Some Sherlock Holmes Remarks On “Elementary”

You can blame The Illogical One for it, Bloggers! For in the comments of his recent ad-hoc survey of American TV dramas, in response to someone who said they preferred Elementary to Sherlock, our own Andre Whickey had this to say:

So do I, but that’s mostly because (for the three episodes I’ve seen) Elementary is a perfectly competent piece of genre fiction with some mildly annoying tendencies (I’m told it gets better, but I don’t have enough interest in that type of TV to persist), while Sherlock is a collection of Tumblr gifs glued together something that at first sight approximates a drama by the application of racism, misogyny, and jokes about how embarrassing it would be were anyone to suspect you were gay.”

Actually I believe he said that as Andrew, not Andre…but I’m sure Andre would agree. At any rate I’m sure I agree, which is the reason I’ve called this meeting…

Because Elementary, on reflection, has turned out to be something quite different from Sherlock in all the important ways. And I confess I missed this, on my first few viewings of the show. Watching the pilot, the one thought I really had about it was, simply:

“What a crap excuse for a Sherlock Holmes show!”

And of course I still think I was absolutely right about that. But, only if you accept that Elementary actually is any kind of excuse for a Sherlock Holmes show, rather than a show that uses Sherlock Holmes as an excuse for itself. Which is what, now in the fullness of time, I think it is. The second thing, I mean.

The, uh…the bit where I say it isn’t an excuse, but it’s…?

OH NEVER MIND. In any case, allow me to try making the point. Elementary gets a hell of a lot easier to watch, as it turns out, if you ignore the fact that there are names like “Holmes” and “Watson” and “Mycroft” and even “Lestrade” in it…for in a world where the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle have already existed, there may be little that’s more common than an American crime drama featuring a brilliant detective with a shitload of baggage. So if this is Holmes at all, it’s a sort of reconstructionist Holmes in the mighty post-1980s manner…Watchmen and DKR, we will all immediately think, and then Astro City and perhaps Ultimate Spider-Man, but naturally there are many other examples of this type of thing, since the fall of Modernity wasn’t something that only ever happened on Superhero Island. In fact I’d offer Steven Spielberg’s execrable Hook as a more credible antecedent to Elementary than anything involving a cowl and a cape…for what do we do once the end of the story has been reached? Hook’s inner-child pop-psychology nostalgia was unbearable, true; but the wish to resume isn’t the exclusive property of the nostalgic, and I think you can even make an argument that it may not really count as “nostalgia” at all. Nostalgia, conceived by the Greeks as a feasome self-abnegating disease of the mind, may be interested in revisiting the past, but (in my opinion anyway) it may stop short of actually wishing to re-initiate history, and resume the process of creation! Well, Hook tries to make a Third Way in that business, so it does pack a small amount of re-initiation in with its navel-gazing yuppie self-consumption, which is why I put its name forward here…even though it’s doomed to be shit, because even if there are such things as Third Ways they do actually have to be a bit Third in order to work…

And no one really seems up for that challenge, or at least they haven’t so far. Well, because what would betoken true Thirdness, after all? Only some interest in the new, some wish to have an actual shedding of the skin, rather than just a wish to cook up any old cheap persuasion sufficient to justify our own ongoing…

Uh…

WHOOPS! Sorry; totally different post! Anyway as I was saying about Elementary: is it a good Sherlock Holmes show?

It isn’t really a Sherlock Holmes show at all. The cooler-than-thou among us may be titillated by the idea that Holmes is a Drug Addict, an annoying roommate who plays his goddamn violin at all hours and doesn’t know who the Prime Minister is, but that isn’t really Sherlock Holmes either, not really. The Sherlock program owes a lot to Hook too, in that it implicitly casts Holmes and Watson as just about the Peterpanniest Peters that ever Panned Pan…no, they’re not gay, because they’re not anything: the mysteries and the adventures are how they hold the forces of sexual operancy at bay, and the Drugs and the ugly nonsense about being a “High-Functioning Sociopath” (more on that repellent idea shortly) is all part of that, part of the flattery of latency…which actually, when you think about it, doesn’t smell very much like “flattery” at all. Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem with sexual latency, and if people want to hold onto it then why would I criticize them? Am I to start criticizing the asexual now? And why does a Sherlock Holmes story need any sort of sex in it anyway, right?

