in your head, and you think, “Ahh! There you are! I’ve missed you!” But it never really happened. There’s too much that’s different, and CBS doesn’t let us spend any time getting to know the characters in a way that isn’t combative (and, okay, Sherlock can be a pretty combative and manipulative conversationalist, but you couldn’t give us at least one scene where Sherlock and Joan weren’t trying to one-up each other?)
First of all, I am already annoyed by the premise of this relationship (Lucy has been hired by Sherlock’s father to be his constant companion to keep Sherlock sober, since he’s just out of rehab). I don’t know much about being sober–someone who is in recovery please help me out here–but a “sober companion,” seems like a really bad strategy for keeping somebody sober. People struggling with addiction don’t need babysitters. A definitive and slightly alarming character like Sherlock Holmes needs one even less. There is no possible way that, if he gets it into his head to have a relapse, Lucy Liu can stop Sherlock from going out and scoring. And at this point in their relationship, it’s clear that Holmes is not going to rely on her emotionally the way a sponsor would. He’s not going to call her if he feels tempted.
And Sherlock starts right out seemingly trying to alarm and brush off and confuse Lucy Liu. Oh, and I just realized, that woman, leaving the brownstone as Lucy came up the stoop? Probably a prostitute. If that’s true, we already have two things that Arthur Conan Doyle never envisioned: a deliberately rude Sherlock, and a sexual one (not an asexual one. A sexual one). Sherlock confirms this a few minutes later by explaining to Lucy (unnecessarily and unasked) that he actually finds sex distasteful, but “his brain and his body require it to function at optimal levels, so I feed them as needed.” Way to take statements that the literary Holmes makes about food and sleep and apply them to a subject that literary Holmes never even broached, CBS. Combined with the fact that he’s not wearing a shirt when he meets her and he’s trying to deliberately make her uncomfortable, I have to say that this series is going to have to watch itself before it treads unconsciously into misogyny. Making another man feel uncertain of his footing has a distinctly different undertone than doing the same thing to a woman, CBS, please tell me you understand this.
And Sherlock is putting on dirty laundry. Something else the real Sherlock would never do. And Sherlock apparently has an overprotective, overbearing father. I get that Sherlock Holmes is a fast-paced character (especially if you’re going to mimic Benedict Cumberbatch), but the show itself needs to slow down and set shit up better. Set up Watson. I watched an hour f this show, and I feel like I don’t know much of anything about either Watson or Holmes. I know their biographies, but I don’t know what matters to them, I don’t know if they’re happy, I don’t know what motivates either of them. So far we seem more enamored with setting up how Holmes is weird and Watson is troubled and less with figuring out whether we like them or care about them. This Sherlock seems to have more in common with Gregory House than he does Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes.
Ahhh, Sherlock keeps bees. Point to the producers of this series. I don’t think that any other adaptation has included the bees (mostly because in the canon, that’s what Sherlock does after retiring), but still, I’m happy to meet Holmes as an apiarist.
There are other little niggling things here and there. Sherlock asks, for the first time in any adaptation, a question that I feel is a stupid question. Why would a pretty person get plastic surgery? wonders Sherlock. I don’t know, Sherlock. Why are successful people depressed? Why do rich people commit suicide? Maybe she had body dysmorphia disorder. Maybe she didn’t know she was pretty. Only ugly people get plastic surgery? Really? That’s the basis you’re starting your logical deductions from?
So Sherlock talks really really fast, but is not on drugs. He says alarmingly personal things to Lucy Liu (who is still Lucy Liu to me, and not Joan Watson), and she doesn’t get pissed off, she doesn’t get alarmed. She doesn’t even escape the situation. She turns the subject back to him (seriously?) before leaving the room. Is she trying to hit him back? Is she trying to retaliate in kind? What the hell? There’s something gross to me, that I can’t quite pinpoint, about watching Watson engage with Holmes in this combative way. Holmes and Watson are supposed to balance each other (as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson do, in which Watson either doesn’t engage in Holmes’ combative banter, or he reacts emotionally, not intellectually). The problem is, having a Watson that’s troubled and unhappy the way Lucy Liu’s Watson is, she’s surviving by trying to cut herself off from her emotions. You can’t have a Watson/Holmes pairing that’s entirely intellectual. Holmes is the head of the pair. Watson is the heart. A Watson who is trying to cut himself off from grief and guilt–who’s trying to not feel things–can’t bring anything to the relationship that Holmes himself doesn’t bring.
And then there’s the moment when Sherlock hangs up on the NYPD forensics guy, and there’s a dial tone. I don’t know that iPhones could do that.
The final thing that annoys me about the latest Holmes adaptation hasn’t even happened yet, but I have no doubt that it will (it happens in BBC’s version, in Guy Ritchie’s versions, everything except the Granada series, which faithfully adapted pretty much every story). It’s a part of the Sherlock stories that almost always overlooked–the fact that Holmes doesn’t always investigate murder. In fact, murders and deaths make up less than half the stories in the canon. A few times, Holmes investigates mysteries of “national importance” (lost treaties, lost naval plans, spies on British soil). He get clients who have received strange correspondance (either nonsensical or written in code, and on one memorable occasion, body parts), clients whose loved ones have disappeared, landlords who have strange or threatening tenants, professionals who have been asked to do strange and inexplicable things in the course of their employment (wear a bright blue dress, cut their hair, copy out the encyclopedia). He helps either prevent or solve jewel heists and bank robberies. Sometimes, he investigates problems only to find that nothing illegal has happened, and sometimes something illegal happens and he solves it outside of the boundaries of the law. Holmes investigates problems that are interesting–but interesting isn’t always synonymous with severe. But I feel pretty certain that, in Elementary, every single week we’re going to watch Holmes solve another impossible murder. Because that’s all network crime show writers think to write about.
The sad thing is, even given all of the above complaints, I’ll probably still end up watching Elementary. Because it’s Holmes. And because I’m weak.