Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why I'm an Elementary hater.

After being accused of hating on Elementary for every reason in the book over the past couple of years, a little debate on Holmes's addiction or lack thereof has brought my feelings on the show into a little clearer focus in the past couple of days. I'm going to be of the Candor faction in what follows (Divergent reference, for those of you who don't follow popular tweener novels), so if it pains you to hear bad things said about that CBS program, you might want to move along. So here goes.

It had been suggested that I was predisposed to hate on Elementary from the start. Well, in one light, that's true. In another it's not. The light in which it's true totally comes down to the question of Holmes being portrayed as a drug addict. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Elementary, and The Last Sherlock Holmes Story are all depressing, extreme little corners of the great mass of Sherlockiana that I could do without. As that recent court case seems to point out, all that we love about Sherlock Holmes was established very early on, and him being a drug addict was no part of that. I find it hard to believe anyone could be a fan of Sherlock Holmes and really be into him being an addict, unless it's like those "Sherlock Holmes, golfer" things where one wants a Holmes who likes what they like. And if that's the case, Sherlock-Holmes-fans-who-are-also-addicts, you go, girl!

That said, I do find The Last Sherlock Holmes Story as my favorite of the the three druggie Holmeses, just because, hey, if you're gonna go for it . . . *** SPOILERS *** . . .  make Holmes the worst drug addict ever and have Watson take him down. Damn, that's an evil book.

It has also been suggested that I never gave Elementary a proper chance because I was such a big Sherlock fan, which is a bit like saying every time I roll a one on a dice, it increases the chances I'll roll a six the next time. Each roll of the Sherlock Holmes dice is an independent event. I enjoyed Robert Downey Jr.'s take for all it's wackiness, because it accomplished the basic task of any fiction: it pulled me into its world for a couple of hours. Absorbing one's audience, convincing them to buy an illusory universe for a time and indulge their willing suspension of disbelief, is a task that varies from person to person. I know many people who don't like the movies I go in for because "they don't seem real enough," even though all movies except documentaries are false, and even some of those are a bit twisted.

What makes a movie or TV show convincing is selling you things you already want to buy. Ideas, points of view, places, people . . . the further something is from what you normally like, the harder a creator must work to sell you on the merits of that thing, which a really, really good film-maker can do. When I walk out of a theater having enjoyed the kind of movie I would normally hate, it's a great thing and I admire the folks who achieved such a thing.

Elementary has continually pushed ideas on me I don't find attractive and failed to sell them to me. Why does its Sherlock need to be a drug addict, which would kill the abilities of a true top-of-the-heap professional? Why does it need to be set in New York, instead of good old London? What is gained from Moriarty being a woman and a former lover who dumped the sad sack Elementary wants to sell me as Sherlock Holmes? By just shoving such extreme variations on Holmes lore at me with a "Hey, this is different!" attitude, rather than selling me with a organic universe where it makes sense that these things are so, I don't know that Elementary has ever won over my suspension of disbelief.

Sherlock, if we must make a comparison, gives an old Sherlockian like me cookies to sell me on its many alterations. Its Holmes is masterful and in control of his world, having even given up smoking. I like a masterful Holmes. London is lovely and a great place to set the show. I want it to be in London. Jim Moriarty is a truly tricky bastard and more fun than a barrel of crazy monkeys. I'm willing to upgrade that old math prof to this ADD psycho (who still looks a little like the old guy) because he challenges both Holmes and me. Sherlock lures, teases, and seduces and I give up my suspension of disbelief willingly. Elementary seems to go, "Hey, the guy is named 'Sherlock Holmes,' there ya go." It's the salesman who doesn't really care if he makes the sale.

And why should he? Elementary has gotten fine ratings off non-Sherlockians, people who don't have to be sold on Holmes not being in London, etc. For us non-physicists, movie physics like shotguns blowing people backwards make a sort of emotional sense. For a physicist, though? Yikes. Same sort of thing here.

As for those who were already fans of Holmes, the greatest thing Rob Dougherty did to sell his show to Sherlockians was over Labor Day weekend 2012 when he screened and did Q and A for a symposium co-sponsored by the Baker Street Irregulars and the UCLA School of Television. As Maria Konnikova pointed out in Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, being in an environment that makes us happy primes us to make more positive judgements. Those Irregulars who attended that LA weekend on Holmes were in symposium-bliss mode, and practically predestined to take their first viewing in as another wonderful part of their wonderful weekend. Were they the taste-leaders of our little fan cult, their joy might have trickled down to folks like myself, but we Sherlockians are a cussedly independent lot, and most of the old school hadn't made it to the internet to disseminate the Elementary joy immediately after that viewing, as the Baker Street Babes tend to after a Sherlock premiere. So the effect of that bit of smart selling never really made it out of the symposium bubble.

I've long passed the age where I was excited about everything with a reference to Sherlock Holmes in it, and the luxurious feast of Holmes we're getting these days makes me even less apt to treasure every morsel like I might have in the early 1980s. But, come to think of it, I really wasn't that keen on the movie version of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution even then. I hate Nichol Williamson's wimpy Holmes with a passion. And here we are back at that pesky drug addiction.