Can’t we just be?

Yet at the same time, it so obviously is in there — has been placed in there — and the upshot of it is that the struggle against operancy is thus valourized, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily a thing that gets to escape critique. “Bromance”, they talk about “bromance”…as if to say “I like a bit of homoerotic frisson, myself, but for God’s sake can’t we keep all that GAY stuff out of it”…and all I can think to say is: what’s the panic, guys? Afraid the mean old gays are going to take your homoeroticism away from you? The solution to this Hook-ism (which at a certain point starts to look exactly as neurotic as the average human person’s individual sexual feelings do not look neurotic) (“neurotic”) is easily found: reading any given Sherlock slashfic, I think a reasonable person thinks to themselves “well, yes, for Christ’s sake is it too much to ask for them to be happy — go on, KISS him, John!” Take a chance, John! Fan-fic writers aren’t fundamentally silly people, no matter what callous frogpond-celebrities might say…they think about that show more than you do, and they have noticed something that’s missing in it: an empty centre. Heck, I think they should be writing the show, myself…has anyone else noticed just how very padded-out it is, by the way? Almost as though there’s a half-hour there where something should be happening, but isn’t…

Flattery without flattery. Oh why oh WHY is it, Bloggers, that when a fan turns pro he also turns against the fans? It doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough that you frequently feel like you’re being asked to play a role in someone’s private psychodrama…oh, okay, I’ll pretend I live in my parents’ basement, then, so you can pretend that you never did, is that about the size of it?

More on that shortly, too…

Forgive me, it just irritates the shit out of me, you know? “Fanboys are so pathetic”…motherfucker, you ARE one!

And we all KNOW you’re one!

(Sorry…)

Anyway, about Elementary. In most ways it is not really Sherlock Holmes. This Holmes had a career in London with no Watson, hit rock-bottom because he was a Drug Addict, and fled to New York to get better. He’s got issues. Sherlock Holmes — the real one — never had issues like these, and the Sherlock version of Holmes apparently wouldn’t know an issue if it got sprayed on him out of a fire hose, so frictionless is his surface. A “high-functioning sociopath”…what’s a “low-functioning” sociopath, I wonder? Someone who’s just got a bit too much empathy? Not really all that good at sociopathing? Or maybe he’s just an incredibly disorganized sociopath, would lack empathy if he had the opportunity but can’t get out of the house in the morning, always putting his pants on the wrong way ’round. Moffat and Matiss are definitely not under any specific obligation to be socially-responsible about this kind of language, but I do think they’re under a more general obligation, here…what is sociopathy, is it the state of being BADASS? Smarter, faster, stronger? But the world just doesn’t understand? Perhaps I’m overreacting, but as a lifelong basement-dweller myself, and also as an average member of society, I notice a couple different strands coming together here in a not-so-nice way. When you are a kid, and you’re a bit nerdy, it’s pretty easy to identify with Mr. Spock instead of Captain Kirk, and I have yet to meet the nerdy young soul who identifies with McCoy. McCoy is kinda silly and irrational, isn’t he? And he’s not even that great a doctor. Mr. Spock knows everything and can do everything — he may not look like much, and people have all these prejudices against him, but they’re probably just jealous.

Sounds decently familiar, I guess. For a rough sketch.

But just like nostalgia and postmodernity, it doesn’t just all go down out on Paradise Island. There’s a larger world out there, and in that larger world there really is an idea that cooler and more logical and less emotional is better. May I mansplain it a bit for you, little lady? Just concentrate on the pretty lights, don’t think about your womb, your womb is far away…you can’t even hear it anymore…

RIGHT. So but then what happens when you take all of this just a bit farther, and you start cooking up strictly-logical badasses, and then to make them ultra-badass you have to make them…hmm, more logical still? Even less emotional? Hey, I liked Silence Of The Lambs partly because it let Hannibal Lecter usurp the seat of an absent God, but let’s get it straight: his antiheroic posture is IRONIC…

