Steve Hendry is back! Eighteen months past his deadline, but who cares, he's back! And today he is talking the televisual delights of Sherlock Holmes, but only the modern ones. He will explain I'm sure...
It's been a while. Always redecorating while I'm gone this site, it gets better every time though. They even got a new Who Guru (@Lokster71), and he’s very good, follow him on twitter dot com! Hiatuses (hiatii?) are never usually good for DW fans, the state of my old Michael Grade voodoo doll is testament to that. Except I did get married to my beautiful wife, and she let me have a half-Dalek wedding cake. Yes, I went for the New Paradigm Strategist, in case you didn’t wonder. So, here I am again, wheeled out like The Undertaker at a WWE PPV event, just not as wealthy or strong. Or as violent, interesting or charismatic.
I knew a while ago I'd not be able to return to the DreamCage for a while, and not as regularly as I’d like, so I've done a bit of forward planning in the meantime. Well, I say a bit...it's been a leviathan effort, but a hugely enjoyable one. I've taken the three (or is it four?) 21st century television iterations of Conan Doyle's sleuth and gorged myself on the whole lot. Yummy. Now I'm going to belch out my opinions on all of them, and tell you why they’re all really good. Opinions, of course, are like arses- everyone has one, and some are more palatable than others. Some of you won't like what I have to say, I feel sure. The ranking isn't based on scientific formulae, or some Holmesian (Sherlock, not Robert) deductive method. It's just a view from someone who'd watched none of these three (four) series just over a year ago. I’ve tried to avoid focussing on the lead actor in each show too much, and it’s not really a ‘show by show’ list, they’ve been done to death. Instead I’ve taken a holistic approach and compared the classic elements of Sherlock Holmes, and the unique interpretations these shows have made on them.
For those of you wanting to find out which the best 21st century TV Sherlock Holmes series is without reading the article, let's skip to the end, no clickbait here. It's Jonny Lee Miller’s Elementary, which returns to CBS on April 30. It's close, very close in some ways. But if Olympic jumping-into-swimming pools and horse dancing medals can be dished out this way, so can the Dreamcage Golden Deerstalker. And they're mad enough to let me be the judge.
Sherlock is very, very good. That's pretty much received wisdom, and I'd been urged to watch it long before I did (Thanks, @STBWrites). I've thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it's opening this discussion first because it, like Rose Tyler in the Jericho Street Junior School gymnastics contest, has got the bronze.
I like Cumberbatch a great deal, his turns in Starter for Ten and Doctor Strange are my personal favourites of his, but he's upstaged by Mark Gatiss' (who upstages everyone in Starter for Ten) Mycroft in every scene they're in. I'm biased, admittedly- I met Gatiss in a hotel in Peterborough in 1993 (stop sniggering, it was a Doctor Who writers convention) and found him an engaging and friendly character. I've enjoyed his writing, acting and documentaries ever since. I'm a certified Ga-Boy. Careful now. When a show is focussed so firmly on its lead, that the lead is central to everything that transpires in Acts Two and Three, the supporting cast should be just that- supporting (but excellent), as is the case in both House and Elementary. It’s a difficult balance, and it's also why Lewis is shite, and Mycroft would be brilliant. It has to be said Rhys Ifans is excellent too, and is a perfect sibling foil for Miller’s Sherlock. While Gatiss is consistent throughout, Ifans’ suave Mycroft develops in a different way entirely. While his career as an innkeeper being eventually exposed as a cover isn’t as explosive as Moriarty’s ‘mask-off’ moment, it’s very smartly done and suits his character very well, even amusingly closing his restaurant in order to seduce Joan on one occasion.
Now the restraining order has lapsed, and I can discuss Natalie Dormer on the internet again, I’m able to broach the issue of comparing Moriartys. The harder I tried to like Andrew Scott's the more tiring it became, and when the bullet perforated Jim's cranium I was delighted. It's a Paul Darrow in Timelash performance from start to finish, way over the top for my taste. Clearly that's how he's been told to play it, and there's no disputing his acting quality to be able to sustain it. It just wasn't for me.
