Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The boob tube.

What makes television special?

Now that we've done a full season a American television doing its worst to a version of Sherlock Holmes, garnering decent ratings and the love of a few Sherlock Holmes fans, it's fascinating to compare its content and success to the century of other work on the detective.

If the content of CBS's Elementary were a series of novels, it never would have gotten off the ground. Most Sherlockians who defend it now wouldn't even have given it the time of day in book form. Books require engaging the mind, reading is an act that one decides to do and must keep deciding to do. Television, that opiate of the masses, is what we plop down in front of when we don't want to make any effort at all, letting its programming wash into our minds like the tide.

Even going to see a movie requires a choice and an effort. Television can be watched from bed as one starts to drift off to sleep. It is our most mindless of occupations.

The other thing one notices about television, when considering it next to published fiction, is that a single human being can carry a TV show, just by their looks, their charm, a presence that makes them good company even when they're on a two-dimensional screen. One of the first jabs critics take at fans of BBC Sherlock has always been to cite their love of Benedict Cumberbatch. One of the first plaudits many a lover of CBS's Elementary brings up will always be a fondness for Jonny Lee Miller. Both actors are key to the success of their shows, as are their Watsons. When it comes to actors and stories on a TV show, one sometimes has to wonder which is the cake and which is the icing.

Sherlock Holmes has always been a character of great personality, and love him or hate him, finding him just boring is out of the question. Stories may succeed or fail at holding one's interest as they wander through the dullest of missing papers or an exciting mysterious creature about to attack from the dark, but Holmes himself never bores, which makes him a prime candidate for television. Were the man himself walking the Earth 24-7, following him with a camera would make for a reality show to leave all others in the dust. Of course, what the reality show's editors did with Holmes's footage might not be the most pleasant thing, as they went through their usually doctoring to play up conflict and force themes and storylines into real world events. If Holmes griped about Watson not writing his cases up objectively, one can imagine his reaction to his reality show producers . . . not good at all.

One recent commenter on Elementary claimed that "there's a popular misconception -- the fault of many an adaptation -- that Sherlock Holmes is a supergenius." The writer was obviously a fan of the show who is twisting reality a bit to defend her love of it, and her error brings up the biggest problem with mixing Sherlock Holmes and television: Sherlock Holmes is too smart for a medium that is most often consumed by the brain at rest, as most ongoing American television is contrived for.

But aren't the actors charming.


  1. I was watching 'Brother Cadfael' the other night and my wife says 'You finally found something more boring than Sherlock Holmes.' But she WILL watch 'Elementary' with me. She doesn't care if, as I say, 'those were Holmes lines, not Moriarty's', etc. etc. (She dozed off through the one Robert Downey Jr. Holmes film she watched). She wouldn't consider watching a Rathbone- Bruce flick! So, mindless entertainment though it be, we can watch it together... me griping mildly - she saying, 'eat your popcorn and enjoy. Well, griping IS a form of entertainment.

  2. Great analysis of the importance of medium for a Sherlock Holmes adaptation.