And Sherlock’s “high-fucntioning sociopathy” isn’t. Oh, where am I going with this. I really shouldn’t fill in all the blanks, it’d be way too tedious. Maybe just another point on the curve? Don’t let yourself think for a moment that sociopaths haven’t noticed the normalization of their own representations in culture and media; I once visited a particularly soul-chilling website where self-proclaimed sociopaths announced they were trying to set up a “safe space” for their own particular brand of misunderstood neurodiversity. Wise Internet people always say not to read the comments…

In the comments there were many people who sort of stood out (so I fancied) as people who were not sociopaths, but who were attracted to sociopathy’s growing cultural mystique, and sort of…”put on the airs”, in that regard? Young romantics, perhaps. Depressed teens?

I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure the site was even real, to be perfectly honest. But I think I can be fairly sure that romanticizing sociopathy is a thing we might perhaps wish to think twice about doing. “High-functioning sociopath”, I can’t think of a way not to read that as “person who is praiseworthy because he uses his superpowers for good”, you know? But this sort of, what, this sort of bandying of a name…I mean, it ought to be nothing to bandy, for God’s sake…these are rather serious mental health issues we’re fucking with here…

SORRY. It just really bothers me. Sociopathic Sherlock As Superman bothers me. I much prefer the repressed fellow in the fan-fic, you know, who’s fortunate enough to find a loving friend…?

Anyway, in Elementary you will not find any of that weird and shady stuff, that non-flattering flattery, that yes-we-do-sex-no-we-don’t, better-to-be-a-bastard-no-it-isn’t geeky Mr. Spock psychodrama. Because although it isn’t Sherlock Holmes, it does have some things in common with the real Sherlock Holmes that the Sherlock program does not? You may notice, for example, that even though in this show Watson is an attractive woman, there is not a wisp of sexual tension between the two partners. They don’t even write slashfic about Elementary, do they? That would probably be disrespectful, and if fan-ficcers are about anything they’re about greater respect. This Holmes is also a man with lots of baggage, who because he’s Holmes knows about his baggage…and the business of “how not to be an addict anymore” is, you sense, his ultimate locked-room mystery. I confess I thought it was all just a bunch of showboating in Elementary, at first — I’m so damned used to seeing showboating on TV! — but I’ve recently seen that I was wrong about that: no, it’s acting. Maybe the show isn’t the greatest. It certainly is very far from the greatest Sherlock Holmes show ever made. But as a show strongly influenced by Sherlock Holmes, with of course modern notions of “what makes characters go” tacked onto it, it makes more of its basic ingredients than many others do, that are of its kind. This Holmes isn’t a superman at all, and he’s constantly reacting to a massive failure that claimed a world he used to live in, because he thought he was. So…sure, not the best show ever. But this Holmes sweats, gets unhappy, is conflicted about what he should do and what he should feel…in addition to being an arrogant ass with a staggering (but hard-won!) hypercompetency, he’s also a character who is subject to some sort of change…

And of course, as we all know: all drama is, is change.

Right?

It’s also such a strange thing, that I never noticed before, that Watson’s medical experience is useful to Holmes in the solving of crimes. Blown up for the American audience, sure, sure…but though Holmes is many things, he has never been a practising surgeon, and isn’t it nice to have someone there who can help you skip through all the CSI crap in an expedient way? We live in a strange world, Bloggers, a world in which I suspect most children grow up expecting to become a coroner who closes cases even if she doesn’t always play by the rules…it’s nice to short-circuit that, from time to time. I mean, I’m not against it or anything…but…

Let’s consider the usage of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, here. Even: the utilization, if I may be so crass as to say so. Sherlock Holmes never lived in a London with the Millenium Eye either, anymore than he lived in New York City as a dude who goes to AA meetings. These are both simply riffs on Sherlock Holmes, they’re not exactly Jeremy Brett. And the world is full of Holmes riffs, all the way from LoEG to team-ups with Sigmund Freud to deluded old men played by George C. Scott in a park. Benedict Cumberbatch can’t really be Holmes, anymore than the trying-hard guy from Elementary can be, oh what’s-his-name. I think he does a very manful job of it, old what’s-his-name. I’m not joking:

I think he does a good job. Indeed of all the Holmes Riffs, no slight to any other actor in that camp, I feel he’s really tried to embrace the idea of a Holmes-Who-Isn’t-Holmes…obviously it just seems so goddamn Hill Street Blues to have a Holmes who’s in counselling, and it isn’t only fans of Sherlock who are titillated by the idea of Holmes the Drug Addict…but what do you do once you’re there, eh? The reconstructionist riff started a long time ago, with Sherlock Holmes: two generations ago, at least.