What was that classic line from Vincent Starrett's Sherlockian Pledge of Allegiance, "221B"? "Only those things the heart believes are true?" Well, if one really has to find a flaw in my make-up that will qualify or discredit my opinions that Elementary is an awful, awful television show, blame it on my child-like believe that my hero, Sherlock Holmes, was never a serious drug addict.

That one I'll give you. Still, it's an awful, awful show.

See, I have a child-like stubbornness, too!


  1. Sherlock Holmes was never a serious drug addict, that's true, but Watson tells us in SCAN that Holmes "alternat[ed] from week to week between cocaine and ambition" and that he had observed Holmes use cocaine "three times a day for many months" in SIGN. So, it is clear that Doyle's Holmes felt the need to self-medicate in order to stave off boredom. Therefore, the truth about the original Sherlock Holmes is somewhere between "drug addict" and completely "masterful" of his world and in control of himself, and, personally, I like that middle ground. He's still a true hero in my book, but he's human, and that makes it easier for me to believe a person like him could exist. It also makes me like him more.

  2. Sherlock Holmes was not a drug addict. Instead he carefully and intelligently self medicated to spare his greatest asset, his brain, as well from the pain of boredom as any affliction of longing and/or self pity. He used cocaine to sterilise the scalpel of his mind from the mud of emotional baggage. At least that's the way I see it. If he was addicted to anything, then it was to logic.

  3. Another bad portrayal of Holmes (though there are probably many) comes in his treatment by M.J. Trow in the 'Lestrade' series - Watson, too - but they are only cameos - and the series, otherwise, is great.

  4. Over the last couple of days I have gotten the impression you don't like 'Elementary', is that correct.
    Since I don't think I could change your mind about the show, or how Sherlockian fun can still be found in it, I won't argue your points.
    I don't think you will find anyone who will argue that it is the greatest thing that ever happened the latest world of Sherlock Holmes, and most of us would agree that Millers portrayal of Holmes will never be remember as anyone's definitive Holmes, and he will only get a foot note as an actor who played Holmes. But it doesn't mean fun can't be had with it. Most of us will only be glad when it finally runs it's course so that we can see what you move on to next.

    1. Who's to say I'm not having fun with it? Evil, evil fun.

  5. Holmes as a patient? Idiotic! Watson as a therapist? Ridiculous!

    What Holmes had in the Doyle stories were idiosyncrasies that served to illustrate his characteristics and explain his behavior. To dwell on the pathology to the extent that Elementary did or does(?)(I have stopped paying attention to the series), made the series more of a medical program and it distracted from me from the crimes and the cases and the clues. I really do like stories with shocking inexplicable crimes, enigmatic clues and brilliant detective work. Is this the sign of a sick mind? Well, yes, probably, but I am never going to reveal what a madman I am. Like Holmes, I am much too cunning.

    Oh, if only Elementary had been titled Alimentary so the fans could have recognized it for what it was, a little bit of artificial flavoring mixed into some empty calories.

  6. While I would certainly agree that Elementary over-emphasizes Holmes' drug addiction, I think the reason for Holmes' drug addiction is the worst aspect of the show. Holmes started using because he was traumatized by the death of his love? Blasphemy, pure blasphemy. Alternate character interpretations are not inherently wrong, but it can reach a certain point where an adaptation simply ceases to be an adaptation. Holmes would never admit such a distraction as a romantic relationship into his life, and in fact seems almost incapable of feeling love, which is partially what makes his relationship with Watson so interesting .The characterization of Elementary's Sherlock is so far removed from the original character that he barely even resembles him anymore. On its own terms, Elementary is a decent procedural drama, but it makes for an awful Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

  7. Also, the argument that Elementary is better than Sherlock because of strong females and diversity in the cast is invalid. Strong female characters? Irene Adler from BBC was very strong. (I mean, she did seduce people to get what she wanted, but The Black Widow's strategy was the same, and no one complains that she's weak.) Another argument is that she was under Moriarity's thumb, but really, she wasn't. Why do you think she needed protection? I think that it is because she used Moriarity to get access to Sherlock, then double-crossed him top get what she wanted. It is highly unlikely that Moriarity would go through the trouble of cracking the code just for Irene to have that bargaining chip. Soo Lin Yao was also a strong character, even though she was only alive for half the episode.
    As for racism, yes, Chinese people new to the country actually do talk like that. Even after five years, the accent is unmistakable, and since the smugglers haven't been there since birth, it is natural that their accent is very noticeable. (I am Asian, I know from personal experience.) The recurring cast may not be very diverse, but it doesn't subtract from the story. The Blind Banker had cultural diversity, and people slammed it for being racist. Besides, why is diversity so important? The actors play their part exceptionally, and the stories are rich and exciting. What more does a TV show need?

  8. I personally don't like the attempts to 'Modernize' Sherlock !! Sherlock is a philosophy which has nothing to do with Telegraph or Cellphones. That's why I don't like Benedict's version of Sherlock ! Robert Downey Jr. has lost the 'sane' spirit of Sherlock while indulging in Crazy and Witty Character ! I haven't yet watched any more Cinematic attempt of Sherlock. But I don't care !I find the best version of Sherlock in the Book-text itself and nothing else !!