Saturday, February 08, 2014

[TV] The Game has Two Left Feet

The Game has Two Left Feet: Sherlock and Elementary: these Sherlock Holmes updatings, from opposite side of the Atlantic, are both deeply flawed.

The English version, Sherlock, is the better of the two, mostly because the Holmes/Watson duo is portrayed by the killer combo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show itself is perhaps the most uneven TV show I have ever seen. There are episodes that are heart-stoppingly brilliant, and others that are among the worst of TV, some that are both. Some of the scripts crackle with wit, others are little more than filler. Even the nasty episodes produce some joy in seeing the back and forth between Cumberbatch and Freeman. They can occasionally save bits of the more ham-fisted productions.

The U.S. version has Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (as "Joan" Watson). Martin/Liu have good chemistry, but can't approach Cumberbatch/Freeman. Elementary degrades Holmes to some extent. It treats the show as if it is just another one of the endless mind-numbing police procedurals network TV has cranked out over the years. The show is no different from CSI or NCIS or any of those other alphabet soup cop shows. That Sherlock Holmes is the lead character is just a gimmick.

Now, that said. Sherlock generates about five hours of drama a year. Three episodes of roughly 90-100 minutes. This is typical of the Brits. I fail to understand why, given that schedule and the writing talent they can draw on, every episode is not a polished gem. On the other hand, Elementary is of the old school 24 hour-long episode season construction. Perhaps that explains why they just regurgitate the old police procedural formula week after week.

Another contrast is how fast and loose they play with the original Holmes and Watson. Both shows have had to make adjustments simply because Holmes, as formulated by Arthur Conan Doyle, is not conducive to a long television run where characters have to grow and develop and have an arc of some sort (unless you're the cast of Seinfeld). How do you do that with a self-confessed automaton like Sherlock Holmes? Sherlock pushes Holmes to the edge of emotional growth giving him a streak of sentimentality, but for the most part the Holmes is still the cold fish he is in myth, although with a much more biting wit and stronger penchant toward irony. Sadly, Holmes does not simply deduce -- he has something called a "mind palace" where he does his deductions. It's a misguided attempt to use special effects to show his thought process. This is presumed to be superior to a simple explanation, at least from an entertainment standpoint. It's not. It's kinda dumb. But not as dumb as turning Watson's wife Mary into a clandestine superspy. It's jarring to watch a show where the dialog and acting are brilliant while the plot twists is so abominable.

Elementary pretty much goes all the way to demolishing the known characters. The setting is New York City, not London. Holmes is a recovering drug addict with a tendency to fret. Watson is his former councilor, now turned partner, and one gathers she is now his equal in detection. Since this Watson is a woman, she can't be portrayed as mentally subordinate to any man, even Sherlock Holmes -- not acceptable in our world. Effectively this turns Holmes into just another smart private eye/police consultant. Holmes grows emotionally over stretches when he is blamed for a policeman's getting shot, or he becomes a sponsor for another addict, or he has to reconnect with his brother -- all the sort of weepy cliches TV drama has thrown at us endlessly over the years. The most appalling change is to convert his brother Mycroft, who in the books was the only man who could outthink Sherlock and was essential to the functioning of the British government, into a pointless dopey-ass restaurateur. Da hell?

I'd follow future seasons of Sherlock, if there are to be any, mostly because at five hours total output it's worth it in hopes of catching a killer episode. I'll probably watch out the string of this season of Elementary just out of habit, but with each episode it slowly recedes to background noise while I read my Kindle. Unless they do something spectacular by the end of the year, that's it for me. Although not for everyone else apparently. It's garnered high ratings.