I’ve talked about reboots here at Biff BamPop! before, and then I even mentioned Sherlock Holmes. Well, it seems of late, the master detective is back in a big way here in the twenty-first century. The CBS network is taking their shot at the legendary character this television season with “Elementary” starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. More after the jump.
It grieves me no end, but I have to say this. Sherlock Holmes has been around a looong time. Before Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock,” before Robert Downey Jr., and shocker, before Jeremy Brett or even Basil Rathbone. With the most recent British version so attached behind the scenes to “Doctor Who,” it seems that fandom has become very bitchy and possessive of the character – most almost ignorant of the character’s actual origins well over a century ago.
Sherlock Holmes was created by Arthur Conan Doyle, not Steven Moffat as I have actually heard some fans decree. Nothing against Mr. Moffat, I love the man, but seriously, folks, read a book, ya know? Based on real life personage Dr. Joseph Bell, Sherlock Holmes was consulting detective to Scotland Yard in the late nineteenth century. Doyle described the character as a brilliant social misfit who used deductive reasoning, early forensic sciences, and even some Batman-ian aspects like arcane fighting arts and trick weapons to solve crimes.
His adventures were regularly serialized by Arthur Conan Doyle in four novels and over fifty short stories throughout several magazines from 1887 to 1927. Doyle even killed Holmes off at one point, so tired he had grown of writing him. Eventually reader demand had the character return, first in flashback, and then as if he had survived under unknown circumstances.
Despite extremely limited appearances by both, Holmesian mythology includes an adversarial romantic interest in Irene Adler, and an archenemy in Professor James Moriarty respectfully. One could even drive home the Batman parallel by comparing Commissioner Gordon with our detective’s Inspector Lestrade. Holmes may have also been a drug addict, a sociopath, and an asexual, but to millions for well over a century, he’s a hero and a favorite protagonist.
Nothing New Under the Sun
I should note that this is not the first walk in the Sherlock Holmes park for American network CBS. They’ve done this at least twice before in the last two decades, in 1987 and in 1993, both bizarrely involving our detective hero being frozen cryogenically and awakened in the late 20th century. One might say they were obsessed with the idea. At least they didn’t have anything to do with “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century.”
CBS’ original plan for this newest foray into Holmes territory was to be a remake of the critically acclaimed BBC series “Sherlock,” created by “Doctor Who” helmer, the aforementioned Moffat, which was seen here in the States as part of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.” They canned those plans when they came up with “Elementary.” The creators of “Sherlock” have stated they will be watching the new version for too many similarities. While most of the Holmes stories remain in the public domain, those that aren’t are heavily protected by copyright law.
“Sherlock” suggested a present day setting with our detective being a brilliant but slightly crazed sociopath accompanied by an ex-military doctor as they assist Scotland Yard in solving crimes. In the broadest sense, that’s really all there is, ya know? And bringing the characters to the present day isn’t all that new as I mentioned. The wildly successful movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce from 1939 on brought them to their present as well.
The New Holmes and Watson
“Elementary,” the newest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes stars Jonny Lee Miller (“Eli Stone” and Hackers) in the detective’s role, and Lucy Liu (Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels) as Dr. Joan Watson, with a bit of a gender twist, which I might add, is also not a new idea in the Holmesian media multiverse. Aidan Quinn plays Captain Gregson of the NYC police department, taking on the character role Lestrade filled in the original versions. Rob Doherty has been named as showrunner, his past work including “Medium,” “Tru Calling,” “Dark Angel,” “Ringer,” “Point Pleasant” and “Star Trek: Voyager.” Let’s consider his quality as opposed to his cancellation record, shall we?
I recently got a chance to watch the pilot, and was quite surprised. It begins old school 1970s detective show style, we see the murder first thing in the door. Then we go right to a mini-music video montage of Lucy Liu, firmly establishing who the real star should be. She’s former doctor Joan Watson and she’s going to meet her new rehab companion. She’s been assigned to watch a recovering addict, a former consultant to London’s Scotland Yard, who had bottomed out there – yeah, you guessed it – it’s Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes.
Whereas Lucy Liu is simply Lucy Liu deftly portraying a new role, Miller is actively channeling Benedict Cumberbatch. Maybe it’s the accent, maybe it’s the fast paced, sharp pattern of speaking, but yeah, he’s doing him. I wonder what the BBC and their lawyers are thinking? We immediately upon introduction are shown we are dealing with a madman, but a brilliant madman. Were he not Sherlock Holmes and arguably the star of the show, Miller’s Holmes would make a dandy fine stereotype action thriller bad guy, a delightful heavy for the next James Bond flick. If a Moriarty is brought into this new vision, the casting will be intense to find a suitable match.
Their dynamic together is much the same as the original. Holmes does his thing, deduces and figures out. Like a good Doctor Who companion, Watson asks the right questions and has Holmes explain why he does and says what he does – of course, the magic is that Watson is the original template from which all Who companions are derived. She is our POV character, the prism through which we view Holmes.
The Rest of the Show
Holmes contends to go back to work. Since he is in New York City, he begins immediately consulting to the NYCPD. The murder-of-the-day police procedural quickly takes the place of the watch-and-enjoy Holmes antics. Aidan Quinn’s Gregson is a sadly boorish and typical NY cop stereotype. He is cooperative and tolerant of Holmes, but for the most part is merely a cipher to move the story along. Quinn might as well have just been a narrator. The unnamed Hispanic cop that accompanies Gregson has much more personality.
At the scene of the crime, the one we see in the opening, Sherlock gives an arrogant performance that is a solid combination of “The Mentalist,” “Psych,” and Rain Man, done Benedict Cumberbatch style. It is a sequence that spotlights the deductive and observational power of this new version of Holmes. Everyone, characters and viewers alike, is left stunned by his mad skills. He is a delight to watch in action. And this is why we have loved Sherlock Holmes for over a century.
The show is brisk, flowing flawlessly from scene to scene, the electrifying dynamic of Miller and Liu keeping it going even in the quietest moments. Despite their chemistry, and their opposing genders, creator Doherty promises this is a bromance, not a romance. There is much teasing otherwise, but as far as I’m concerned, if it stays that way, this show has a real chance.
I said earlier that Lucy Liu is the star of “Elementary.” She has the star power, and her name should be above the title if this were theatrical, but anyone who’s seen this pilot knows Jonny Lee Miller rules this show, as he should. He is as much a powerful, charismatic Sherlock Holmes as Cumberbatch, Brett, Downey, Rathbone or anyone who’s come before.
The story is typical police procedural, but like othersuch quirky shows like “Castle,” it is given such a new spin that I think this will work out. CBS has done Sherlock Holmes right for once I think. And if I’m wrong, it’s a shame, and I will watch it to the end anyway. I hope you’ll be with me. And I also don’t think the folks at BBC have anything to worry about. “Elementary” premieres on CBS Thursday, September 27th at 10:00 PM EST.