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December 19, 2013

Filed under: movies»television»elementary

The Watson Problem

The difficulty in making a Sherlock Holmes adaption for American television is that we've already got three or four of them. Hyper-observant detectives are a dime a dozen, from The Mentalist to Monk. Arguably, Psych is just Holmes and his deductive skills with an added dose of arrested development (and I say that as someone who enjoys Psych at its fluffiest). Dule Hill's Gus even serves as a Watson, but reduced to a pharmeceutical rep instead of a doctor to match his detective friend's lack of ambition. The BBC's Sherlock owes Psych a debt for the visual style illustrating the deductive process, although I doubt they'd ever admit it.

I don't envy the people who decided, after the British version aired to wide acclaim, to make another Sherlock Holmes show. That's some tough competition. But I've been watching the first season of Elementary, and I have to say I'm enjoying it. The cast is growing on me, I like the lack of romantic angst, and the infrequent references to the original stories (inasmuch as I can catch them, not being a die-hard fan) are often worth a chuckle.

The biggest problem that Elementary faces is Watson — specifically, figuring out what she's supposed to bring to the team. As played by Lucy Liu, Joan Watson is an ex-surgeon who initially serves as Sherlock's live-in addiction counselor. With the terms of that job running out, partway through the first season, Sherlock offers her a position being groomed as a detective-in-training: someone who can take on his methods and become an equal part of the sleuthing consultancy.

Unfortunately, this is where the show's writers seem to have run out of steam. They know where they want this Watson to end up, and they've told us about it repeatedly, but they don't know how to get her there. She's not shown doing much studying, as such, and Holmes mentions that she doesn't read his research. As a result, Liu's Watson ends up either solving minor b-plot mysteries, dropping medical clues, or providing a convenient anchor toward which Sherlock can toss exposition. It's possible she's learning by osmosis, but this hardly provides a reason why we should care about her character arc.

It's interesting to see how the BBC Sherlock has taken a different tack with its version of the character. The British Watson, played by Martin Freeman, leans heavily on the actor's likeability and finely-tuned air of irritation to create a companion who partners with Sherlock for the adrenaline rush of it. Freeman's Watson is muscle and heart: he humanizes Sherlock and provides support. Ultimately, the relationship between the pair on the BBC show is one of friends. They enjoy going on adventures together. They have a similar restlessness. But Sherlock doesn't need Watson to solve crimes. When the show begins, he's doing relatively fine without him, although Watson's blogging certainly helps build Sherlock's reputation as a detective.

Joan Watson, on the other hand, is interested in being Sherlock — or, at least, being a consulting detective armed with his deductive methods. And in contrast to the Cumberbatch version, Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes is not nearly as self-sufficient. He's abrasive without being charming, dependent on his father for income, and recovering from a drug problem that destroyed his ability to work. Lance Mannion has commented that this weakens Holmes, but I'm not sure that I agree. Given that the original Holmes was a bit of a Mary Sue (a great observer, master of disguise, amateur boxer and stick-fighter, chemist, polyglot, and former spy) I don't miss seeing a version of the character that's less omni-capable.

Elementary wisely forgoes flashy zoom cuts to "show" how Sherlock examines a scene. They don't seem to have developed much of a substitute, unfortunately, so too often the show falls back on simply having characters explain the mystery to us. But I think this is in part because the mysteries are honestly second priority to where Elementary actually wants to focus: on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, with two possibilities for its ultimate outcome. On the one hand, it's hinted that this version of the great detective is really the result of two people working together — that Holmes and Watson together are the equivalent of the BBC Sherlock. Alternately, we're watching the origin story for a second Sherlock embodied in Joan Watson: one that can avoid the mistakes of drug abuse and arrogance, and benefit from her richer life experience as a surgeon.

The danger in speculating about a TV show this way, I've found, is the tendency to write about the show you wish you were watching, not the one that's actually onscreen. It's an easy mistake to make. I remember being mystified by John Rogers' glowing commentary on Jericho, which does not at all resemble the mediocre show that aired under that name, until I realized that really we weren't watching the same program — that the version Rogers was watching was being filtered through all the cool stuff he could have done with its premise.

And so it may be with Elementary. I'm only three-quarters through the first season, and even I will admit that it's uneven at best. It's possible I'm just a sucker for training montages. But the idea that Watson is not just a point of view character or a sounding post, but just the latest heir to a legacy of nigh-uncanny sleuthing... I have to admit, that's like catnip to me. I've got high hopes for it in the second season, and I'd put up with a lot of flexibility around the source material to watch it happen.

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