Isn’t Elementary both like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and also They Might Be Giants, combined into one? And so doesn’t it partake, though a bit shittily, of the grand tradition of Holmes Deconstructed?

And wasn’t Holmes originally intended to be a man, instead of an icon?

One could argue, I think, that both Nicol Williamson and George C. Scott attempted to liberate Conan Doyle’s brilliant character from his “icon” status in a way that Jeremy Brett did not…though Jeremy Brett was fucking amazing as Holmes, and let’s not pretend otherwise — the word “definitive” springs to mind — he really never was the aphasic man-seeking-a-roommate of A Study In Scarlet, rather he was always the man Watson eventually came to realize he was and the man Conan Doyle tired of…Our Sherlock, the man of perfect rectitude and so-uncanny strength, the Great Detective.

Sherlock, notwithstanding its great actors, rather upholds this vision of Holmes — but twists it, I’m sure we can all agree, into Sherlock Holmes as a walking pathology, himself the great riddle of the locked room…a man much like a Coroner Who Closes Cases (for that’s what he is!) but is himself the ultimate Body That Won’t Speak Until It’s Dead. And that’s what the fan-ficcers sense: that the greatest mystery in Sherlock is Sherlock himself. I might digress for a moment: the way Sherlock is constructed trades heavily (I would think self-evidently) on the background of Martin Freeman as Tim From The Office…this isn’t Holmes and Watson really, it’s Fight Club. The mild and mildly sardonic man who never makes a move, who lacks personal courage (or who has it and conceals it so well he almost conceals it from himself), why could there be a better British version of Edward Norton there than Martin Freeman? One doubts his Benedict Cumberbatch is ever real, expects at the end of the series to see a ten-year-old only-child Mycroft to be seen sitting with a snowglobe in his hands…

Right?

“Even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart, John.” LOOK WHERE THEY LIVE. That isn’t Baker Street, not Baker Street in London, that’s a warehouse where a Watson who’s honest with himself makes soap. Oh, Bloggers, why is it that the current crop of British showrunners are so obsessed with COOL?

And from whence do they DERIVE their idea of “cool”?

So many British shows where everything is all IN! YOUR! FACE! all the time…when I was growing up, shows from the UK could be intense but they were quiet when they were. A maid on “Upstairs Downstairs” slowly realizing that her life ended three weeks ago…horribly and finally…now we have the Satanic deference of Downton Abbey, like Gosford Park with daily acid peels. Remember Tom Baker insouciantly offering the Cybermen some jelly babies? We are only a few years away from having Jason Statham as a new Doctor for a new Age. And what is that Age…?

SORRY!

Again: different post.

Let’s finish off the talk about Elementary, a new Sherlock for a new decade, and century. Is it the Best Show Ever?

Definitely NOT…!!

But, as Andrew said, it’s a competent piece of genre fiction. What do we do, what can we do, after the story is over? We can only start again. “Ho ho, Sherlock Holmes would be like the worst roommate ever!” Actually, I disagree, and so does Elementary. Sherlock Holmes really is a man of rectitude.

It just takes a little time for Watson to figure that out.

She — SHE! — not “we’re not gay, us” HIM — I mean if you’re going to do it why not go all the way, why not straight-up make Watson a WOMAN! — has to decide if solving cases with Sherlock Holmes is even a thing that makes a lick of sense for her to bother with choosing to do.

Apparently the reason Martin Freeman does it is because he’s damaged goods, as damaged as Sherlock, why they’re like peas in a diseased pod.

Not so Lucy Liu. She could do other things. She could do other things. Maybe another one of those Charlie’s Angels movies. She has no good reason to be friends with Sherlock Holmes. Any Sherlock Holmes.