Natalie Dormer on the other hand, is excellent. Bear in mind I watched Elementary without prior spoilers, and the Moriarty reveal was an absolute belter. Hidden in plain sight, it was so skilfully built toward I defy anyone to honestly say they saw it coming. That’s rare in anything on television these days, and when such an original twist on a familiar tale becomes possible, it’s crucial that it’s done right. Shocking scenes, particularly episode endings, and especially deaths, make for memorable television. Adric, Ned Stark, Bouncer the dog in Neighbours and many more live long in the memory for their impacts on first viewing. This was Irene Adler’s death, told in a way that won’t be possible to repeat, along with Moriarty’s reveal, all in one stunning reimagining of a story we’d all read or watched before. Miller’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes’ resultant cataclysmic mind-fuck is mesmeric throughout the Moriarty episodes. He’s got Fourteenth Doctor written all over him, provided HBO buy the rights to Doctor Who of course, the BBC couldn’t afford him now. Dormer’s scenes with Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) are, if anything, even better than the brilliant Sherlock vs Moriarty showdowns, and it is to be hoped she’ll be making a return to the show soon.
House’s Moriarty was barely there, appearing in a solitary episode, and was never referred to by name on screen, typical of the subtle way in which this particular ‘nouveau-Holmes’ series would weave updated versions of Conan Doyle’s originals into its narrative, if it did so at all. Having said that, he shot Greg House while the poor bloke was at work, and was never apprehended by New Jersey’s equivalent of Scotland Yard, so no-one can accuse him of not leaving his mark…
The Watsons are a diverse bunch across the three shows, and difficult to compare, given they’re all essentially doing the same job. That job being primarily to keep Sherlock off the gear of course, and they all do a reasonable job of it for the most part. I jest somewhat there, but at the start of Season One of Elementary, this is indeed Joan Watson’s raison d’etre. Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller are just superb together, a chalk and cheese partnership that achieves a very tricky balance in the 45 minute/26 episode post-Buffy era. While the duo are terrific together from the outset, their relationship always finds more room for development in each new season. That’s a hell of an achievement, and when decent shows are still getting cancelled more often than renewed, and every network is looking for the Best New Thing On Television a dynamic as good as theirs can be the difference between people thinking “I remember that show” and “Season Six starts at the end of the month”.
Martin Freeman’s 21st century interpretation of John Watson works very well with his show’s titular hero too, and it’s Sherlock’s episode format that makes comparing his Watson, against Liu and Robert Sean Leonard’s impossible. While House and Elementary seasons span months at a time, there’s only ever been short sharp shocks of Sherlock. The East Coast duo’s season formats allow for the exploration of so much more, and over a prolonged period, it’s just basic maths. Steven Moffat’s version suits the format it’s been presented in thus far very well, the stories are cinematically paced and much of the directorial style, Euros Lyn’s especially, wouldn’t be out of place on the silver screen. Perhaps in that regard, comparing Sherlock to the Robert Downey Jr movies would be fairer. Martin Freeman vs Jude Law, indeed. If only Arthur himself could see how far his amazing characters have gone, and without any damage being done to his original, beautiful works, nor disrespect paid to them.
House’s Watson is a Wilson, of course, and this is reflective of the tone of the show’s subtle references to Sherlock Holmes. A viewer doesn’t necessarily need to have read the original Conan Doyle tomes to enjoy Sherlock or Elementary, the two explicitly referential re-works, or even be aware of them, you’ll just get more of the jokes. Sure, House lives at Apartment 221b, he’s addicted to painkillers, he’s an outright sociopath and an undisputed genius, but his show is a medical drama centred on a freakishly talented M.D., rather than a contemporary remake per se. Robert Sean Leonard however, deserves his place on the Top Watsons list as much as anyone. James Wilson follows several of John Watson’s well-trodden paths as the seasons progress- widower (for Mary Morstan, see Amber Volakis), frustration at his best friend’s domestic untidiness and narcotic use; and Leonard’s deft performance is a perfect foil for Hugh Laurie’s extraordinary, multi-award-winning Gregory House, M.D.. His terminal illness is far from being psychosomatic, though, and forms a central narrative plank of the show’s final season, culminating in House’s terrific finale and The Final Problem homage.
