How Elementary silenced its critics

Feature Frances Roberts 15 Feb 2013 - 07:00

After initial negativity, Elementary now has a 10 million plus audience and is likely to make it to season 2. What went right?

Just over a year ago, we reported the news that CBS was developing a modern-day New York-set Sherlock Holmes series with more than a whiff of cynicism: “It’s a good job it won’t be instantly compared to a multi-award winning, commercially successful and critically adored hit show that’s based around a not dissimilar idea…”.

That was nothing though, compared to the vitriol that spewed forth from the comments section (a place, admittedly, where the lingua franca is hyperbole). Disgust and outrage, rounded out with a notable thread of America-bashing, were amongst the gentler reactions.

It was as if, instead of a TV programme, the network had proposed setting fire to a first edition of A Study in Scarlet while whistling a cheery rendition of Yankee Doodle Dandy and taking it in turns to gob on the 221B Baker Street blue plaque. The new show would be an affront to Conan Doyle, to literature, to Britishness, to everything Holmes fans hold dear. Worse than all of that though: it would be an affront to Benedict Cumberbatch.

The negativity wasn’t without cause. It was bolstered by remake fatigue of the ‘hasn’t anyone got any original ideas?’ variety, and fattened on a diet of past experience with tried-and-failed US conversions. Mostly, it was fuelled by the credible suggestion that CBS, having been refused the rights to remake the BBC’s Sherlock, was making a copycat show. 

Sherlock producer Sue Vertue called the CBS announcement “interesting” (a word rivalled only by ‘fine’ in the bland-surface-masking-boiling-torrent-of-inexpressible-rage stakes). “It's interesting, as they approached us a while back about remaking our show. At the time, they made great assurances about their integrity, so we have to assume that their modernised Sherlock Holmes doesn't resemble ours in any way, as that would be extremely worrying.”

A promise that CBS’ finished product would be checked carefully for signs of copyright infringement followed, and fans of Sherlock (we retiring, taciturn few) were left to do the rest.

That wasn't the worst of it. Not only would the new Holmes live in New York City, but he would be a recovering smack addict with a girl for his Watson. A new consensus was quickly reached. We stopped spitting teeth over what Elementary had in common with Sherlock, and began denouncing its lead character for being Holmes in name only.

Enduring criticism (before anyone’s seen a single scene, remember) for being both a carbon copy of an existing version and so far removed from the source material it doesn’t count as an adaptation is quite the achievement when you think about it. CBS couldn’t have got the collective backs of the online community up faster than if they’d taken out a full page ad in the New York Times insisting Greedo shot first.

The loudest anti-Elementary complaints took on a prophetic bent. It was soon agreed that the new show would be cancelled in its first season, and thereafter destined to lurk alongside men’s leggings and Will.i.am in the grotty silo of ‘ideas that should never have seen the light of day’. To the chagrin of these modern-day Sybils, Elementary not only received a full season order, and an additional two episodes on top of that, but it’s also considered a cert for second season renewal in May by those in the know. What then, happened? How did the least popular TV idea since Don’t Scare the Hare win over its critics?

The short and annoying answer is that it didn’t. 

By that, I mean that Elementary’s ten million-strong US audience (twenty million in the post-Super Bowl episode) very likely didn’t follow the show from announcement, to online knicker-twisting, to first looks, teaser trailers, interviews, and eventually the pilot. They didn't need to be coaxed out of a negative stance, and they didn't need to be won over because they weren't critics. They just saw an ad, tuned in, and came back the following week.

Just as our Twitter feeds provide a warped porthole onto the outside world, magnifying a niche event until it feels as if everyone (not just that every one of the few hundred people we’ve chosen to listen to) is talking about it, so do sites like this. At any given time, plenty of people are getting on with their lives and planning to watch a bit of telly after work, not reading multiple reviews of the same thing and getting stuck in with the online debates. Den of Geek and its ilk spoil us for the real world.

The very slightly longer answer as to how Elementary silenced its critics is that it didn’t suck. The pilot reviews (ours included) were mostly full of pleasant surprise. It wasn’t the dumbed-down humourless travesty predicted by many, but a nicely diverting forty-odd minutes of TV. To begin with admittedly, there wasn’t a great deal to justify the use of the Holmes estate, but what CBS delivered certainly wasn’t sacrilege.