And he doesn’t need her! Because recovering addicts can’t need.

It’s not allowed.

So the whole thing is entirely voluntary, and that’s what makes a Holmes and a Watson, just as was said back in the Seventies.

Sherlock is appallingly reactionary by comparison.

And also Lucy Liu’s Watson isn’t just some kind of pet.

Still not a patch on Jeremy Brett, though.

But then again what is?

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9 responses to “Some Sherlock Holmes Remarks On “Elementary”

  1. Excellent, Sherplok.

    I’ve just recently read Holmes up to the Final Solution (which feels like a good place to take a break – the shorts don’t read especially well one after the other), and it’s given me a renewed interest in adaptations, to the point I was considering Elementary.

    I liked Sherlock just fine (gay panic aside) up until the latest batch, which were really execrable. The use of “sociopathy” kind of annoyed me in a vague way, but I hadn’t considered quite how irresponsible it might be; you’re absolutely right.

    The shorts especially gave me the idea that the whole gay thing must’ve originally come about not because there’s the barest trace of it in the text, but just to give Watson SOME kind of dimension, since all he seems to is admire, chronicle, and enable exposition. That might be unfair. I don’t know much about writing, but I thought you could see Conan Doyle growing story by story; until you get to the Final Solution, where he throws everything out and it’s FANTASTIC.

    I should check out Jeremy Brett, then?

  2. Jeremy Brett would not be a bad idea. He really inhabits Holmes. Hardwicke is a pretty good Watson too, but for my best Watson check out this and this!

    You can tell Andrew loves Dr. Watson by how good he is at imagining what he would say. The Faction Paradox story is especially good, not too much of a brain-boggler, suitable for chaps like you and me I daresay what what.

    I’ve long said that Sherlock was an attempt to take a world-beating universal-interest character and cram him down into what is essentially a science-fiction show. I didn’t realize until a couple of days ago that it was FIGHT CLUB…like Sherlock Holmes needs to be “sexed up for the kids”, I mean it’s such a horrible thought I dunno how anyone coulda thunk it. I should’ve reacted immediately: it’s Sherlock Holmes “as if he were realistic”, it’s the Watchmen version of Holmes, but speaking for myself I don’t need that and I don’t WANT that. Even period-dress Shakespeare has to sell itself to me, so would I be more forgiving of period-dress Holmes (Holmes on a skateboard!) just because it dresses itself up in PERIOD-SHAKESPEARE clothes?

    I dunno. Conan Doyle created a mighty mighty character of pure Englishness there, on par with anything, any character, ever…who am I to say he can only be wedded to his own time? I see what Moffat and Gatniss were going for there…

    But I don’t think it works, to be brutally frank.

    OH, WAY TOO MUCH TO SAY…!

  3. In your post I thought you were coming around to a point where I’d have to strenuously disagree with you, but your ultimate destination turned out to be something that’s not too far from what I think. We’re in kind of a golden age for Holmes adaptations, aren’t we? When Robert Downey only manages to come away with the bronze medal, there’s something special going on…

    Anyway. I watched Sherlock, seasons 1 and 2, and thought they were awesome, mostly, and then so many people recommended Elementary that I got the Season 1 DVDs of that, despite some skepticism. And, overall, I liked it. I liked some of it. I thought the acting and character work from Miller and Liu was tremendous, but the mysteries themselves only so-so. (Although there were a couple of episodes where I said, “Oh, that’s clever,” in response to whatever the key point of the mystery was.) But, you know, network TV. Which character do we stay on for about thirty seconds too long in the first twenty minutes of the episode? That’s your murderer.

    Oh, and: they have Holmes doing the thing that Kyra Sedgwick is always doing on The Closer:
    1. Main character is stumped and pondering the inexplicable murder case du jour.
    2. Some other character says something unrelated in passing.
    3. The random comment sets off a complex chain of neurons within the main character, who sits up straight and says, “Oh! Bill must be the murderer!”

    Look, Elementary writers: Kyra Sedgwick might need Provenza to accidentally put mustard in his coffee before she can solve the case. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t. Stop doing this.

