Posted on Wednesday, October 10th, 2012 at 11:58 pm
Author: s.e. smith
Sherlock fever has struck on both sides of the Atlantic, no mean feat for a character who first appeared 125 years ago. The BBC’s hit Sherlock under the command of Steven Moffat is an intricately layered, complex, highly cerebral show that comes across as a strong homage to the original man himself, complete with modern elements to force the characters into the light of the 21st century. In the US, CBS has ventured into the waters with Elementary, which defies almost all the rules of the canon for a radically different, and oh-so-American, take on a legend.
On its face as a procedural, there’s particularly remarkable about Elementary. Like many US shows, it’s bloated with an excess of episodes each season that force it into dull, sluggish multi-episode arcs, while each episode simultaneously struggles to be a standalone for new viewers, creating a strange juxtaposition. At least with Sherlock and Watson, one doesn’t need to reestablish the characters for new viewers with each episode…at least in theory.
This Holmes and Watson are quite a departure from the convention, and it’s this that gives the series potential to stand out. While the episodes themselves are hum-drum, with some slight twists away from the increasingly forensic nature of US procedurals, the characters are fascinating. The direction the writers have chosen for Holmes and Watson is very different from that in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work, and it’s also quite dissimilar from that in Moffat’s Sherlock (partially to avoid legal conflicts between the two shows). This is a show, in other words, that is determined to set itself apart from the pack.
Holmes is classically depicted as a highly intellectual man who takes much pleasure in showing off his considerable powers of deduction and observation. He delights in nothing more than painstakingly explaining the obvious to a fawning audience, relying primarily on his observational skills rather than forensics, in a reflection of his origins. In 1887, Holmes would have had few labs and even fewer trustworthy tests to rely on, so when forensics did appear, they were notable, flashy, and distinctive; take, for example, his monograph on cigar ashes, which becomes a key plot element.
On Elementary, Holmes is a very different man. He’s still wrapped in his own mind, but there’s a gentleness and a soft side to him that hasn’t been apparent in other adaptations of the original work. This Holmes is more human, in a way that allows him to relate with both characters and crime scenes on a personal level. While he is high-handed with Watson, whom he resents because she’s (more on that in a moment) thrust upon him without his consent, he also apologises later, without prompting to do so.
He may view humans as fascinating subjects of study, and he’s adept at reading faces and gestures and body language, but he also views them as people in a way prior Holmeses have not. There are hints of human connections coming out in Elementary which cast him in a different light than his usual rugged loner self, and while he may retain the aloof persona that’s come to characterise classic Holmes, that persona is not rock-solid, and there are definite crumbles round the edges. This is a Holmes who has not lost faith in humanity, and who clearly hasn’t yet encountered his archenemy, Moriarty.
As for Watson, the most obvious difference in the new CBS drama, of course, is that Watson is a woman, which is already a marked change from tradition. More than that, though, Watson is her own woman, rather than Holmes’ lapdog, and this, too, makes for a shift from the original canon. Historically, Watson has been the bumbling accompaniment to Holmes, the man who allows Holmes to showcase his astounding intellect, the one who asks the prompting questions that create opportunities for Holmes to paint himself in an even more flattering light. He engages in hero worship to the point that he chronicles Holmes’ doings in a series of cases, describing his idol in a way that makes you suspect he can do no wrong.
This Watson, though, is having none of that. She’s as cool and professional as Holmes himself, focused on keeping him on track and complying with instructions from her employer, Holmes’ father, who hired Watson as a sober companion after his son was discharged from rehab. She leads her own life independent of Holmes, keeps her own secrets, and doesn’t want to play house with him. Not only is she not like the Watson of old, she’s also resisting the stereotypes some viewers might have been tempted to force upon her; she is not a love interest, she is not there to bring the feminine touch to the series, nor is she there to give Holmes some strange internal motivation.
She is instead there as a strong, independent character with a flair for investigation herself. Like the original Watson, she brings her medical expertise to bear on the cases they investigate, but unlike him, she’s not afraid to assert herself, and quite happily indicates when she is the better-equipped to evaluate a scene or situation. Unlike the Watson of Sherlock, she also doesn’t have much interest in apologising for Holmes’ actions or making nice with the people he’s offended; on the contrary, to do so would be to jeopardise his recovery. While Holmes may play her once in a good cop/bad cop scene, she’s unlikely to let him pull it off again.
One of the most-discussed differences between this Watson and that of convention is not just that she’s a woman, but that she’s an Asian woman. By casting Lucy Liu in the role, CBS attracted considerable attention and buzz for what probably would have been an unremarkable pilot. Many people had opinions on the casting, and a lot of those opinions reeked of racism. With so many canonical differences—setting, characterisation, and storylines, among others—to choose from, many opponents zeroed in on the idea that Liu would be subverting or polluting a classic role reserved for a white man.
Liu does the role credit in what must be a charged environment; it cannot be easy to focus on performing when you’re hyperaware that everything you do will be closely watched. Notably, fans of Sherlock incensed at the idea of competition attacked Liu alongside garden-variety racists infuriated at the idea of an Asian woman ‘taking’ a role from a white man, creating a firestorm of hatred that was particularly colourful on the Internet.
Responding to the racist commentary swirling around the character, Liu noted that:
[A] lot of people who are of ethnic background have come up to me and said, ‘It’s so great that you’re playing Watson and you’re representing a big, you know, minority section of actors and people in the world.’
This is a modern adaptation of a classic. One of the fantastic things about adaptations is that they continually play with the source text and push it to the limits. In this case, the characterisation of both Holmes and Watson has changed radically, creating entirely new options to explore. I for one welcome it, and believe that it makes Elementary distinctive enough to keep watching even though much of the show is only mediocre. Strong characters may be able to carry the piece while it gets its footing, and once it does, it could go somewhere very, very interesting.
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