Saturday, November 2, 2013

A report from the front lines.

Well, I tried being positive about CBS's Elementary. Pretending it was a bit of harmless televised fun, "all Sherlock Holmes is good Sherlock Holmes," and all that. Go team. Rah.

But then a comment came in this week, reporting exactly what I knew was going to happen, way back when this ridiculous show began. T'was a tale of a Sherlockian who went to work on Halloween, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and it went like this:

Here I am, dressed as a classic Holmes, and all the people at work either thought Lucy Liu was Holmes or wanted to know where she was. A few said, "Are you supposed to be that guy, what's the name of the guy on Elementary?" "Oh, you mean Jonny Lee Miller." "Who? Is that his name?" No one person said Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. or even Mr. Cumberbatch. I need to change jobs or move out of the U.S.A. Curse you, Elementary!

I sympathize completely with the writer of those words, as I've been in similar spots. While any co-workers I've had long-term eventually get a fair education on Sherlock Holmes just by the osmosis of casual conversation over time, there was always a starting point. Most people have had some contact with Sherlock Holmes over their lifetimes. Whether that contact was an obvious parody, like the Dudley Moore Hound of the Baskervilles or the cartoon Sherlock Holmes in the Twenty-Second Century, you usually had a baseline of solid Canonical ties to work with. The basic story points were there.

And let's face it, as much as Elementary's supporters might strain to pull out Canonical detail from the show, would you rather encounter a new acquaintance who had never heard of Sherlock Holmes, or one that had only watched Elementary? Personally, I'd rather work with a blank slate than have to undo the web of weirdness that Elementary has laid over the top of our familiar story cycle.

"No, Professor Moriarty was not Sherlock's lover. He wasn't even cute, really. No, Watson was not a failed surgeon who solved half the cases. He was a great guy . . . yes, a guy. Sherlock's brother was actually more gifted than Sherlock . . . no, Sherlock didn't sleep with Mycroft's fiancee. Or Watson's friends . . ."

Given that most of these changes are the sort of lurid details added to feed the ratings beast with casual viewers, the sort that wouldn't be interested in Sherlock Holmes under normal conditions, Elementary's take on Sherlock Holmes can easily be judged as exploitative rather than adaptive. The story it's passing on to its millions of viewers is not the one Sherlock Holmes fans grew to love at some point in their lives. It's something much more calculatedly commercial, designed to appeal to a large television demographic. Which is why a number of Sherlockians actually like it -- it was built to be liked.

The question I still have to raise, however, is "Was it built to be Sherlock Holmes?"

I don't think so. And no matter how positive I try to be about that show, that answer remains solid, with more evidence supporting it every single week. Anyone who comes into the orbit of a devoted Sherlockian is going to learn about Sherlock Holmes. But having that first Sherlock Holmes talk with a new friend is like having a sex talk with your kids: you hope you don't have to undo a bunch of crap they learned on the streets. And Elementary at the moment, seems to be "the streets."


  1. Saw the last episode of THAT show - the barking dog didn't bark - I was waiting for SOMEONE to say 'the curious incident of the dog in the night time, etc. BUT THEY DIDN'T! Or perhaps they did and I snoozed through it. (Not likely, though, as I watched it at two in the afternoon.) Do they even read the canon?

  2. "It's something much more calculatedly commercial, designed to appeal to a large television demographic. Which is why a number of Sherlockians actually like it -- it was built to be liked."

    And this is exactly what Stephen Moffat meant when he said he was afraid "E" could damage the brand. He was right and it does.

    1. Because Moffat wants the monopoly on commercializing Sherlock Holmes on television?

    2. If Moffat want the monopoly on commercializing Sherlock, he sure can have it! The guy knows how to handle an intellectual property legacy pretty darn well, as evidenced by that other British national treasure, the Doctor.

  3. Frankly, none of the three current manifestations of Sherlock Holmes are likely to bring in more than a handful of long-term Sherlockians. Those who swoon over Downey, Cumberbatch or Miller (or their Watsons) without any previous exposure to our hero are unlikely to be particularly interested in the slower-paced, non-technological Sherlock Holmes of "A Case of Identity" or "The Mazarin Stone" or even of "The Hound."

    There is something new in the world of Sherlock Holmes, and it is exciting and fun. I enjoy it a lot. All three manifestations, the 221B Con, all of it. But I am willing to bet anything you care to wager that a vast and overwhelming majority those who know nothing much of Holmes but Elementary, Sherlock or the Downey movies will discard Sherlock Holmes within two to four years (at most) after the last episode airs. None of them -- not one -- are close enough or related enough to the original stories to produce that kind of interest. There are no high tech bells and whistles in a Conan Doyle story.

    You want to talk about hurting the brand, lets talk about print on demand pastiches. Now THAT hurts the brand.

    1. I'll have to disagree with you on considering all three new incarnations as equals, Bill. While Sherlock fandom may be a wave that recedes, just as Jeremy Brett caused a temporary rise in scion memberships, like the Brett series, Sherlock is on track to leave a new generation of Sherlockians in its wake -- we've gotten good Sherlockians out of it already. And who's to say that Sherlock fandom itself might not have some longevity? It's like nothing we've seen before. And once we start seeing similar effects from Elementary, I might be a bit more accepting of it. But I will be very surprised if that happens.

    2. The only people who buy print-on-demand pastiches (or pastiches at all) are people who are already Sherlock Holmes fans. So no, this won't hurt the brand because they already know how out beloved character is like.

      The movies and shows on the other hand can become a problem when they distort the character in the book too much. Just look what damage the Basil Rathbone movies did to the character of Dr. Watson, who was reduced to a stupid sidekick for years until finally some other adaptations came along and set things right.

