The Real Mystery: Who Does the Best TV Sherlock?

Season three of the American incarnation of the Holmes-Watson chronicle offers new twists on the famous Baker St. duo.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson in 'Elementary.'
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

As of last week, we can again follow, for the third consecutive season, the escapades of the sleuth and the surgeon, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, in its current American TV incarnation, “Elementary” (on CBS in the U.S. since October 30 and on Yes Stars Action in Israel since November 5). Enumerating all the details in the series’ pedigree is relevant here, and befits Holmes’ instruction-cum-warning that one should never theorize before getting acquainted with all the facts of the case.

In this case the most relevant fact is that it is a second (con)current TV series about the good Doctor and the ambivalent Detective. The first one was both closer to the source (i.e. British, BBC born and bred) and more daring and popular. “Sherlock,” starring Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson and the one and only Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous hero, transposed the duo into 21th century London with brio, and was also the first of the two series based on the same literary source to reach worldwide screens.

But successful and quirky as the British series is, it offers the viewer only three episodes in each season; the fourth is due sometime in 2015. Its American willy-nilly counterpart, which also beams the duo into the 21th century (in New York), is there for a much longer haul: the first episode of the third season, “Enough Nemesis to Go Around” is the 49th in toto (each season has 24 episodes), and there are 23 more to go this year. Last but not least – and it is not a spoiler – Watson in “Elementary” is a woman.

She is Lucy Liu of “Charlie’s Angels” fame, and her inscrutable squint and innate charm are certainly great assets. Like the original Dr. Watson, she is also a medical person trying to come to terms with a trauma, but unlike the original, she is not a loner in search of a roommate, but a hired companion (by Holmes’ father) to help the detective find new life in New York after rehab (the original Holmes was a cocaine addict; here, played by Jonny Lee Miller, his favorite poison is heroin). The sex-and-gender change looks like an original and brilliant idea for the famous male duo, one that could infuse new flavor into the life of “thinking machine” Holmes. But it is in fact one of the oldest tricks in the book of the Baker Street Irregulars (the sobriquet for a horde of harmless maniacs who treat the four novels and 56 stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle as a canon filled with gospel truths). Sometime in 1941, the American author Rex Stout, creator of the heavy-set detective Nero Wolfe, delivered a lecture in which he proposed, and proved – based on textual analysis – that the relations between the detective and the male companion with whom he shares a flat are in fact typical of a selfish and self-centered male and a long-suffering, patronized and taken-for-granted female spouse.

It might have laid to rest the rumors that Watson and Holmes were gay (and such rumors did abound, not that Holmes ever cared about them). But the Irregulars didn’t like them one bit, as they feared that whispering about womanly intuition could ruin the rational reputation on which Holmes’ fame was based. Anyway, in the new American series no love is lost or spent on relations between the two. Season three starts with Holmes back in New York with a new female companion (he had fled to London, was recruited by MI6, fired and returned to New York). Watson is starting her own career as a consulting detective with a male suitor, and the game is afoot again.

You will follow the series at your leisure and make up your own mind whether you like it or not on its own terms, and in comparison with “Sherlock.” I for one prefer the British effort to go boldly where so many have tread before. But even I have to admit that the American series tries hard, and even succeeds in satisfying both Sherlockians who can pick up on any clue that is a take-off on the original stories, and the innocent viewer who knows of Holmes-Watson only by hearsay. The series’ main success is in concentrating on characters and relationships, not only on the cases and their solutions.

The series title, “Elementary,” is based on a quotation most often attributed to Holmes, and supposedly summing up the relations between the man and his sidekick: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” The doctor, who is also the narrator, marvels at the deducing ability of his roommate, and Holmes explains, bringing him and the reader down to earth.

However, nowhere in any of the stories does Holmes utter all those words in one sentence. He turns to his friend and Boswell in the series and says “My dear Watson” 68 times; the word “elementary” is used in all the stories and novels eight times. The only time both are in close proximity is in the story “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” published in 1893 (oddly enough, it is the only story in which Holmes quotes from the Old Testament). The quote very much sums up the charm of the whole setup and the relations among the author, the character and the readers:

“I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson,” said he. “When your round is a short one you walk, and when it is a long one you use a hansom. As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom.”

“Excellent!” I cried.

“Elementary,” said he. “It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.”

The man responsible for welding “My Dear Watson” and “elementary” together and making us all quote something that was not in the original stories, was P.G. Wodehouse, in his “Psmith, Journalist” (1915): “‘Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,’ murmured Psmith.” It is, as far as I know, the only literary case in which one popular author formulates a quote which is then attributed by all to another author.

Would Holmes ever stoop to investigating such trivia? I doubt it. Does it matter at all for your viewing pleasure? Not in the slightest. So why write about it in a TV column? Why, for the sheer fun of it. Elementary, my dear readers.