    Similarly, I don’t like this need both shows have of trying to explain Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t need an explanation! He’s a deductive genius. Period. That’s your axiom; build everything else on top of that. You don’t need the drugs and you don’t need psychiatry.

    Anyway. By an accident of timing I finished those DVDs in time for Sherlock s3 to hit PBS. And I found that Elementary had, a little bit, spoiled me for Sherlock. I’d watch Sherlock and go, yeah, it’s cute, but they’re not really getting into it, are they? I don’t mean to overstate the case; I think Sherlock is better done, with better stories… but when it comes to the acting and the portrayal of the characters it’s really hard to choose between the two shows.

    I’ve put this theory forward before, but it bears repeating here: Jeremy Brett has set us all free.

    There’s no point in trying to do the perfect adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, because it already exists. The Jeremy Brett adaptations are perfect, and they are all there on the shelf. You can’t beat them, so there’s no need to try. But what you can do is experiment and see what else can be done with Holmes, and this is where we get Elementary and Sherlock. And they’re great! They don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good and interesting, and that’s exactly what they are.

    The gay thing on Sherlock doesn’t bother me; apparently Holmes/Watson slash has been around almost from the beginning and speculation about their gayness is basically as common as it is for Batman and Robin. So I don’t need it, but it’s older than I am, so far be it from me to object. I read a Holmes pastiche novel once, decades ago, no idea what it was called or who wrote it, in which Holmes has to investigate something in London’s gay underworld, and it was full of implications that Holmes or Watson or both were themselves secretly gay. Actually to be honest I couldn’t really tell what was going on; I don’t think it was much of a book.

    (Plus, I’ve read a bit of one of Gatiss’s Lucifer Box novels, and in just a couple of chapters it became quite clear that he was not shy about depicting homosexuality in story, so I wasn’t surprised to see it touched on in Sherlock.)

    The reason you never noticed how useful Watson’s medical expertise was for Holmes is that, as Conan Doyle wrote them, it wasn’t. When you’re doing TV or movie adaptations of Holmes these days you absolutely must give Watson something to do, because Watson is a big part and therefore you have a big name in the part, and the big name isn’t going to sign on to doing nothing but carry the idiot ball around the whole time. You have to give Watson something. And this isn’t hard, because Doyle established that Watson was

    a) a good man
    b) a doctor
    c) a loyal man
    d) an intelligent man
    e) a military man

    …all of which is useful, but Doyle didn’t really care about it, because he just needed Watson to be

    f) the man who wrote the stories down.

    (Elementary suffers from the idiot-ball thing a little bit. Too often Lucy Liu is put in the role of restating for the viewers’ benefit whatever we just learned in the last scene. We know, Lucy, move on. But, you know, network TV.)

    (Even the Jeremy Brett adaptations threw a bone to Watson every now and then. There was one story where Holmes gives a one-paragraph explanation of some aspect of the case to Watson at the end, and Watson agrees… but when they adapted it, Jeremy Brett said, “Watson, what do you think happened?” and whichever of the two guys who played Watson it was said, “I think it was such-and-such,” (Holmes’s explanation from the book) and Brett said, “I have no doubt that you are right.”)

    I don’t agree that Freeman’s Watson is damaged goods. He’s a man of action, that’s all. He doesn’t want to be a house cat; he wants to be out there mixing it up. Battle, murder, and sudden death. This may be inconvenient, but I don’t think it counts as damage. Was it here that I mentioned it that Freeman has been privileged to play three of the great pre-existing characters in English-language popular culture? Watson, Bilbo Baggins, and Arthur Dent. That’s quite a career, and I don’t know who can match it.

    If there was ever any doubt that Moffit and Gatiss were bigtime Holmes fanboys, it must have dissipated at the end of s1e1, where they awkwardly rigged the dialog so that Gatiss-as-Mycroft could have this last word:

    Assistant: Open a file on who?
    Gatiss-as-Mycroft: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

    To be fair, I’m sure the temptation must have been impossible to resist. I probably would have done it, or something like it.

