The murder mystery has long been a mainstay of television and cinema. Characters from all walks of life have delved into the art of solving a murder – lawyers, doctors, mystery writers, con men, post officer clerks, and, yes, even private detectives. All of these characters have one man to thank: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes, first appeared in 1887 in the novel /A Study in Scarlet/. That story, and each one following, featured a mystery as written by Holmes’s friend, Dr. John Watson, solved by Sherlock’s keen observation. No detail was too small for Holmes to ignore, and keen readers could work with the clues found to determine who the perpetrator was. However, Holmes had his flaws. He was a brusque man, didn’t like dealing with people, and tended to brush others aside while working. Incompetence was not tolerated. Fortunately, Watson could be the softer side of Holmes, letting Sherlock do what he did best.
Sherlock Holmes is the most adapted character ever, featuring in theatre, movies, radio plays, television, and pastiches*. Television series that didn’t normally deal with mysteries would have a Holmesian episode; Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Elementary, My Dear Data” is a perfect example. The lure of an intelligent man who still has flaws appears to be irrestible to writers. Helping with the temptation is the work being in the public domain.
This brings us to today – specifically, last week – with the premier of a new CBS TV series, Elementary. The series brings Sherlock Holmes, played by Jonny Lee Miller, to modern day New York City after being released from rehab back in England. To help him keep on the wagon, Dr. Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is assigned to keep Holmes company. As part of his self-imposed conditions, Holmes returns to doing what he does best, being a freelance consulting detective, this time working with the New York Police Department to solve crimes. The first episode had Holmes as a brusque, haunted man, one who doesn’t pay attention to social niceities. Watson helps temper Holmes’s rude manner, being the friendly side to the partnership. Throughout the episode, camera tricks help with Sherlock’s observational skills, letting the audience see what he sees. The tricks aren’t overused, though. Often, Holmes would ask an odd question or suddenly change direction and check an area that originally wasn’t part of the crime scene.
Elementary takes some liberties with the original work. Bringing Holmes to modern times and transplanting him to New York are the obvious ones, as is changing Dr. Watson’s gender. Yet, the explanation for moving to New York City makes sense and follows from Sherlock’s addiction to cocaine in the original stories. Holmes is also not starting out as a rookie; instead, he has a proven track record with police and intelligence services in Britain already, though entering rehab did cause some problems there. As for Watson, she is working to get Holmes’s trust while making sure he is healthy, and can keep up with the detective’s quirky train of thought.
Overall, despite the liberties, the show works as a Sherlock Holmes series. Ultimately, the main characters represent the original work well. The writers, cast, and crew of Elementary should take pride in being able to move the setting, both in location and in time, without losing the essence of Doyle.
Next time, another look at hard to reboot series.
* Pastiches are like published fanfiction with the author imitating Doyle’s style of writing.