      Of the three which are currently popular Sherlock is the only one which really respects the characters and which actually has the effect on the fans that they go and read the book just to see how the original story was changed for the adaptation. Elementary is the one which is slowly burying what Sherlock Holmes is about (and if I read the argument "the series finally makes the character human" again I scream! The character was always human, it just had different faults than usual. This is what makes Sherlock Holmes so special). The movies are somewhere in the middle. (Though I facepalmed when during one of the Q&A for Sherlock a fan asked why the writers decided to cast an actor who is smaller than BC instead of sticking to a larger Watson...the only Watson who is larger is the one in those movies)

    3. The reason why these things don't produce many long-term Sherlockians is that there aren't many people who are the type to become Sherlockians. One thing about BBC Sherlock (I can't speak to the others, as I've yet to see them) is that it attracts an intelligent audience, but six episodes simply isn't enough to last any fan very long. My friend introduced me to the BBC version, and we both read the originals. We both went online and read fan fiction and discussed our favorite episodes from the television show and our favorite stories from the sixty. The difference between us is that this community for discussing the originals doesn't appeal to her. Although she reads this site on occasion, she doesn't understand why I joined the JHWS, or subscribed to Hounds of the Internet. There are some people whose brains are not built to enjoy this kind of thing, but I think those who will enjoy it will find the community online and join, regardless of how they discovered Holmes.

    4. Do one have to be part of a particular community to be a fan? I just think that a lot of groups which are specifically Sherlock Holmes fans are too pretentious for my taste. They take it too serious and overanalyse the stories to a point that it isn't fun anymore. It is more fun to go to a Sherlock site and start to discuss the original stories there. It is a more fun approach.

  4. Excellent points, Bill. To which I can only reply, "Thank God I've still got Nero Wolfe!" (Until, that is, they cast Vin Diesel in the role -- with Miley Cyrus as Archie...)

  5. Mr. Mason says "Frankly, none of the three current manifestations of Sherlock Holmes are likely to bring in more than a handful of long-term Sherlockians." Where are the facts to back up such an outlandish statement? You sound like an old crumudgeon. The first thing I did after seeing E1S1 of 'Sherlock' was purchase a copy of 'The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories', as did a number of my friends. Then to throw these three productions into one hat is blasphemy. Excellent points Mr. Morrill, what are you smoking? How very American of you fellows to not recognize how much 'Sherlock' has influnced the entire world. You Yanks can have your 'Elementary' & RDJ, but please quit putting 'Sherlock' in the same arguments, it makes you sound rather foolish.

  6. I don't think it mad to say that the majority of the fans of the current shows will disappear after they conclude. A minority will discover the original Holmes and remain but it will be a minority - just as it was with every other adaptation that came before.

    What I've noticed with the SHSL is that we gained a lot of new members in the aftermath of the RDJ films, BBC Sherlock and (perhaps) Elementary. However these new members rarely renewed for a second year. Was it that they expected a society that revered their favourite show, was it that they simply had no taste for the original or did they simply not like the way the more "traditional" societies operate? It could be any or all of the above I suppose.

  7. And this is why market research will ever only take you so far:

    There is, I believe, a fundamental difference how tv shows are produced in the US and in Europe. And it's not only the marked absence of writers' rooms. Here hardly anyone would think of doing market research before producing a new show. Questions like “Do viewers really want to see this? What would they expect? What to avoid at all costs?” don't bother anyone until the ratings make it clear whether it's a hit or miss.

    That is, I think, because tv shows are still viewed as works of artistic expression and not as just another product. Of course both approaches have their pros and cons – depending on what one wants to achieve. Creative freedom for writers, directors, producers is of far greater concern here.

    I have often stated that I believe “Elementary” to be a by the numbers product of research into what a small but vocal group of “Sherlock”-critics claims to be the show's faults, namely racism, misogynism, queer-baiting and whatever. But apparently “E's” first season's relative success which, in my opinion, heavily depended on avoidance of the above perceived flaws, thus ensuring positive reviews by the armchair social warriors, is dwindling in its second season.

    The writers/producers of “E” have been let off the leash and are not so heavily monitored by CBS anymore, I assume, as they seemed to have internalised what was expected of them. Fatal misapprehension. Now it shows that they haven't understood anything at all. For a show to be such a rip-roaring success as “Sherlock” you don't only need to give the viewers what they want, you have to give them something they didn't even knew they wanted.

    “Sherlock's” magic derives from genius on all levels, not only the writing – although that is a big, perhaps the biggest, part of it. But it also shows in the direction, acting, lighting, camera work, costumes etc. That is, I'm convinced, because Moffat/Gatiss as lifelong Sherlock Holmes afficionados did give this, their pet project, the very best treatment they could afford.

    Which is something a hired writer/producer not formerly involved with the subject matter can never hope to copy.

    As an example just for brilliant camerawork/staging I give you this:

    Show me something equal in “Elementary” I dare you, you poor undiscerning Americans, not even able to see the difference (those present on this blog excepted, of course).

    1. I think the "success" (which is really not as big as CBS likes to make the fans believe) is also based on a very clever marketing campaign. CBS first engineered a fandom war and then set back and pretended to be the poor victim. Everyone was so relieved that it wasn't a badly done remake of Sherlock that few asked the question if it is still a well done adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. (And nobody can tell me that picking of all actors Miller was done in the knowledge that it would result in every reporter asking Cumberbatch for a year what he thought about it...don't get me wrong, Miller is a good actor, but I bet this little fact gave him the edge over other good actors).

  8. "CBS first engineered a fandom war and then set back and pretended to be the poor victim...And nobody can tell me that picking of all actors Miller was done in the knowledge that it would result in every reporter asking Cumberbatch for a year what he thought about it...don't get me wrong, Miller is a good actor, but I bet this little fact gave him the edge over other good actors."

    Very good points, anonymous!