An Elementary Sherlock Holmes with a Female Watson

Syed Ahad Hussain

Courtesy of BBC

The biggest surprise of the fall season is CBS’s series Elementary, featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated creation and internationally recognized icon, Sherlock Holmes. Jonny Lee Miller of Dexter stars as Sherlock and Lucy Liu stars as a ‘female’ version of Holmes’ trusted companion, Dr. Joan Watson. Elementary has a modern day setting in Brooklyn, N.Y. with Holmes using the latest technology to help solve mysteries. Sadly this American Sherlock Holmes arrived two years after BBC’s Sherlock series, which not only did more justice to the source material, it also exceptionally raised the bar for future adaptations of Doyle’s beloved characters. And that’s exactly why Elementary failed to impress.

Miller tried hard to look confident in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes by effectively delivering straightforward one-liners. He somewhat succeeded in bringing Holmes’ crazy and sharp side on-screen, but the show’s bleak elaboration of him being a hyper-sexed past drug addict with tattoos drifts away from the source material to a greater extent. Doyle did present Holmes as a troubled and tormented individual battling his inner demons, but never as the pitiful addict the writers of Elementary made him. In this regard, BBC’s Holmes, portrayed brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch remains most truer and closer to Doyle’s imagination. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more than just a wisecracking genius detective, he is a man obsessed with perfection when it comes to solving mysteries. He is so devoted to his profession that he lives as an outcast with no time or interest in having a social life outside of his Baker Street apartment. He is an arrogant man who doesn’t need anyone else in his life besides Watson.

On the other hand, Elementary’s Holmes is an enraged, complex and creepy individual who happens to be a womanizer for some reason. It is an unusual choice to make Holmes a womanizer because Doyle depicted him as a man afraid of women, seeing them as ‘suspicious’ and somewhat responsible for the downfall of man. He was not sexist by any means but he was not very fond of women either; he saw them more as a nuisance.

Robert Doherty, the producer of Elementary decided to make Watson a female for the same reason- to let Holmes live with and be constantly accompanied by his greatest fear – a woman. A romantic entanglement is predicted in the show’s run at some point, despite the producers’ insistence on keeping their relationship platonic. Just like Hollywood, American TV too has to follow the formulaic layout of gender competence stemming from sex and affections, so Watson had to be a female.

Lucy Liu is always compelling and likable on screen. Her charismatic personality and acting capabilities are a delight to watch. She alone made the Charlie’s Angel movies watchable and worth seeing and spending money on even to this day. Liu’s Watson seems fearful, sad, less talkative and darker than Doyle’s depiction of the character. In Cumberbatch’s Holmes, Martin Freeman’s Dr. John Watson is very true to source material, appearing as a calm, outgoing and geeky blogger sidekick whose personality is the exact opposite of Holmes’.

BBC’s Sherlock is a direct adaptation of Doyle’s stories, with each episode being 88 minutes in length covering source material in modern day London. Elementary places Holmes and Watson in new stories with some minor references to the original stories. American TV has to follow a formulaic structure with a detective duo consisting of a man and woman picking up clues unforeseen by the eyes of cops and ending up tying it all to a vulnerable culprit. As compared to the trend set by shows like CSI, Law and Order etc. Elementary doesn’t really surprise much and fails to add anything fresh to the crime drama genre. The usage of the characters of Holmes and Watson is equally bland, aside from changing the gender of Watson and making Holmes an addict and womanizer. Those who haven’t seen BBC’s Sherlock, will love Elementary. But if one has only seen Robert Downy Jr. and Jude Law’s Sherlock Holmes movies, they’ll definitely admire Elementary. But if one wants to stay faithful to the essence of Doyle’s imaginations and intentions, they should only just stick BBC’s Sherlock.