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…
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!
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.
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…
“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…?
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?
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?