When Arthur Conan Doyle (no relation, worse luck) created Sherlock Holmes, he knew instantly that he had created a winner and money-spinner. The public adored Holmes.
But, being interested in other matters – the Boer War in South Africa, the righting of judicial wrongs, spiritualism and the existence of fairies (worse luck for him), Doyle grew tired of Holmes and killed him off. This didn’t work. Sherlock Holmes never died and never will.
We are in the midst of another cycle of Holmes mania. And we’re talking not just about the BBC’s splendid Sherlock that has aired on PBS, the baroque interpretation of Holmes in those movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and CBS’s Elementary.
Indeed not. Holmes comes in many guises. Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), that drug-addicted medical supersleuth, was a Holmes-based character, as creator David Shore readily acknowledged. A difficult guy using deductive reasoning: That’s House and Holmes in all incarnations.
The appeal? Well, for a start, the public has a love/hate relationship with the figure. The sort of relationship that is hard to define and harder to abandon. The Holmes figure is full of it but compelling, and there is the reassurance that he will solve the puzzle in the end. The fun is in seeing the degree of difficulty he faces and how he overcomes it.
Elementary (starts Thursday, CBS, Global, 9 p.m.) caused a stir as soon as the show’s premise and cast were announced – it is set in present-day New York and stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Since the BBC’s Sherlock is set in contemporary London, the setting might have passed muster with obsessives, but Watson as a woman? And the woman is Lucy Liu! By Jove, that’s going too far.
Not true, actually. Elementary has great charm. This Holmes is young, a hipster of sorts, and has been dispatched to Manhattan by his superrich father after some time in rehab.
Dad supports him financially and has imposed on him what is described as “a sober companion” as a minder. That’s Joan Watson, who was once a surgeon but left the medical racket for unspoken reasons that, naturally, intrigue Holmes.
Being Holmes, and snooty, he initially describes his Watson as his “personal valet.”
When they meet, his first words to her are, “Do you believe in love at first sight?” It’s a trick question of course, but a nice set-up for what unfolds in the pilot episode.
Within minutes, he also explains: “Full disclosure, I find sex repellent. All those fluids and odd sounds.”
The point is to suggest, and not subtly, that there is genuine chemistry between this particular Holmes and this brittle, brilliant female Watson. That’s a great part of the show’s appeal. And that appeal wouldn’t work if Miller didn’t invest the role with an unusual twist – he’s a kinder, gentler Holmes, a bruised soul who could use a little more understanding and tenderness.
Why is he solving crimes in NYC? Well, we’re told that he toiled as a consultant for Scotland Yard and an NYPD detective (Aidan Quinn, specializing in playing Irishy New York cops these days) who worked with him there immediately recognized his genius. The cop indulges Holmes, as cops usually do in the Holmes stories, movies and TV series, but, here, Holmes is tolerated in a way that suggests he’s a brilliant kid who just needs some direction.
That, clearly, is part of his charm for Joan Watson. He’s a kid who needs looking after. “You are so full of it,” she snaps at him, inevitably. But you can tell by her eyes and body language that she would like to mother him a little.
All the fans of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock are going to find the CBS series a Sherlock lite. There’s no escaping that. But, in fairness, that isn’t the full story. It takes skill to add new dimensions to a figure as familiar as Sherlock Holmes and that has been achieved here.
The Jonny Lee Miller Holmes is actually more complex and damaged than the Benedict Cumberbatch Holmes. Around him, a fairly conventional, CBS-standard crime procedural unfolds. But at its core is this wounded, irritating kid-like genius. Arthur Conan Doyle wouldn’t care, one suspects. He tired of Sherlock Holmes at just the right time, leaving others to project their creative versions into the character. And here’s one that clicks nicely.
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