Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Refusing to believe in genius.

An NBC website published a pretty insightful piece on rival CBS's Elementary today, entitled, "CBS' 'Elementary' succeeds because it's about so much more than the genius of Sherlock Holmes."

"Elementary takes the blueprint and turns it inside out," Noah Berlatsky writes. "Rather than one genius, the show is about how different people can work to find the truth together. The real genius of Elementary is that, in its quiet, comforting, formulaic way, it refuses to believe in genius. It believes in other people instead."

That description is dead-on. It explains both the reason the show has pulled in a mainstream American TV audience, and also the reason it's also an irritant to many a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes. Elementary's Joan Watson is one of the few Watsons who doesn't celebrate her friend's genius by publishing his cases, instead choosing to make her own way as a consulting detective. It's a very egalitarian adaptation. Joan can be a consulting detective, Kitty Winter can be a consulting detective, anyone can learn the job if they just work at it.

But that isn't really enough for Elementary, there's a dark side to the equation that Berlatsky's article doesn't bring out, something touched on by Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock, used to great profit in the best-selling Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and at this point, something one might suspect is necessary to create a Sherlock Holmes who succeeds with the general populace, rather than just those who would become Holmes fans anyway. And that is bringing Sherlock Holmes down a peg.

It's not enough to elevate those around the detective, letting them have equal lines in the inevitable confrontation of the murderer. No, it's that genius is a curse. Sherlock Holmes must have flaws that balance out his talents, in equal measure. The drugs are an easy addition, as Doyle tossed those into his originals for color without letting them actually inhibit Holmes. A diagnosis on the autism spectrum is a fairly recent innovation, giving genius along with a cost. Being a social misfit has almost become a standard price for more recent Holmeses, when as eccentric as he might seem in the original Doyle, he navigates society as smoothly as the most charming. And, if all else fails to hold him down, he can always just take a blow to the head, Elementary's latest burden to keep their resident genius in line. Its hero never really needs a "Norbury" safeword. His entire life prior serves that purpose.

We often hear mention of Sherlock Holmes's mind as a racing engine that will tear itself to pieces without proper work, even quoted in Elementary itself. And, following that prediction, in a way Elementary tears Sherlock Holmes to pieces, rather than let him run at full speed, keeping him domesticated and easy-going for the "quiet, comforting, formulaic way" mentioned in the NBC article. No damage is ever permanent. No rift between its Sherlock and Joan keeps them apart for long. The status quo remains, with nothing so jarring as that death and resurrection act more Canonical Holmeses like to pull. Or any of that season four Sherlock pushing of the limits.

As they say, all Sherlock is good Sherlock . . . for someone. Elementary has done a good job of reaching mainstream America, if not pleasing every fan of Rathbone, Brett, or Cumberbatch. Every Sherlockian you meet is happy to tell you who their favorite Sherlock is, and Jonny Lee Miller has his fans as well.

But, man, I wish they'd get out of that precinct house and out for a weekend on a country estate now and then, with no drugs, brain damage, or Morland, and just let Jonny Lee be the unfettered genius that Sherlock Holmes always was.


  1. I like to say, bad Sherlock is better than no Sherlock. I agree that JLM's Sherlock is still the smartest person in the room and it would be fun to see him away from NYPD/Brownstone.