  4. The Final PROBLEM x 2, obviously. Shit.

    Watson’s medical expertise consists of
    1) diagnosing Brain Fever
    2) prescribing brandy

  5. I have a Sherlock Holmes obsession along with my numerous other ticks and I find Elementary a product of what I call Gail Simone syndrome – flimsy plots with some good ideas thrown in that’s carried by excellent character work. Sherlock is a bit more Mark Millar, with shock and awe menaces mixed in with purely offensive bits to spice things up. Elementary is more up my alley, but I do “appreciate” Sherlock even when I find myself objecting wildly to what’s happening on screen.

    These are, though, riffs on Sherlock just like the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes movies of the 40s and can still be entertaining on their own merits even if it isn’t the pure stuff a la Doyle (and Jeremy Brett, which is at least 99 proof stuff). I guess it’s no different than anyone’s riffs on Spider-Man, Superman or Batman in that way. They’re all cultural figures bigger than any one interpretation these days … perhaps even bigger than the rights-holders themselves.

  6. Are these modernized shows, in some sense, Baz Luhrmann’s Sherlock Holmes? (I’ve only seen a couple episodes of Sherlock, so I can only speak to that.) Moulin Rouge! is done the way it is to “decode” the era — the idea that, say, the can-can might seem quaint or humorous to the modern viewer, so it’s hyperstylized and set to club music to communicate how exciting the can-can FELT to dudes at the MR rather than attempting to portray the dance accurately.

    So is all this just trying to “decode” Holmes? I mean, I guess that makes sense, because I was curious how they were going to bring make that character vibrant in the modern world when nearly every “extraordinary detective” in fiction is so derived from Holmes. (It’s like how saying your band is influenced by the Beatles is meaningless because it’s you and everyone else who wrote a pop song on a guitar after 1964.) “Aloof eccentric with a genius for deductive reasoning” just isn’t ENOUGH on TV in the 21st century, so you crank the amp up to 11 and he becomes a Martian drug addict with a brain that runs computer simulations, and the Watson-Holmes friendship becomes The Most Seriously Epic Bros.

    The idea of sociopathy = superpower is gross as well, of course. (The “self-diagnosis of sociopathy based on a very loose understanding of what that actually means” thing is also something you see for Asperger syndrome: “What if I could piggyback on this actual thing people have to live with to use as an excuse for being an asshole to people online?”) One thing I did appreciate out of ol’ Monk was that I don’t recall it insisting that he was a brilliant detective BECAUSE he had OCD…

  7. Unfortunately, all the actual mysteries in Monk were terrible! I wish they had gotten that stuff straight. I recall one episode that I thought was just about perfect, but only because I’d missed the first five minutes…when I saw it, I realized it was awful. SO disappointing…

    The monkeying-around with mental health issues in popular entertainment can I think be benign…ignorant perhaps, but benign. Of course at other times it can be extremely irresponsible. “Comedy OCD” is a chillingly oxymoronic idea on the face of it, but it’s hard not to like Tony Shaloub? And there are far worse offenders, for example every cop show that types “crazy people” as violent threats to peace and order. But treating psychopathy lightly takes that wrongness and throws it into a pitilessly stark light — as the central debate surrounding psychopathy, now decades and decades old, is where it comes from and to what degree we all can, or must, be responsible for it…

    Sorry again! DIFFERENT POST!! I think I may have already written that one, actually…

    ..

