Not So Elementary, CBS

First, a confession: I am a Holmes fundamentalist. I’ve been a rabid fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective for most of my life, and I don’t think the quirky consulting detective needs to be improved. After all, there is a reason why fascination with this character has continued over a century after his creation, and the chances that hacks in Hollywood will do better than ACD did are pretty slim. (By the way, I don’t think Doctor Seuss or Winnie the Pooh need improving, either!)

But the rule in American movies and television today is imitation, and it was inevitable that Steven Moffat’s amazingly creative Sherlock should be cloned by American TV, and stateside executives would feel compelled to put their thumbprint on the piece, no matter that they were putting smudges on a masterpiece and decreasing its value in the process. As in most cases, mostly what they do is either dumb down the concept, simply misunderstand it, or add an extra coat of mediocrity. This is the process that gave us Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros, 2009) a formulaic costume action movie that bears almost no resemblance to Doyle’s character, and which I could only watch through the subterfuge of pretending that it wasn’t even supposed to be Sherlock Holmes.

So here is CBS’ Elementary, with the engaging Lucy Liu as “Dr. Joan Watson” and Jonny Lee Miller as semi-recovering addict Sherlock Holmes. The show is actually better than I expected, but that’s just because I expected so little. The trades view it as “a stylish, if kind of boring, procedural.” And that’s spot on. The mysteries themselves are about as good as a decent Columbo, but with the high-concept exaggerated persona of Holmes and Watson sometime aiding, sometimes getting in the way of the story.

Elementary casts Holmes as a semi-recovering addict whose father has hired Watson (a failed and self-tortured surgeon) as a 24/7 live-in recovery minder. The A.A. meetings that Watson forces Holmes to attend are hackneyed caricatures of the real thing. Holmes is slightly more than two-dimensional, but not much. Where Moffat (who clearly “gets” Holmes) uses the classic Holmesian details with new twists in the 21st century, Robert Doherty tosses in the violin, the addiction, and other touches in with a bit of a heavy-handed thud.

Rarely, there is someone who not only “gets” Holmes but writes with great creativity.  Steven Moffat is in that small league.

Holmes pastiches have been around for most of the last century, and mostly they fall into two categories: either pretty good or embarrassingly bad. The writer who “gets” Holmes and can write in character may do a workmanlike job of spinning another Holmes tale for the genre. Once in a while, rarely, there is someone who not only “gets” Holmes but writes with great creativity, and creates a new niche of Holmesiana. Carole Nelson Douglas did this with the Irene Adler novels, and the amazing Laurie King has done this stupendously well with the wonderful Mary Russell novels. Steven Moffat is clearly in this small league of extraordinary writers.  But a great many pastiches are simply flops. Anne Perry, a marvelous writer, penned a perfectly awful Holmes short story that I could just barely finish. I love her William Monk and Thomas Pitt novels, both set in the same period of Victorian England, but she missed the mark utterly when trying to write Holmes. Perhaps that reveals how hard it is to do this!

By the way, the quintessential portrayal of the classic Holmes on television has to be the incomparable Jeremy Brett (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1984-1994 Granada Television series), whose abrupt, quirky characterization accurately captured the tension and complexity of the Holmes of the classic stories in a way few others have done. This is an area of huge competition, since the cast of other actors who have had a stab at Holmes is amazing, ranging from John Barrymore and Peter Cushing to Christopher Lee and Peter O’Toole. Read the LIST OF ACTORS WHO HAVE PORTRAYED SHERLOCK HOLMES.

If you’re a die-hard Holmes lover like me, then Steven Moffat’s Sherlock , with Holmes portrayed by actor Benedict Cummerbatch, is required viewing. Moffat is probably the most creative writer in television today, a man who has actually come up with some truly new and never-before-thought-of twists in a genre mostly filled with hackneyed imitation. He grasps the essential core of the characters of Holmes and Watson, takes those fully and completely and aggressively into the year 2012, and goes to town. Elementary, on the other hand, is a fairly ordinary police procedural dressed up in Holmes clothing, something I will watch if I have nothing more urgent to do, but it is clearly not “destination television.”


Season 3 of BBC Sherlock, starring Benedict Cummerbatch,
will air on Masterpiece Theatre sometime in 2013.

In Celebration of Laughter

I remember as a child going to the Washington Zoo, and laughing at the monkeys’ antics.  My mother turned to me and said “Anyone who thinks God doesn’t have a sense of humor has never watched monkeys for very long.”  My Dad laughed and said, “Or people, either!”
This coming Sunday we will celebrate “Holy Hilarity” Sunday at my church — a great idea that reaches back to a very old Orthodox tradition of gathering to tell jokes after Easter.  The modern repackaging of the idea comes from Cal Samra, the founder of the Fellowship of Merry Christians, a group that has long promoted the healing spiritual power of laughter.

Sadly, there has always been a segment of the religious world that has been deceived into thinking of God only as a humorless, grim taskmaster, a group that only allows solemn and serious representations of Jesus.  These folks seem to believe in a God that is modeled more on an abusive parent than the God of the Bible!  But this is the Savior who turned water into wine, who made fun of the Pharisees: “You who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”  This is the God who named Abraham’s son “Laughter!”

Laughter is good for you, it’s a gift of God.  Scientific research has proved in recent years that a good belly laugh creates all kinds of healthful benefits, affirming the writer of Proverbs: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”  The best laughter, both spiritually and mentally, is when we can laugh at ourselves.  That’s when we can accept our foibles, our human weaknesses and see the funny side of them rather than letting guilt and remorse “dry up our bones.”  I can’t be around humorless people too long, for they seem to suck some of the oxygen out of the air and the Spirit out of life.
Bruce Harrison

Bruce Harrison

The laughter of bullies, the laughter which seeks to make fun at others’ expense, is not the laughter we’re talking about.  It is the contagious laughter of joy, the rejoicing of a happy heart bubbling forth.  This laughter happens best when we are together, when we are in a group of friends whom we trust and care about – that should tell us something!  We don’t laugh at God, we laugh instead at ourselves when we are foolish and we laugh with joy at the wonderful things that God has given us.  If we take ourselves too seriously, if we take the human side of our institution to seriously, then we are in grave danger of not taking God seriously enough!

One person who loved this tradition was Bruce Harrison.  Bruce showed up every Sunday with a new joke, always and without fail.  He refused to let a stroke destroy his sense of humor or his enjoyment of a good joke.  Or a bad pun, either!  Bruce is one we all miss.
Jeanne Carter

Jeanne Carter

Another whom we miss is Jeanne Carter, who passed into the more immediate presence of the Savior last year.  Jeanne was dying of advanced COPD, struggling for every breath — but still she loved to laugh!  During the last weeks of her life, she had been bedridden in the care of our local hospice.  But she was not going to miss Holy Hilarity Sunday, even if it was the last thing she did.  She called her doctor, and told him in no uncertain terms that he had to make whatever arrangements were needed for her to be at church one last time — and it had to be on Holy Hilarity Sunday.  And when the organ prelude began, (a variation on the Looney Tunes theme) there she was, seated in her regular pew — albeit in pajamas and with her oxygen mask — but she was there, and she enjoyed the bejeebers out of the jokes.  It was the last thing that she was able to do outside of hospice.

I hope you have fond memories of some people like Jeanne and Bruce who have brought laughter and joy into your life.  The best thing we can do in their memory is tell a good joke or a bad pun, and enjoy a belly laugh in their honor!

Listen to the Trinity Moravian Choir’s anthem for Holy Hilarity Sunday 2009 – “In Praise of Coffee!”

For more information on Holy Humor Sunday, visit