Movies, Reviews

Why Sherlock is Brilliant (and Elementary Worries Me)

I don’t know how many of you know this (probably most of you), but I, like, really like Sherlock. The BBC show. I mean, I’m a fan of the original canon, too, but BBC’s Sherlock pretty much owns my heart and soul at the moment. I haven’t felt this strongly about a TV show since Firefly, so. You know. I like it a lot, basically.

There are a lot of reasons I like Sherlock, but for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to talk about the primary one: how freaking brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman are as Holmes and Watson. The essential point of the Holmes stories, for me, has always been the friendship between the two men, and this series really takes that idea to heart. Their friendship hits all the right notes: mutual admiration, hilarity, vague homosexual undertones, constant fighting, co-dependence, and what can only be described as desperately platonic love (and yes, I know that a lot of fangirls like to make that love less “platonic” and more “humping-around-every-corner,” but I find that kind of thinking misses the entire point, to which I say harumph. HARUMPH, I tell you).

But guys. I am worried. I am worried because CBS is making their own modern version of the Sherlock Holmes stories, called Elementary, and they made Watson a woman (more specifically, they made him Lucy Liu). This worries me for two reasons:

1. Watson & Holmes’ relationship isn’t about sex.

When you make Watson female, and Holmes is still male, all of a sudden their totally unique and powerful friendship turns into just another excuse to splash barely restrained hetero sexual tension across the screen. Which is not to say that there isn’t sexual tension when it’s two guys, because there totally is holy hell, but rather that everyone totally chills out about it because it’s hetero, so whatever, seen it a million times. It makes it easy to dismiss their relationship. It takes something extraordinary and interesting and complicated, and makes it downright trite. As Sherlock would say: boring.

I find this gender-swapped casting particularly alarming because, being American television, you just know they’re going to sleep together. And like I said before, that’s missing the point. Yes, Holmes and Watson are essentially in love, but it isn’t sexual. Adding sex into that equation just, just–ugh. I can’t even.

If they had made Holmes female, too, as the estimable Miss Emily suggested, they might have actually had an interesting concept. Not to mention timely, considering the gay marriage debates currently raging across the United States. But, alas.

2. Remaking shows that are still on air is stupid (and hurts the original show).

Why the hell does the US feel the need to re-make every single British TV show that gains even a small following? What the hell is up with this? And why do British TV people let them get away with it? Maybe this is just because I’ve watched a lot of British TV (Being Human, Jekyll, Sherlock of course, Robin Hood, Doctor Who, Torchwood, etc.), so I’m just as comfortable with it stylistically as I am with US television, but it seems weird to me that anyone would bother to re-make these shows. The remakes are so similar to the originals that it hardly seems to make sense to make a second version, especially considering that the US versions tend to water the stories down in favor of blatant sexual pandering and prettier actors (British actors tend to be a bit less attractive than their US counterparts, I’ve noticed, but infinitely more convincing, which is the actual point of acting, anyway). I don’t understand. What’s the point in it all? Why not just import the original show, which is usually better anyway?

There are, of course, some exceptions to this. For example, I would argue that the remake of the Office was warranted, because the specific brand of comedy in that show doesn’t translate well to US audiences, and being primarily a comedy, the whole business required translation to really work. That’s why fans of the US Office rarely like the British one, and vice versa. That said, the vast majority of the time, these remakes are a mistake. I was relieved when I heard that Moffat, Gatiss, Vertue et. al. turned down CBS when they asked to remake Sherlock. Finally, I thought, British TV makers who stand up for their creation rather than selling it! Then CBS just goes and launches a “totally different” show. It’s…depressing, to say the least.

What’s really sad about all these remakes, though, is that US audiences then assume that the remake is the only version out there–since the fact that it’s a remake isn’t exactly advertised–and then when the show bombs, everyone just gives up on it. I suppose that’s what really bugs me about this. If Elementary sucks as hard as I think it’s going to, that’s going to reflect on Sherlock, no matter how little they are actually related. And that’s just…ugh.

And I realize that I shouldn’t pass judgement on a show I haven’t seen yet, but something is rotten in 221B Baker St., and I am keeping my guard up on this one. I will probably watch the first episode, allowing that it doesn’t come to blows in court for the Sherlock creators (if a copyright battle breaks out, I will have to abstain on principle), but I don’t have high hopes. And either way, the second Miss Watson and Mr. Holmes lock lips, I’m out.

Worriedly yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“I’m not a psychopath, Anderson. I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.” -Sherlock Holmes, SherlockA Study in Pink (S1E1)

pg. 215 of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

P.S. While I still maintain that (the original) Sherlock Holmes was the first to do this, I realize that the whole asshole-genius-with-long-suffering-and-overly-nice-best-friend-who-is-also-pretty-smart trope is actually pretty common in modern television. In fact, I made a badly drawn little comic about it, over on my deviantArt. Enjoy, I suppose.

