Archive for sherlock holmes

Justified And Ancient

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2015 by Tom Steward

Currently my two favourite shows are both revivals of iconic literary characters and new twists on old TV genres. Justified features Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from the Elmore Leonard novels Pronto and Riding the Rap as well as the short story ‘Fire in the Hole’ from which the FX series sprung. As Justified aired, Leonard wrote his final novel Raylan about the character. Elementary is based around scatological-saying sleuth Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novellas, re-located and updated to present-day New York. Both are ostensibly police procedurals, a genre spanning the history of television, but they also resurrect some more archaic formats, such as the western and the mystery drama. These are shows that can appease snobs and slobs. Elementary goes under the radar while Justified will soon fall in the woods without sound. So why don’t people like them as much as I do?

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I love those old black-and-white westerns!

I’m not saying that Justified and Elementary are in any way reviled, but neither are they exalted like the offerings of AMC, HBO and Showtime. Despite being on a network with a stellar reputation for original drama, Justified is continually overshadowed by series like Fargo and The Americans, both of which are unlikely to have existed without Justified blazing the trail. Elementary has the disadvantage of being on CBS rather than cable, but it is still far from being considered a giant of well-made, middle-of-the-road entertainment like The Good Wife. This is what they get for doing everything a complex, mature character-driven drama would without disturbing what makes good television. Surely that is more remarkable than trying to produce something worthy without regard to what works on TV (American Crime, I’m looking in your direction!) or even accomplishing great art on networks that are purpose-built to challenge mainstream television conventions.

Maybe they’re a victim of the times. Elementary comes in the wake of the BBC’s Sherlock, a contentless self-hyping publicity machine that has established itself as the worthier successor to the Sherlock Holmes name without any claims between opening and closing credits to that title. Justified began as an episodic procedural and grew into long-form storytelling, and may have looked to those who think good TV comes in serial boxes as unfashionable. Maybe they care too much about history. Justified is pulp fiction comedy in the noble tradition of The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. and homage to the TV westerns (and disguised police westerns thereof) of the 1960s and 1970s, underlined by Timothy Olyphant borrowing Clint Eastwood’s legs for the project. Elementary doesn’t contemporize like Sherlock, or at least it doesn’t fetishize new technologies as a substitute for coherent storytelling, and at its best it’s Columbo in a brownstone.

I suppose what’s layers to some people is packaging to others. But what would it take to understand how holistic a television experience it is to watch Justified and Elementary? I’m watching TV now and in the past, a pleasurable formula alongside a gruelling psycho-drama, good television and the cherry-pickings of popular culture. I look to other TV shows that currently fascinate people like Scandal and Empire and the common denominators are melodrama and outrageous behaviour. Perhaps Justified and Elementary are too straight-faced and plausibly written to stand out in primetime. Maybe the success of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is not so much in the transformative character arcs (which both my faves provide in equal measure) but the Dickensian coincidences and lunacy of the protagonists. It’s a fine line between ambiguity and characters doing stupid things to create drama. Characters in these two shows are drawn not sketched.

'Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!'

‘Look Holmes, the table mat that the script for Sherlock is written on!’

Because Justified and Elementary derive from a body of work outside of themselves, perhaps audiences assume they need prior knowledge of the characters and authors’ previous works in order to enjoy these series. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elementary eschews the fan-fiction qualities of Sherlock in favour of original content utilising the character dynamics of the literary cycle. You do not feel like you have to be a devoted reader of Conan Doyle nor worship the cult of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate Elementary. Yet it is an authentic introduction to the Holmes stories in a way that Sherlock refuses to be. Elmore Leonard is simply a point of departure for Justified and his characters and storylines have been reinterpreted, interwoven and extrapolated to the point where they are born anew (for copyright reasons just as much as artistic ones). Leonard is the midwife here not the overprotective mother.

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The Signal of Foreign

Posted in American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV channels with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by Tom Steward

With so little British television watched in America, at least knowingly, it often seems more important to be an ambassador than a critic. However, some British programmes make that act of intercultural liaison a difficult proposition and it doesn’t help that in particular cases the American equivalents are far better. Now in its third season on CBS, Elementary is an updatation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories transferred from London to New York and in keeping with the conventions of the police procedural. Given the timing of its arrival and modern-day take on the Holmes mythos, Elementary could be thought of as an American remake of the BBC’s Sherlock. To my mind, though, the latter has simply served to make the former completely irrelevant.

Now that's progressive!

Now that’s progressive!

Really, you don’t expect the American version of a British TV series to be more progressive and edgier and yet Elementary is the series in which Watson is an ethnic woman and Holmes is a recovering drug addict. While Sherlock is groping around in the annals of fan fiction desperately searching for storylines, Elementary offers concrete mysteries week-after-week. Elementary stands confidently in the generic traditions and weekly nature of television but Sherlock seems to be constantly pushing against the logic of TV flow. The supporting characters in Sherlock are severely underdeveloped and generally passed off as morons that reaffirm Holmes’ superior intelligence. Elementary’s ensemble cast is full of fleshed out, complex and relevant characters providing a different perspective on Holmes’ investigations that frequently proves crucial.

Sherlock is surrounded by an incredible fandom than feeds off itself as the series incorporates and invites cult audience activities in its name. As such, the writing is often problematic or inept from a story viewpoint, since it must always gesture to this extra layer of self-gratification. Conversely, Elementary makes the mechanics of plot its priority rather than the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which seems to pique the interest of Sherlock fans. Characters and their dynamics emerge as the storylines advance, and the series never takes the re-gendering of Watson as a cue to slash fiction romance. In doing so, the scripts achieve the rare balance of Conan Doyle’s storytelling where character and plot are equally stimulating, yet neither yields power over the other.

In light of Elementary, I no longer have anything good to say about Sherlock. I can certainly see the attraction to American viewers, as the former homogeneously blends into network primetime programming while the latter seems to defy those very conventions. I daresay this is probably why Top Gear is so popular here, because the American equivalent would be so bland and corporate in comparison. Yet a more informed and less ignorant version of Top Gear is no bad thing, and does more justice to the matter in hand than a faux-sitcom peppered with cultural insensitivity. I suspect the curiosity of Sherlock is what blinds viewers here (British viewers you have no excuse!) to the fact that there’s a more interesting adaptation in their backyard.

It’s also a matter of salesmanship. Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat like to write in a way that aims to convince you of the quality of what you’re witnessing in the hope you will ignore the lack of basic competence in the craft. Success is measured in the same way it would be for an ad campaign rather than an individual artwork. It’s hard not to be impressed or enticed by television that is so convinced of its own transcendence. Elementary is rather more discreet in self-estimation and should be judged over time. Regardless of calibre, most imported British dramas make it on to American screens through the PBS Masterpiece strand, which automatically bestows worthiness upon them in ways that Thursday night on CBS does not.

I'm a fan!

I’m a fan!

There’s so much British television that beats America hands-down, especially the regular kind, but the case of Sherlock and Elementary suggests we cannot make broad assumptions about the inherent superiority of British television. Whatever promise of distinction Sherlock offers to American viewers does not conceal its dysfunction as drama and Elementary is not to be confused with the swathes of mediocre procedural television that surrounds it. I want American audiences to buy into the alternative appeal of British TV, but as someone who cares about quality I’m wary of advocating programmes that offer nothing but a sideways look, especially when there’s stronger material in even their most elemental of programming. I can’t help think that only British TV will suffer if America fetishizes our worst.

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