Crucially, Elementary continued not to suck. Week two was a steady piece of work, and when number three rolled around - an episode written by House’s Peter Blake -, it had become not just tolerable, but enjoyable, and a reliably entertaining watch. The cases may have been the weaker link next to the performances, but the writing was good, the cast was strong, and the concept worked. In its initial run, what Elementary consistently offered up was just under an hour of Jonny Lee Miller being brilliantly watchable in a show that couldn’t quite keep up with him. By the time the mid-season finale arrived, the two were almost neck and neck. 

How does it compare to the BBC Sherlock? Unfavourably perhaps, but then so do most things. Surface characteristics aside (the modern setting, the English lead, his scarf), the two are further apart than you might think. 

Take the format to begin with: three ninety-minute films (the BBC’s Sherlock) are a very different beast to twenty-four forty-minute episodes (Elementary). Moffat and Gatiss’ episodes are closer to the Basil Rathbone feature films than a television serial, while Robert Doherty’s Elementary is more akin to procedural series House, Bones or Castle than its British predecessor.

The use of canon differs greatly too. While Sherlock is (literally) riddled with nods to Conan Doyle’s stories, each feature-length episode built from fluid layers of reference, updated versions and knowing in-jokes, Elementary takes static elements from the Holmes back catalogue (character names, the violin, bee-keeping, drug-use, the art of deduction) around which to wrap its detective show. Instead of playing Conan Doyle’s esoteric game, if you like, Elementary borrows its playing pieces for use on a more familiar, generic board.

While cases come to Holmes via his front door in the original story and the BBC version, Elementary leans far more heavily on the character’s role as a police consultant. Most episodes then, start with a call-to-arms and tour of the crime scene, the kind of thing you see in plenty of other TV procedurals. Sherlock’s cases are modernised versions of those in Conan Doyle’s books, while Elementary’s are the sort of thing any TV detective could be presented with – murders, kidnappings, heists...

Yes, it makes Sherlock is a denser, more cleverly constructed creation, but then at three episodes a year, it can well afford to be. It’s simply not a case of comparing like with like. 

Miller's character and performance doesn't ape Cumberbatch's (or Rathbone's, or Brett's, or Downey Junior's for that matter). His twitching, face-rubbing, Withnailian Holmes is nowhere close to Cumberbatch's still, viper-like ice queen and those glassy, purring vowels - it doesn't feel half so dangerous for a start. As Watson, Lucy Liu is every bit as exasperated with her Holmes as Martin Freeman's character can be, but she's no copy either, nor is she a bumbling Nigel Bruce-type - thank goodness. They're new versions of the archetypes, and there's room for them all.

I’ll admit to finding Elementary’s choice to zone in on Holmes’ drug-use a sensationalist one at first, a tabloid approach to the character’s juiciest bit. It’s proved to be nothing of the sort though. Elementary has dealt intelligently with Holmes’ addiction in recent episodes, using it to add jeopardy, forge a push-and-pull antagonism between he and Watson, and give this version of Holmes an emotional history.

That Holmes’ genius is also seen as a pathology of sorts in Elementary, just as it would be in our diagnosis-centred age, is also a true contemporary take on the character. The BBC series has swerved left of most of that chapter in Holmes’ history so far, joshing about nicotine patches and making only oblique reference to the detective’s former habit (Lestrade’s search in A Study in Pink and Mycroft’s concern over the “danger night” in A Scandal in Belgravia). To modernise is to transplant a character from one cultural and historical milieu to our own, and in our own, a wealthy man with a history of intravenous drug use would be offered treatment and all the concomitant recovery, twelve-step stuff.

The other major fear when Elementary’s female Watson was announced was that it would lead to sexual tension and ‘will-they-won’t-they’ tedium (because the fans just hate that in Sherlock). Victoria Coren wrote entertainingly of her horror at the notion of Holmes and Watson getting it on in a column calling out Elementary for being zeitgeisty. The thing is, it hasn’t come to pass, and TV gods willing, it never will. Creator Rob Doherty has repeatedly called his show's Watson/Holmes relationship a ‘bromance’ in which one of the ‘bros’ happens to be a woman, and though I think ‘friendship’ is a simpler way of putting it, that’s a fair description.

The familiar arguments will shuttle back and forth, but the truth remains that a new take on a beloved property doesn’t take the old one out of existence. The best creations are robust enough, and special enough, to withstand any number of future interpretations. Thanks to Miller, and the show’s writers, Elementary moved me from cynicism to fandom without dislodging one atom of my love for Sherlock or Conan Doyle’s stories. Perhaps it’ll do the same for you.

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