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20 thoughts on “Why Sherlock is Brilliant (and Elementary Worries Me)”

  1. I have Sherlock! I haven’t watched it or anything, but one of my colleagues just lent me the box set, so the chances of this someday becoming the only TV show in the world that I’m up to date with are…quite reasonable.

    Your comic made me laugh! Apparently House’s debt to Holmes is openly acknowledged (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_(TV_series)#References_to_Sherlock_Holmes). As for sidekick relations, you’re probably right that Conan Doyle refined that particular model, but the model itself goes way back — Sancho Panza anyone?

    1. Sherlock is most excellent! I shall have to issue to you the same warning I gave Thomas–you must watch it immediately or our friendship is in jeopardy. Yes. It’s that good.

      I shall have to investigate this Sancho Panza. I feel like my English degree is failing me right now. XD Incidentally, I am currently reading Gulliver’s Travels, and I often get the feeling that he’s John Watson and the world is Sherlock Holmes, except that in this case Watson is also an asshole (post pending). I don’t know if that makes any sense. But. There you go.

      1. Panza is Don Quixote’s sidekick — in arguably The First Novel. Quixote is less genius and more deluded than the Holmes archetype, but I think Panza probably fits the Watson mould quite well — more down-to-earth and sensible, but less celebrated than his companion.

        Love the Gulliver — Watson — Sherlock — World analogy. I think it’s safe to say your degree hasn’t entirely let you down =p. If memory serves, your opinion of Gulliver will…well, let’s not spoil anything, shall we? ;)

        1. Ah, Don Quixote! Yet another classic story with which I am only familiar enough to understand the occasional XKCD joke. For example, I know that there is a windmill. I’ll get around to actually reading a translation of it some day, I’m sure….

          I’m currently at the part where Gulliver encounters Swift’s insanely hilarious satire of universities. I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud that often in such a short period of time while reading a book. But for serious, every other thing Gulliver says makes me want to slap him. And there are so many things that no one ever mentions about it! What gives? XD

            1. Oh, and a large part of the parts I’m surprised by are actually potty humor. Which I probably only escaped knowing about because I staunchly refused to see the Jack Black movie. I suspect urinating on a palace is the kind of thing he couldn’t refuse….

    1. I don’t have any hard numbers, and my experience totally isn’t representative, but there’s a sizable following I think. For example: both my alma mater and a couple other nearby universities had breakouts of “I believe in Sherlock Holmes” and “Moriarty was real” chalk graffiti across campus after Reichenbach came out. Despite the fact that Sherlock won’t actually be released in the US until May (it airs on PBS). XD I justify my piracy with a promise to buy it when it is available here!

      Even so, I think Elementary is going to attract more national attention, regardless of how well Sherlock does, due to being on a major network like CBS. Nobody actually watches PBS. At least, not anybody in Sherlock‘s target market. It’s sad. :(

        1. I think we have a few years of Sherlock in front of us, especially considering how flexible Moffat, et al. are about their increasingly more and more popular actors’ busy schedules. Even if it means we have to wait freaking YEARS between seasons. XD

          I’m not familiar with Johnny Lee Miller’s work, though I’ve heard good things about him, so I suppose his Sherlock portrayal is worth keeping fingers crossed on. As for Lucy Liu, I just hope she brings more Lucky Number Sleven and less Charlie’s Angels, haha.

          1. Yes, we probably have a few years of Sherlock ahead; however, I doubt Moffat will (be able to) continue with writing new seasons for much longer. Soon the stars will want to work for Hollywood full time and it will cost too much to keep them :( Do you think they’ll die JLM’s hair black/brown, like they did for Cumberbatch?

            1. I don’t think the call of Hollywood is going to lure Messrs. Cumberbatch and Freeman away. For one thing, they’re both already there, and both have gone on record saying they hope to continue the show for a long time. It’s hard to say with Sherlock, though. It breaks a lot of TV-show-making models. It’ll definitely be interesting to watch it do whatever it ends up doing.

              And god I hope not. CBS should be doing everything in their power to AVOID things BBC did, even things as small as that. XD Plus, Miller’s pretty classically good looking. I doubt they’ll mess with him much, although if they’re sticking with the drug addict thread, I’m guessing they’ll wash him out a bit. So, maybe, more like Hugh Laurie on House, with all the scruff?

              1. Fair enough, I certainly hope that they manage to keep up Sherlock on the side with other jobs! It would definitely be worth the wait.
                Aha, yup, they’ll probably make him look like a scruffy, House-esque drug addict in a detective coat smoking cigars :P Oh dear…

  2. I didn’t realize they were making a US version of Sherlock. Nobody can top Cumberbatch and Freeman. That slow is so slick, witty, wonderful in so many ways. (I just started a blog about British TV: ilovebritishtv.com) And yes, why does the US always have to make their own versions of UK shows.? They rarely work.

