I love Sherlock Holmes but I must confess that I am not a big fan of the British TV series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I find Moffat’s writing to be a series of hacks, where nothing we experience as a viewer can ever be validated because he continually breaks his own rules, undermining emotional moments by immediately inserting a ‘twist’ which means the consequences of the moment are negligible. For example: Moriarty dies, his arc brought to an end, then is resurrected. Sherlock is about to leave Britain forever after an emotional farewell with Watson, then the plane turns around. All this is deeply unsatisfying. The Guy Ritchie films, starring Downey Junior and Jude Law, I esteem much higher, but that was an all-too-brief foray into the sprawling, rich world Conan Doyle created (though it was probably a good thing, because it ended the series on a high for once rather than losing its way in a malaise of sequels). So, I was thirsty for more Sherlock but frustrated with the current offerings when my father introduced to me to the fact there was a US series based on Sherlock Holmes called Elementary, featuring a British Holmes in modern New York accompanied by a female, Chinese Watson. I was intrigued what this new interpretation could do with Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterful stories.
I was not disappointed. The first season blew me away, with excellent writing, intriguing plots, a fine performance from Johnny Lee Miller, whose pugnacious, weather-beaten, rage-fueled (but also surprisingly tender) Holmes felt like a complete reinvention. In several moving scenes, the writers wittily draw comparisons, highlighting both the similarity and differences between their Holmes and the classic 19th century one: for example, when at an AA meeting, Holmes wonders if, had he lived 150 years previous when the world was ‘less full of noise’, he would have used drugs at all? Lucy Liu’s more centered, stoic performance as Watson was no less captivating, with her background as a surgeon and then a sober-companion becoming integral. The two made an excellent pair on screen, simmering with unusual chemistry. Natalie Dormer, of Game of Thrones fame, also turns in a devastating performance towards the end of Season 1 in a twist that is genuinely gut-wrenching in its power.
Though each episode features an individual case – thereby making it ‘episodic’ in the literal sense – there was an over-arching narrative we move towards throughout the 24 episodes. What is the true fate of Irene Adler, whom Holmes believes to be dead? Who is Moriarty? Season 1 ends with a sequence that is nothing short of staggering, establishing Elementary as a major player in the world of quality TV. Throughout Season 2 & 3 the pace did not let up. We were introduced to new characters such as Mycroft, Holmes’ famously lackadaisical brother, Oscar, Holmes’ ex-friend from his junkie days, and Kitty, another accomplice to Watson and Holmes’ investigations, whose tragic backstory is the cornerstone of the 3rd Season. Captain Gregson and Detective Bell are two mainstays of the series, and make awesome ‘everyman’ foils to the brilliance of Holmes and Watson.
But by Season 4, things started to go wrong. We were introduced to Sherlock’s father, Morlock Holmes, played by the great John Noble (perhaps most famous for his role as Denethor in Lord of the Rings). Unfortunately, even Noble’s fantastic acting could not redeem a script that had become, frankly, banal. Though there were one or two stand-out episodes, such as You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got You? in which Holmes and Watson investigate the murder of a real-life superhero that becomes a powerful commentary on modern heroism, the majority of it didn’t feel up to the standard of those first 3 Seasons. The problem, I think, is that they started to use Moriarty as a way to extricate Holmes and Watson from any scrape. Because mastermind Moriarty had “plans” for Holmes and Watson, Moriarty’s agents continually protect the dynamic pair, removing any kind of tension or threat from the plot. The individual cases themselves became more staid, with 90% of them being about money. Gone were the devious killers motivated by insanity or revenge, the accidental drug-dealers, the conscience-ridden cons, of the first 3 seasons. Everyone in Season 4 seemed to be a corporate greed-o killing for some elaborate money scheme; it became repetitive.
And what’s more, the revelations at the end of each episode were becoming more and more formulaic and predictable. I and my girlfriend started to be able to call out who the killers were simply by the time they were introduced in the episode. It got to one point we were almost never wrong. This could have been saved if the writers had just breached out into a plot that wasn’t all about twists and turns and merely about an emotional journey, or, if the overarching story had actually gone somewhere, had some impact. Similarly the new side characters they introduced seemed to be relatively insignificant. Oscar and Kitty formed two key polarities in Season 3: Holmes’s dark past and the hope of his redemption in the future. They were central to his terrifying descent as well as being fascinating portraits in their own right. The entire thing was integrated. In Season 4, we are introduced to a new love interest for Holmes, Fiona, who appears in only 3 episodes out of the 24. Somehow the writers try to give that story an arc. By the time we get to the 3rd episode featuring Fiona I had forgotten Holmes even had a new love-interest, she was mentioned so infrequently.
