Friday, September 28, 2012

Film Pairing — Reinventing Sherlock For The Big Little Screen

Sherlock at the BBC — Nobody Does It Better
I can’t think of another series detective that has lasted longer or been the subject of so many recreations.  Seventy-six actors have played the character in stage plays, cartoons, TV shows and films.   They have included Basil Rathbone who did fifteen films as well as actors ranging from John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole to John Cleese and Charlton Heston.  Hollywood recently recreated Sherlock in the spirit of the blow-‘em up, big-budget superheroes.  Personally, that’s been a disappointment.  I would complain that they took what should have been a remarkable exercise of the mind to an exercise in special effects and demolition. But the current TV revivals have taken a few liberties as well.

Last year, the British had the gall to set Sherlock and his loyal companion down in the 21st Century.  During the initial promotional hoopla, I thought it all a cheap gimmick. I vowed not to care.  I was wrong.  It was and is sensational.  That is the correct word. It is sensational in nearly every meaning of the word and is sensational without blowing up half the world. In fact, much of the action is in the words, themselves. Benedict Cumberbatch brings a touch of vulnerability and immense amount of charm to the intended cold and calculating Sherlock.  Martin Freeman is a perfect get-the-job-done Watson to his eccentric and often flamboyant partner, which brings us to the “gay thing.”  As a viewer we do not know, but whatever the relationship is, it is a source of humor as others have their suspicions, as they say, and Watson frets about how it looks.  Sherlock, being the superior human he is, wonders why anyone would worry about what others think.  In its second season, the BBC version’s shock of the new has worn off.  But this Sherlock remains solid and lots of fun.

This fall, American network TV, trying hard to be original — which it rarely is — has come out with a modern day Sherlock of its own.  One of the big differences is that the first episode of the BBC series was big and shocking — pleasantly shocking.  It was bigger than life.  It also had a plot.  The first of the new CBS TV series was done professionally enough.  If the premiere episode is any indication, then what we have is a competent American network hour crime procedural that intends to safely capitalize on a trend. Okay, what’s done is done. We’ve got another Sherlock Holmes.  In the U.S. version we go to New York. Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller) has a drug problem and Watson (Lucy Liu), his sidekick, is on hand to run interference for Sherlock’s anti-social behavior and prevent her charge’s potential backslide into drugs.
The New American Sherlock — Verdict Is Out

The producers of Elementary, like everyone else, are taking advantage of the copyright status of Sherlock Holmes and the characters associated with him, which is no status at all.  It is in the public domain. For me, the question is that despite the change in century, the BBC version incorporates a lot of the original Sherlock sensibility. The American version doesn’t.  Why did the characters in this show have to be Sherlock and Watson?  Couldn’t they have been Henry and Esmeralda?  Also, the strangely callous behavior of the British Sherlock is amusing.  In the American version, Sherlock’s lack of social skills borders on the irritating.  Maybe we’ll come to like these people.

In addition to these new incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, I think a case can be made that The Mentalist, which debuted a few years ago, has already brought Sherlock to American network TV. It is in the Sherlock tradition. They simply used the classic as an inspiration.  Now in its fifth season, Simon Baker plays Patrick Jane, a completely self-absorbed consultant to the police. Jane’s crime solving skills, like the Sherlock character, are based on his keen skills of observation.  But he too brings charm to a character that could be insufferable performed by someone else.

As far as the double feature is concerned, the idea is to pick an episode of the BBC version, available on disc and a new episode of CBS’s Elementary.  Watch them back to back.  Now, how should you enjoy your Sherlock Holmes episodes?  Absinthe.  There’s no way I’d recommend either morphine or cocaine, though they were likely Holmes’ recreational drugs of choice.  However, absinthe is legal again.  Incidentally, the colorful history of this most mystical, romantic and devilish drink, suggests that real absinthe was not as dangerous as it was portrayed.

Note:  Others who have played Sherlock include Robert Downey Jr., Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Peter Lawford, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Cushing, Stewart Granger, Frank Langella and Jeremy Brett.

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