    1. Well, technically it isn’t a US version of Sherlock because they didn’t get the rights to it. It’s another modern day version of the original stories, unaffiliated with the BBC show. That’s why there’s all this question about whether or not it’s copyright infringement. I actually kind of think casting Lucy Liu was their attempt to cover their asses legally after they cast Johnny Lee Miller, who actually starred opposite Cumberbatch in a Frankenstein play and whose career is quite similar to his, too. Sue Vertue was all, “Let’s hope their pilot differs from our show more than their casting choice,” and CBS basically went “PANIC!! Quick, who’s the opposite of Martin Freeman? I know! LUCY LIU!” Haha.

  3. 1. Watson & Holmes’ relationship isn’t about sex.

    When you make Watson female, and Holmes is still male, all of a sudden their totally unique and powerful friendship turns into just another excuse to splash barely restrained hetero sexual tension across the screen. Which is not to say that there isn’t sexual tension when it’s two guys, because there totally is holy hell, but rather that everyone totally chills out about it because it’s hetero, so whatever, seen it a million times. It makes it easy to dismiss their relationship. It takes something extraordinary and interesting and complicated, and makes it downright trite. As Sherlock would say: boring.
    No. How many episodes of Elementary did you watch? Sherlock actually encourages Joan to go on a dates, especially through the first season. In season two she forms a relationship with his brother, Mycroft. Sherlock doesn’t agree but jealousy is never mentioned as a reason. There is no sexual tension between them, that is what makes their dynamic unique- and even if they eventually get romantically involved it obviously isn’t a plan right now or the reason why they made Watson a woman. If anyone comes off as homophobic or sexist here you are. You are the one who thinks that the only reason they made Watson a woman is so there will be a sexual tension between her and Sherlock. Even if there is a sexual tension why would it bother you if you are OK with homoerotic undertones in BBC’s Sherlock? After all the adaptations where both John anc Sherlock are men that would actually be a fresh change not something homophobic.
    Elementary isn’t re-make of BBC’s Sherlock. It is an adaptation of original Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock is the adaptation of original stories too, but it isn’t the first one, not even the first modern day adaptation. Elementary and Sherlock have little things in common.
    Even critics praise Elementary, since the first episode. Lots of them being the same critics who praise BBC’s Sherlock. Elementary’s first season held 83% of 100% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s second season held 100% of 100% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s been renewed for this season. It won twelve well respected television awards so far.
    Also, since you brought up lots of far-fetched reasons to why Elementary “worries you”, why don’t you bring up the fact that most of the main, strong characters that BBC’s Sherlock feautures are straight white men, despite the fact that people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and nationality live in modern day London. Or the fact that BBC’s Sherlock puts little to no effort in character development, or the fact that BBC’s Sherlock constantly puts down and makes fun of his Watson, which isn’t how their dynamic works at all and it is more a Gregory House/James Willson dynamic from House M.D. (US show loosely based on Sherlock Holmes-although not a direct adaptation-), or the fact that most of the BBC’s Sherlock fans agree that Sherlock worries them since season three?

    1. Hello! I am sorry my post bothers you so much, but would like to point out that it was written well before the release of Elementary. I was discussing my anxieties upon the subject, which have since been ameliorated. But I am not in the habit of deleting posts, so this one stays up for posterity. Hope that clears things up! :)

      1. I’m glad to hear that, but I still think that you should have wait to at least see some of Elementary before making such assumptions. And also there was no need to declare Elementary an US version of Sherlock when even before it was released, it was made clear that it is an adaptation of original Sherlock Holmes stories, in no way a remake of BBC’s Sherlock, and then you basicly insulted Lucy Liu and producers of Elementary by writing a comment where you say that the only reason they casted her was to make sure that their Watson won’t be similar to the one in BBC’s Sherlock. Like I said I’m glad to hear that you realized that Elementary isn’t shallow and rip-off like you expected it to be but please don’t write articles in which you make assumptions about the TV show without even watching the pilot episode of a show you write about.

        1. Actually, CBS tried to purchase the rights to the Sherlock BBC franchise to make an American version of that show specifically, and it wasn’t until after the BBC flatly refused that Elementary was proposed. There was a lot of concern about copyright violation sounding the production of the show (especially after they cast Johnny Lee Miller, who has worked closely with Benedict Cumberbatch on a number of projects and is widely considered a very similar actor), and it wasn’t until after Moffat et. al. made it clear that they would enforce their copyright that Lucy Liu was cast. I’m glad that Elementary turned out to be a great show in its own right, but given the controversy around its inception, I don’t think I was out of line to express my opinion on the matter on my personal blog.

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