So, have there been three post-2000 Sherlocks on television or four? The fourth, the Alt-Holmes, Tony Shalhoub’s vulnerable but brilliant Monk, follows a similar formula to the other two Stateside adaptations. Sharona, and latterly Natalie (ha!), act as the flawed sleuth’s companion in the Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) /James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) role, in fact the supporting cast template is remarkably similar to Elementary’s. For Captain Stottlemayer (Ted Levine) and Lieutenant Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford), read Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Bell (Jon Michael Hill). Adrian Monk’s dress sense is virtually identical to Jonny Lee Miller’s standard on-screen apparel choices at times too.
Adrian Monk uses similar deductive methods to any of the Holmes variants, though Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, rather than substance abuse, is his Achilles heel. His late wife, Trudy, forms the Irene Adler-shaped piece in the jigsaw in a similar way to Natalie Dormer’s iteration (initially, at least) in that her murder remains unsolved, haunting Monk and exacerbating his OCD (and Holmes’ precarious recovery from addiction, in Dormer’s case). Monk and Holmes’ fathers are absent, and have been since the lead characters’ childhoods. They have estranged brothers in common too, Ambrose (John Turturro) and Mycroft (Rhys Ifans).
Monk ended in 2009, four years before Elementary first aired, and ran concurrently with House for five years. Based on all the commonalities between Monk and Elementary, it is tempting to rank Tony Shalhoub’s lovable bag of nerves among the list of Sherlocks here. But there’s a problem in doing so. Monk is a comedy-drama. Don’t get me wrong, as comedy-dramas go, it’s likely without parallel. It ran for eight seasons, never had a “jumping the shark” moment and maintained consistently high viewing figures in the difficult US Friday night slot throughout its time on screen. The main cast’s chemistry was top drawer throughout, the stories were always fresh, and I would recommend it to anyone. The show simply would not have endured without its comedic element, Adrian Monk’s struggle with the loss of his wife alone would have made it the darkest series on television. Shalhoub’s scenes here, some featuring a ‘dream version’ of Trudy (Melora Hardin), remain deeply affecting, even when tempered with a comic tone. Even by Season Five, when the backstory was well established, Monk is hurriedly packing (with everything in shrink-wrap, of course) to escape imminent danger. His assistant Natalie finds him checking off items in a suitcase, counting his late wife’s pillow among essentials, and it’s absolutely heart-breaking.
Dale “The Whale” Biederbeck is Adrian Monk’s Moriarty equivalent, if we’re looking for a recurring nemesis, and he’s a pretty good one. A suitably loathsome character, he’s as vile as Monk is endearing. Played by Adam Arkin, Tim Curry (yes, that one) and Ray Porter over the course of the show’s lifespan, he gets an appropriate comeuppance by the end of his protracted story arc.
Monk achieved what few series manage in 21st century television- it bowed out at its peak, also reaching a satisfying conclusion. Many shows have outstayed their welcome (The Walking Dead), conclude in horrendous fashion (Lost), are gone too soon (Firefly) or shouldn’t have been made in the first place (CSI:Miami). Monk’s an absolute gem and went out at the top like Eric Cantona, while so many Wayne Rooneys kept hanging on past their sell-by date.
Still here? No? I may as well talk about Doctor Who now then, back in my comfort zone. Or am I confused? Did Steven Moffat confuse me? Did he know when he was writing for Sherlock Holmes or The Doctor? I honestly can't tell at times, now I’ve watched both. I love Moffat, and I admire both of his platinum label television shows immensely, but there's been a lot in the way of overlap in the way the lead characters in both shows were written by him. Don't meddle with a masterpiece, sure, but I can't watch either of them without being reminded of the other. To make matters worse, the Twelfth Doctor is pretty much Greg House sans limp and Vicodin™ dependence, and there’s more than a hint of Matt Smith’s Doctor in some of JLM’s early outings as the New York Holmes. just to confuse matters further. Maybe I’ve been subconsciously craving Chris Chibnall all this time, we’ll see in Autumn. That’s another article for another time, maybe ST-B will have me back around Summerslam season….
Steve Hendry is an old Opinionated Geek, who spends a lot of time watching pro wrestling, football and 1970s Doctor Who. He should absolutely not be taken too seriously.
Image - IMDb.