    But as to “Baz Luhrmann’s Sherlock Holmes”, has Justin, I love the idea of that Luhrmann approach as “modernization”, you know? I saw a bit of The Great Gatsby on someone else’s TV the other day, and was shocked to notice that everything was colour-corrected, right down to Tobey MacGuire’s eyes. I knew there was something funny going on when I saw a helicopter shot that suddenly started doing things no helicopter can physically pull off — shouted out “oh what the hell, fuck off, is this a fucking Baz Luhrmann movie?!” Then Tobey’s eyes appear, and I realized that’s exactly what it was. Perhaps if one is going to talk about “modernizing” movies one does really mean this, if one’s honest: Total Spectacle, hyperspectacle with an empty centre. Things you were supposed to have read years ago, but never got around to! Things that just utterly fail to look like life. I know that sounds like I’m being really strict — didn’t I think the visual filter in Sky Captain was interesting, didn’t I appreciate how Final Fantasy was able to integrate its special effects with its character figures, wouldn’t I watch A Scanner Darkly? But to me it seems as though there is too much deliberation behind these efforts to really call them cracks at “modernization” in the Baz or Moffat or Abrams mode — because maybe to really count as “modernization” in this day and age, the conception of what that is has to be, well, a little stupid? Watching some American TV commercials yesterday I was struck once again at just how well the ad agencies understand what a “lowest common denominator” really is, what attributes a mass audience — a “mass audience” — has to have if it’s to be worthy of the name. It isn’t “pop” they’re trying for, in those ads for Comcast or whatever! That would be cute, but it isn’t really what they’re getting paid for. Somewhere out there is a vast, probably invented, Middle…we don’t see the sorts of American ads that are aimed at it on Canadian TV, we just see the “cool” stuff. All sorts of ads that never make it out of the States to other markets — the drug ads, mostly, but you can glean something from all of them. Ads say a lot about the people who watch them, maybe? I’m just praying, now, that no one sees a bunch of Canadian ads and decides to analyze us according to their content and style…

    You must forgive me: the caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet, so this is probably less than coherent. But anyway: “modernization”, yeah. It does seem to feed in to my ongoing obsession with discovering why it is that the Young People accept so many movies as good, that I think are next-to-worthless. Not that people tolerating junk is a new thing, but I do understand the junk-tolerance of my contemporaries, and I don’t understand the New Junk Tolerance…and I would like to. The zeal for Bazzian or Abramsistic modernization is something I theorize about and theorize about and am pretty sure I still don’t get…what benefit does Moulin Rouge’s modernization provide that Cabaret’s no longer does, etc…

    …But the point about the ramp effect is spot-on, I think. There’s some point where Martin Freeman declaims about how Sherlock Holmes is the finest man he’s ever known, and I confess it made me laugh: really, <this guy? He’s the finest man you’ve ever known? You need to see more of the world, Hamish…

  8. A few brief barely-relevant comments, even though I Never Comment, because I finally dragged myself out of Twitterverse and onto the wider world of the web. There’s so much on your site that I look forward to reading, because even though it is so far above me, I love that it makes me stretch, reach, want to reach, with a style that is dazzling in and of itself.

    1. Though I do not qualify as a true original Star Trek fan, I always rather liked McCoy. Or at least, I liked him better than Spock. But maybe that is related to my tastes in female characters and my opinion that McCoy was The Girl, sort of.
    2. I appreciated Justin’s point “nearly every ‘extraordinary detective’ in fiction is so derived from Holmes,” as well as his follow-up comment on how useless, in a way, that becomes. Maybe it was a fad for longer than I’m aware, but at the least there was a rash of TV shows that resembled one another: Monk, Psych, Lie to Me, I think there’s one with a chess player. Medium, The Pretender on the less Holmes-ian side (how far do we want to stretch this?) Dexter, perhaps (haven’t seen)? House, if Sherlock dealt in medical mysteries. Detectives who aren’t cops, who function just a little (or a lot) outside the rules, who resemble Sherlock Holmes (and maybe Dr. Watson) to varying degrees. So, then, if there are plenty of other Holmes “riffs” around, then do shows that claim direct connection to the source material owe it more? Or less?
    3. Your comments about Lucy Liu’s Dr. Watson have made me very interested in watching Elementary. Some years ago, I stumbled across A&E’s Nero Wolfe miniseries, and it has ruined me for Holmes stories, I think. While I may enjoy the Downey/Law movies and the Sherlock TV show, I found the Goodwin-Wolfe dynamic to be far more amusing, balanced, and interesting.

    Not so brief, then. Sorry.

  9. Kristin!

    Nice to see you!

    You’re very flattering. And Nero Wolfe is terrific, isn’t it? I never saw any of the Timothy-Hutton-as-Archie ones…were those the ones with Maury Chaykin as Wolfe? Rex Stout, what a wonderful detective-fiction stylist…

    I have a rather lengthy reply to your reply, but am just doing one or two other things at the moment, so there will just be a slight delay.

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