Of all the versions of Sherlock Holmes, both past and present, none appear have been so far removed from the Conan Doyle blueprint as ‘Elementary’. ANN MASSEY takes at a look at the series overall and tells us why a visit to Baker Street wasn’t necessary for the brilliant detective.
When you think of Sherlock Holmes in film or television, perhaps you think of Peter Cushing or Basil Rathbone – maybe Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr? Undoubtedly you picture them in 221b Baker Street, London. So what happens when you place the quintessential English Detective in New York, all chocked full of modernity with a female Doctor Watson played by Lucy Liu?
Well first of all you end up with Johnny Lee Miller, who brings vulnerability to a character whose flaws have always been played down or romanticised in previous and indeed current incarnations. Our Elementary Sherlock Holmes is reclusive, defensive and constantly teetering on the edge of his drug addiction. His dependency is referred to in most episodes as a reminder of his constant battle with his apathy, inner demons and his need for escapism. In a further prompt, our New York Doctor Watson takes up residence in what is known as ‘The Brownstone’ as the sober companion of Sherlock Holmes, employed by Sherlock’s father.
Elementary Englishman in New York with Sherlock Stateside
The series centres around Sherlock’s work with the New York Police Department as a consulting detective and it is not long before Doctor Watson becomes his prodigy. Holmes’ Baker Street roots are not forgotten with references to his fall into drug addiction, relationship with Irene Adler and his family estrangements consistently part of the story arc and individual cases.
So who is missing? Moriarty? No! The elusive ‘M’ travels to New York in the most unlikely form of one Mr Vinny Jones, or is he Moriarty? Messing with Sherlock’s already dark and twisted mind, the appearance of his nemesis has the Detective crossing more legal lines than ever and dispersing with the few ethics he has, in order to get to the bottom of the Moriarty mystery with shocking results. What of Lestrade? Sean Pertwee drops the long suffering, bumbling Officer of Scotland Yard approach as he shows us he is a narcissistic and incompetent disgrace to his profession and uses Sherlock’s reputation and expertise to further his own needs.
That leaves us with Mycroft and 221b Baker Street. Bring in Rhys Ifans as the more sophisticated and refined of the two Holmes brothers and you would think this is the one character they have not tampered with, however Mycroft appears on the surface to be a restaurateur intent in causing his brother irritation and consternation and it is not until much later his links to Whitehall become apparent.
For our journey back to Baker Street (it happens in Season 2, Episode 1), we are joining Sherlock on an uneasy revisit to a place which saw him reach rock bottom and forced him to sever all emotional ties to his homeland. The reason for the visit is equally unpleasant as Lestrade is on the run after losing his sanity and Mycroft has moved into 221b. As the episode unravels we discover the depths of Mycroft’s illness, his not so platonic relationship with Doctor Watson and the reasons behind Lestrade’s fall from grace.
That said, while this Baker Street bound episode gave us some back story and paved the way for future episodes, it didn’t quite work for me. The success of Elementary lies with Holmes being vulnerable in an unforgiving city and having to uncomfortably forge working relationships while constantly searching for new methods of distraction from his battles with boredom and addiction.
So it seems that London and 221b Baker Street, Lestrade, Moriarty and Mycroft are not vital cogs in the Sherlock Holmes machine and certainly in Elementary their introduction seems more a nostalgic reference than necessity. It appears Sherlock Holmes is settled in New York without a full entourage, however it goes without saying that in any incarnation he cannot be at the top of his game without Watson.
And what of good old solid, Mrs Hudson? Has she been left as the iconic housekeeper in Baker Street when all others have had their characters turned on their heads? Not a hope! Not to be seen at all in London, Ms Hudson turns up at ‘The Brownstone’ as a transgender fellow addict who has helped Sherlock with several unsavoury projects and has a colourful past of her own. She does end up doing the housekeeping however, which is something.
So by taking Sherlock Holmes out of London, rewriting all the characters and magnifying the flawed essence of the man whilst maintaining his Detective brilliance, is it a step too far? I honestly don’t think so. The writing is witty, the complex relationship between Holmes and Watson is relevant and the storylines are very much up to date without being abrasive or sensationalist.
This version of a constantly remade and reworked stalwart of film and television is so far from the archetypal portrayal it may well not appeal to the die-hard fans of 221b Baker Street, however it is dark, amusing and different.
Is it for everyone? No. Is it classic? Absolutely not. It is however, definitely Sherlock Holmes and that is elementary!