Weekly Watchlist #2 (8th Sept – 15th Sept)

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A slightly shorter installment this week – I’ve been out and about a bit more, and reading a book. (About television, obviously.)

Dragons’ Den (BBC Two)

I know, I know, but I love it, I don’t care. I love Evan Davies’ awful jokes, I love the aesthetic of their strange, loft conversion/abandoned warehouse board room, I love the daft pitches, I love the interplay between the Dragons and the moments it suddenly goes frosty, and I love watching the back and forth, insisting I could do better even though I don’t really understand any of what they’re talking about. (I mean, I realised the other day I don’t even understand how they exercise their controlling stake in the businesses – are the Dragons given, like, board seats? Voting rights? What?)

I know that this is basically not all that different from any other reality competition, just with a veneer of intellectualism (achieved through a more overt acknowledgement of capitalism? Is there maybe something to that?), but, again, I don’t care. I suppose this is my guilty pleasure TV show, but, again, I don’t care.  Always watch it when it’s on, and I pretty much always have.

Elementary (CBS, Sky Witness)

What I’ve found interesting about this season – the seventh and final, a shortened run unexpectedly commissioned, all involved expecting the sixth season finale to be their last episode – is how reliant its been on callbacks to earlier episodes. Quite a few episodes have been structured around returning characters, albeit often rather more obscure, less significant ones – it’s a brief reappearance from a gangster Sherlock got a clue from three years back, as opposed to, you know, ‘the return of Moriarty’ or the like.

Not entirely sure what that says, admittedly – are they maybe creatively spent at this point? Maybe, but I’m not wholly convinced; I suspect it’s more likely that scripts were restructured to incorporate throwback characters once it became clear that Elementary would be back for a victory lap after what would’ve been an already perfect finale. Season 7 hasn’t, admittedly, been Elementary’s most original or innovative – but then, that’s never really been the appeal anyway.

Have I Got News for You (BBC One)

One of the cleverer things Years and Years did – but also, arguably, the most quintessentially Russell T Davies thing it did – was contextualising the rise of Emma Thompson’s right-wing populist very explicitly in terms of her television appearances. Specifically, Have I Got News for You. Couldn’t quite tell if Viv Rook’s appearance on the panel was filmed specially for the show, or if it was constructed out of archive footage – could quite easily be the latter. It’s a fairly unsubtle criticism of HIGNFY and all involved, after all.

Anyway. I’m not actually watching full episodes of the show – is it even on at the moment? No, I just can’t stop watching this clip of Boris Johnson, appearing on Have I Got News for You so long ago that Angus Deayton was still the permanent host. It’s been on my mind, for obvious reasons (as has the SNL episode Donald Trump hosted in late 2015) – feels so, so uncomfortable in hindsight. Well, “hindsight”, it’s hardly ancient history. But you know.

“You’re making Boris into a figure of fun!”, says Paul Merton. I wonder if they’ve ever felt responsible, even a little bit.

Liberal Democrats Conference (BBC Parliament)

I’ve been watching this with interest over the weekend – not exclusively, but certainly its taken up more of my time than near enough anything else. (And, probably, more than it deserved.) I’ve always tried to pay attention to what the Lib Dems are up to – I’ve lived in a Lib Dem constituency for my whole life, more or less, and for a time my local MP was the party leader.

Can’t say I was overly impressed, though, particularly with their handling of Phillip Lee’s defection; Alistair Carmichael’s speech about it was deeply patronising, I though, and Jo Swinson’s was much the same. (Huge respect for the party member who heckled her, though.) Bothered me enough that I emailed the new candidate for my constituency – if nothing else, in a Lib Dem/Tory marginal seat, there’s a high chance I’m gonna end up voting tactically here – to find out what she thought.

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

I’d be very, very surprised if this didn’t make my top ten for 2019 at the end of the year – it’s one of my favourite things on at the moment, and absolutely one of the best comedies of the past few years. It’s a shame it hasn’t found quite the same scale of audience as Derry Girls – understandable, granted, but a shame nonetheless.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I was, I think, somewhat less enamoured by Tern Haven than most. Not, obviously, that I disliked it – Succession is still my favourite part of the week – but there was something a little frustrating about how it followed the previous episode. I’d be inclined to argue that the closing moments of Safe Room, that conversation between Kendall and Shiv, is one of the best (if not the best) scene from across the series as a whole so far… and yet it doesn’t seem to have been the pivotal, dynamic changing moment it first appeared. I’d have liked to have seen a little more follow up from that, I think; I’m sure it’ll be returned to in time, but for now, at least, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t seem to have informed the Kendall/Shiv relationship as much as I anticipated.

Anyway! That’s what I’ve been up to this week – also read (most of) Emily Nussbaum’s book, I Like to Watch, which I quite enjoyed. Thinking a little more about how exactly to make this work as a regular column type thing – maybe a running list of the best of the year? Recommendation of the week? Best of the month? What I’m most looking forward to for the next month? I don’t know exactly, still ironing out the kinks a little bit. But we’ll see.

You can look at other Weekly Watchlists here. If you liked this article and you want to support what I do, you can leave a tip over on ko-fi, or back my Patreon here.

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How Elementary managed to avoid the Moriarty problem with its latest villain

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Introduced in the season 6 premier, Michael (Desmond Harrington) is a recovering addict much like Holmes. Michael credits Holmes with the success of his recovery, telling him “you said [at a meeting] you were made for one thing, and being away from it made staying sober almost impossible, but when […] you went back to it, that made all the difference. So, I actually decided to do the same thing, you know, focus on my work, use it to get better […] I worked hard, but, uh it started with you.”

