Pop Rocks: CBS Misses Its Chance With Elementary

Categories: Pop Rocks

elementary1011.jpg
That scarf looks familiar.
When news came out that CBS was planning a show based on Sherlock Holmes, in the wake of the BBC's Sherlock specifically, it wasn't much of a surprise. The BBC had a huge hit on their hands, and we Americans are nothing if not consistent in ripping off our British friends.

Television-wise, that is.

But CBS couldn't avoid messing with the formula that made Sherlock - and the original A. Conan Doyle stories themselves - work. Which is why Elementary might run for several seasons, but will be otherwise unmemorable, and not really worthy of consideration as a "Sherlock Holmes" story.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first, because "Americanization" or not, some things are hard to overlook. For starters, Holmes would probably never get tattoos, unless they had some shamanistic significance. Certainly that approach doesn't apply to the regrettable dragon thing on Jonny Lee Miller's left shoulder. I also won't get into how Holmes' apartment on the show is - like his scarf - seemingly a direct lift from the BBC version.

More troublesome to me is the immediate assertion of Holmes' daddy issues. In Doyles' works as well as the BBC series, no mention is made of the consulting detective's parents, yet front and center in the pilot is the conflict between junior and senior Holmes (his father is the one who hires the former Doctor Watson to keep tabs on his rehabbed son).

What, brother Mycroft wasn't enough? Of course he wasn't. This is America, where neglectful parents and childhood trauma always explain our adult behavior. There's no way this show gets made in the United States without the Freudian angle. It was also likely the driver behind making Watson a female with a haunted past instead of an ex military doctor.

No, the real problems with Elementary are twofold. First, the crimes he's solving aren't particularly bizarre. The big revelation that the victim in the pilot let her killer in the apartment comes when he sees the amount of shards on the kitchen floor and deduces there were two glasses. Very well, but this is hardly The Speckled Band territory. Same for spotting the blood on the footprint (with his iPhone) or noticing the finger marks on the victim's neck don't match the original suspect's, something he freely admits the medical examiner would have discovered at autopsy.

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Watching the detectives.
And that's par for the course: "A parking ticket fell out of your purse." That's how he knows Watson has a car. This isn't deductive reasoning, because it could belong to Watson's husband, or maybe she picked it up off the street. It's likely that the ticket means Watson owns a car. This gets a little better as the show goes on, but his great leaps of mental prowess are generally reserved for personal observations about Watson and not the crime at hand.

And why's that? Because of the second problem, which is CBS' overwhelming desire to procedural-ize everything. Long years of rating success with the likes of C.S.I., The Mentalist and NCIS have rendered the network incapable of taking risk (never a strong suit of the major broadcast networks to begin with). There's nothing about CBS' version of Holmes that makes him distinctly Sherlock-ian (not even the scarf, a patently obvious swipe from Benedict Cumberbatch's version). The crimes we've seen thus far aren't exceptionally diabolical, and certainly nothing that couldn't be solved by Gil Grissom or some other CBS detective of above average intelligence.

Does this mean Elementary is doomed to fail? Hardly. There's a reason CBS keeps making this kind of show, and people miss House, MD, that other show about an irascible drug addict who solved mysteries. I actually don't think Miller is that bad (and I say this as a guy who really hated Eli Stone), and while I thought his chemistry with Lucy Liu is one of the few things that works on the show, the already present sexual tension had my eyes rolling audibly before the credits rolled on the first episode. That aside, Elementary is simply another by-the-numbers murder of the week drama that happens to have a character in it named after the most famous detective in history. It's disappointing the network didn't stick its neck out a little and try to make something worthy of its main character's pedigree.



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21 comments
MyrtleMartha
MyrtleMartha

You missed one other Americanization that is probably going to help the ratings of Elementary: the Liu character is fitted into a long-standing woman-of-color trope that will likely seem familiar and comfortable to the older and more conservative CBS audience. This WOC characterization goes back to movies like "It's a Wonderful Life," "Imitation of Life," and "Gone with the Wind," plus a number of TV shows.

 

1. The WOC must have no significant life of her own, so that she can be available pretty much round-the-clock to be a caretaker for a white person. Joan therefore had to lose the traditional military and successful-doctor background, and become a literal caretaker for Holmes. Maybe later she'll earn her way into being considered a friend, but we begin with her as a paid employee swabbing out Holmes' mouth, following him around, and even pushing away her love interest in order to be of service.