We now come to Season 5. We are 6 episodes in, roughly a quarter the way through, with the most recent episode Ill Tidings having aired on 13th November 2016 (in the US) and 17th January 2017 (in the UK). Has Elementary got back on form and returned to the heights it achieved with the first 3 Seasons?
Well, my answer is: possibly not.
After a strong opening episode Folie A Deux in which Holmes and Watson take on a serial bomber, the series quickly has began to degenerate into the usual staid routine. The pair hardly ever leave the Brownstone, their base of operations, throughout episodes 2 to 4, almost as though the show-runners have had their budget cut. While in earlier series it became a cornerstone that cemented the world of the series, this little pocket in the midst of the broad fury of New York, it now is an infuriatingly familiar backdrop. Holmes and Watson’s interactions seem strangely inert. If Elementary was a cosy BBC mystery piece, I wouldn’t mind it so much, I’d probably be quite impressed with the quality overall, but it seems odd after 3 electric seasons of thrust and cut rapier wit.
Things pick up, however, at episode 5 To Catch A Predator Predator, in which a ‘catfish’ – a term for someone who traps pedophiles via a fake profiles on messaging websites – is murdered. The plot is full of ample twists and turns and the motivation of the murderer proves unique and convincing. While the side-plot with the newly introduced ex-con Shinwell, whom Watson seems to feel the need to mother, is less than enticing, the overall episodic story was back to form. When Holmes realizes who the killer is, there is a brilliant moment of understated pathos in which he sighs, saying: ‘I not only know who the killer is, Watson, I actually quite liked them.’
While I increasingly feel less emotionally invested in the series, it still teases the intellect with its intricate plots and there are still moments which really shine. Like Season 4, Season 5 promises to be more of a mixed bag than Seasons 1 – 3, but perhaps more consistent in quality. A central issue is that Holmes seems subdued, no longer verbally taking anyone to task. His arguments and irascible personality were such a huge part of the early episodes, his impossible behaviors, his inability to settle into a social environment. All that seems to have been put aside in the quest for the ever more complicated plot. It’s important, of course, for characters to develop, but only if that development is interesting.
The way Watson teaches Holmes empathy and unlocks his so-long-dormant ability to relate to people is the crux of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Elementary captured it brilliantly in those early Seasons. But, what are we saying now? That Holmes has been utterly rehabilitated, absolved of his childhood trauma and his existential angst, his over-active ‘running dog’ of intellect? If that is the case Elementary should have ended. But we know that is not the case because of what happens in Season 3. Holmes suffers a major blow to his health and sanity that is then glossed over in Season 4’s opening, completely undermining the colossal impact of the ending. Similarly, in Season 5, it seems the creators are unwilling to put Holmes, or Watson for that matter, through anything too emotionally taxing.
The only explanation, then, tragic as it is to voice, is laziness. The thing which distinguishes the writing in Game of Thrones, even in its less popular seasons, is the writers’ ability to run with consequences. People die, they stay dead. People are tortured, they remain scarred for life. People make mistakes, they are punished, severely, for them. And of course, when you kill reams of characters and they stay dead and then you resurrect one character: that changes things. It becomes genuinely awe-full. Consequences create meaning. A world without consequences, a world which always pushes reset no matter how bad things become, has no meaning, and therefore, in the long term, no interest for the viewer.
After 6 episodes of Season 5 in which there have been no consequences for anything: no consequences resulting from the revelation about Morlock Holmes at the end of Season 4, no consequences from Holmes receiving the commendation from the police department, no consequences for Holmes interfering with Captain Gregson’s marriage, no consequences for Holmes’ relationship with Fiona, which resurfaces in episode 6, I must conclude that the series is probably permanently losing its way. Even the framing is all wrong. The way the early seasons used music, could dwell on a moment of spectacular emotion, was a mark of nuance and quality which is becoming less and less evident. It’s as if they can’t be bothered.
Only one thing could now pique my interest again at this point.
The reappearance of an old and cunning adversary…
Review by Joseph Sale
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