By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
11:00 AM EST, December 14, 2012
For the generations of men who have wondered what it is women want, this year has made it fairly obvious. We want a man of devastating intelligence, cerebrally and physically nimble, whose vast store of arcane knowledge is foundation for a super-human ability to solve problems and the fascinating, frustrating wall that protects a tender heart.
We want Sherlock Holmes.
On the big screen, a Victorian if not traditional Holmes is one part of Robert Downey Jr.'s current franchise juggling act. But the more significant and modern versions are those of "Sherlock," which had its second season this year on BBC America, and "Elementary," which launched on CBS this year. If you count Fox's quite Holmesian "House," and I think we must, then a character created more than a century ago by a man who believed in the occult and possibly the existence of fairies has now ruled television for more than a decade. With no end in sight — "Elementary" is doing quite well, and when the BBC recently announced that Season 3 of "Sherlock" might not air until 2014, a chorus of distress could be heard on two continents.
For literary geek girls like myself, this Mysterious Appearance of Two Sherlocks is nothing short of television nirvana. "Sherlock" is precisely the sort of television Americans expect from the Brits, mainly because BBC America and "Masterpiece" air only the very best of British TV. Created by "Dr. Who's" Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, "Sherlock" stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern consulting detective and Martin Freeman as Dr. James Watson. Cumberbatch, with his alabaster skin and aquamarine eyes, has that vaguely tubercular Romantic beauty known to cause women with PhDs in comparative literature to scream aloud whenever his name is mentioned, while Freeman is one of those solidly humane performers who blinks and stammers and quietly steals any scene he touches.
Serving up modern takes on Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, Moffat and Gatiss (the latter of whom also does a breathtaking turn as Mycroft Holmes) have done the seeming impossible — kept the very Victorian essentials of their characters and made them believable in modern London. Which, it must be added, looks fabulous.
So when CBS announced it would be having a go with "Elementary," many of us were prepared to wince while we watched and feel that vaguely nationalistic shame so often associated with comparisons between American and British TV. All of which made the success of "Elementary" even sweeter — Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock is a Brit living in New York (which looks just as gritty and glorious as "Sherlock's" London); his Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is a paid companion hired by his father to aid in Holmes' recovery from addiction.
Many liberties are taken with the characters, but creator Robert Doherty has given Miller and Liu, not to mention the always welcome Aidan Quinn as the NYPD captain with whom Holmes consults, characters at once solidly modern and true to the canon.
Where "Sherlock" might be the show horse of the two, "Elementary" is just as true to the tone of the original stories. Miller's Sherlock is more boyish in his troubled brilliance, and clearly a romance with Watson is in the long-term offing, but each episode is less character-driven than those of "Sherlock," more focused on the crime, reminding us that Conan Doyle was not as interested in character development as he was in storytelling; he all but invented the procedural.
It's difficult to imagine any literary character with the resilience and elasticity to accommodate so many concurrent adaptations. Count Dracula might have spawned more offspring, but the vampires running around these days bear little resemblance to him, aside from their choice of libation. Alice, as in Wonderland, regularly makes the rounds, but frankly, the girl couldn't quite hold down a miniseries, much less a 23-episode pick-up.
Although Holmes' occupation certainly aided his longevity — Doyle famously got sick of him long before the public did, killed him off, then had to bring him back — it's more than the cyclical nature of crime that keeps the world's first consulting detective alive. Even after 56 short stories and four novellas, Sherlock Holmes remains a cipher. Conan Doyle, good Victorian that he was, never felt obligated to deconstruct his hero's psychology, never delved into Holmes' childhood, did not pass judgment on his bachelor tendencies or use of (then perfectly legal) cocaine.
Holmes is a man of action, his main characteristic a mind in perpetual motion, a vital intelligence that constantly demands work, which makes him perfect for television. Also for highbrow, beating-heart adoration from women, and men, who too often consider themselves above such things. Because Mr. Rochester, if you will recall, got married in the end, but Sherlock Holmes remains eternally, and tantalizingly, unattached.
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