 

2. The WOC must be willing to forgive being patronized and even insulted, as Joan does, for the sake of the white person, who needs to make only occasional little apologies before continuing the demands and patronizing.

 

3.The WOC's sacrificial and/or hard-working efforts must be made somehow amusing to this particular audience, so the audience can trivialize her - avoid taking her too seriously. In "It's a Wonderful Life," the black maid makes a huge financial sacrifice for the good of her white "family," while the white characters laugh indulgently as though she were a child offering up an allowance.

 

Examples of the trivializing effect from Elementary: When Holmes demands Joan's keys, she actually just hands them over  to a man she knows to be a manipulative, self-centered drug addict. The scene is played as powerful as the white man gives an order. But when Joan orders Holmes out to the car, and he goes, the scene is played for comic effect: how funny that Holmes would obey this upstart woman. And of course, when a door opens to reveal a woman lying on the floor with her head in a pool of blood, Joan, unlike almost any other doctor faced with such a view, doesn't instinctively move forward to help, but instead squeals amusingly and turns away. Then when (in the next episode) challenged about it, her excuse is again amusing: despite the fact that she was a surgeon who must have dealt constantly with the blood and mess of cutting into a living person and despite the fact that she had to have trained in an emergency room, Joan actually claims that she's only used to a neat, sanitized dealing with corpses.

 

I'm guessing that this version of Watson is going to be a very welcomed, non-threatening cliche for many in the CBS American audience.

naterichmond7
naterichmond7

Lucy Liu playing Watson! How great would this be for Sherlock Holmes if this was real? I decided to give this show a try strictly, because of Lucy Liu. I’ve already gotten into BBC’s version of Sherlock Holmes so I had not desire to watch another one. “Elementary” is not half bad. I expected it to suck but surprisingly enough it did not. If it was not for my Hoppers Primetime Anytime feature I would have never saw this show. I guess that’s the whole reason why I got the Hopper, because my DISH coworker who sold me the Hopper told me that its Primetime Anytime feature automatically records all of my prime time shows that come on CBS, NBC, FOX and ABC everyday in HD.

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@LuluHihi @artattackhp Not "Sherlock" and not even Sherlock Holmes. I give it a season...

kiraivy2
kiraivy2

@LuluHihi Except I don't like it when they talk about Sherlock as a BBC show, and don't mention PBS, as if people can't watch it here!

kiraivy2
kiraivy2

@RamonaMGreene @luluhihi @artattackhp I'll try to have enough respect for the US TV audience to believe that...

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@kiraivy2 @luluhihi Yes, PBS needs to boast like heck when it comes to Sherlock!!

LuluHihi
LuluHihi

@kiraivy2 Too right. BBCA doesn't have it after all. I think BBC are a bit of the US Plat Du Jour right now!

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@kiraivy2 @luluhihi @artattackhp Ha! We can always hope...and educate those who are in the dark. #spreadtheword #MissionSherlock

LuluHihi
LuluHihi

@RamonaMGreene @kiraivy2 Why do you think they don't?

kiraivy2
kiraivy2

@RamonaMGreene @luluhihi Sure, but CBS doesn't want anyone to know where to watch Sherlock here and the journalists seem to forget sometimes

kiraivy2
kiraivy2

@LuluHihi @ramonamgreene Well yeah PBS is I'm sure more watched in liberal areas...

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@LuluHihi @kiraivy2 @artattackhp Yeah, it takes a while for things to go West, haha...

LuluHihi
LuluHihi

@RamonaMGreene @kiraivy2 @ArtAttackHP It's well known among my Chicago family& friends & not at all to my AZ/ UT/ 4 Corners peeps-politics?!

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@kiraivy2 @luluhihi Oh, the humanity!!! #spreadtheword #MissionSherlock

kiraivy2
kiraivy2

@RamonaMGreene @luluhihi heard of Sherlock...

kiraivy2
kiraivy2

@RamonaMGreene @luluhihi They don't have the money the big networks have DA was luck/word of mouth. I try but barely anyone I meet has ever

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@LuluHihi @kiraivy2 Money, probably...or too busy promoting Downtown Abbey.

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@kiraivy2 @luluhihi Yes! Lord knows I tell everyone I know! Ha!

kiraivy2
kiraivy2

@RamonaMGreene @luluhihi Many do mention how brilliant it is so people might research it but I wish they'd say PBS or even Netflix sometimes

RamonaMGreene
RamonaMGreene

@kiraivy2 @luluhihi Well, maybe we need to remind them!!!

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