In marked contrast to Holmes, though, the work that helps keep Michael sober is murder; where Holmes uses his detective work as a coping mechanism, Michael is a serial killer with similar struggles and compulsions. It’s a clever conceit, drawing obvious parallels between the two, positioning Michael as a mirror of Holmes in broadly the same way Moriarty has been in the past; indeed, it wouldn’t actually be that surprising to learn that this character is drawn from ideas at one stage considered for Elementary’s version of Moriarty. Notably, though, where the parallels between Holmes and Moriarty are typically drawn from their occupations – the consulting detective and the consulting criminal – the ones between Holmes and Michael are much more personal in nature. It’s an approach that offers potential for some compelling character drama, again an opportunity for Elementary to further explore Holmes’ sobriety.

So! Moriarty. This article kinda relies a lot on a thing I basically just sorta made up while I was trying to work out how to talk about the thing I wanted to talk about (Desmond Harrington‘s Michael, a new character introduced in Elementary season 6), so I should probably unpack that a little bit.

Basically, the “Moriarty Problem”, such that I’ve defined it, talks about the struggle that adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories face when, after having offered their take on Moriarty (arguably the most famous literary villain ever), they have to move on to a new villain – the problem being the struggle to put forward a character that’s equally as impactful or memorable as their take on Moriarty.

Certainly, if we limit our pool to Elementary and Sherlock, both shows struggled; I liked Magnussen, though admittedly was less sure about Eurus, though I don’t think it’s difficult to argue that Andrew Scott‘s Moriarty overshadowed them both. The same is true with Elementary, where none of the subsequent villains have had the same impact as Natalie Dormer‘s Moriarty (though you can make the reasonable argument that they didn’t try to have villains in the same way, I suppose).

So, what this article talks about is the way in which Elementary found a way to avoid that problem with its latest villain character, Michael. Admittedly you could probably argue that what they do, and the point I talk around making, is essentially just to do an alternate take on the basic idea of Moriarty within the confines of their show.

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5 years on, can we settle the question – is Elementary better than Sherlock?

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Today marks five years since the first episode of Elementary – the American retelling of Sherlock Holmes, set in the modern day and starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. 

Since that first episode, it’s been repeatedly compared to Sherlock – the British retelling of Sherlock Holmes, set in the modern day, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. It also first aired a few years before Elementary, leading to more than one accusation of copying. 

So, with Elementary about to enter its sixth season, and Sherlock seemingly finished for the time being, can we finally settle the question – which is better?

Something of a repeat from me today, actually; the first ‘proper’ blog post I wrote on tumblr was on a similar topic, and it was also the first to pick up much traction. I don’t think, back then, I ever dreamed I’d be in the position I’m in now – so it’s nice to return to this!

To hedge against the obvious: I don’t actually think Elementary is better than Sherlock. I also, however, don’t think Sherlock is better than Elementary. They’re both such different beasts, with different strengths and more importantly different aims, it’s difficult to compare the two – to attempt to seriously is a folly, really. Essentially, then, I like them both a lot, albeit for different reasons, and in different ways.

And, in response to the other obvious question: No, I didn’t make this image, no, I don’t know who did, no, I don’t know what they were thinking.

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5 Sherlock Holmes Stories to Adapt in the New Series of Elementary

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Jeffrey Paul King, the head writer and producer of Elementary, recently teased on his twitter account that we’d see an adaptation of The Speckled Band, a rather well known Sherlock Holmes story. It got me thinking, then: what if the entirety of Elementary series 5 was built of adaptations from Holmes stories?

Personally speaking, I’d love it. To be honest, I’ve always thought that Elementary missed the boat by not using more of Conan Doyle’s original stories in the first place; while there’s nothing wrong with creating your own stories, when you’ve got a property like Sherlock Holmes, it does feel like a little bit of a waste of potential not to fully avail yourself of all the material available. I would particularly have liked to see Elementary reinvent much of the Holmes canon in the same manner in which it did Watson and Moriarty – that sort of fresh and transformative approach is something I’d quite like to see.

So – which stories, in particular, would I like to see adapted?

I’m quite fond of Elementary – always have been, really. One of my first proper posts on this blog – as in, one of the more analytical, long form, “intelligent” posts – was a comparison between Elementary and Sherlock. (I’m thinking of returning to that idea, actually, and maybe writing about it some more.)

Even though I’ve fallen behind on the show, it’s still something I really enjoy – and something I’m meaning to catch up on!

Interestingly, I did plan this originally as a Sherlock article, and they ended up using bits of The Gloria Scott in Sherlock series 4.

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Book Review | Elementary: The Ghost Line (by Adam Christopher)

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I really love Elementary. So, when I found out that there was an Elementary tie-in novel, I bought it pretty much straight away. I think maybe there was about 5 minutes between reading about it on reddit (“Cover for second Elementary tie in novel… wait… that means there’s a first…”) and then opening up my amazon account and placing an order.

Cut to several weeks later, and I’ve finally managed to start reading The Ghost Line, by Adam Christopher. I finished it yesterday, in fact, and it’s a very, very good book. Here’s the synopsis:

A summons to a bullet-riddled body in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment marks the start of a new case for consulting detectives Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson. The victim is a subway train driver with a hidden stash of money and a strange Colombian connection, but why would someone kill him and leave a fortune behind?

The search for the truth will lead the sleuths deep into the hidden underground tunnels beneath New York City, where answers — and more bodies — may well await them…

It is, perhaps, a bit of an odd sounding idea – a tie-in novel based on a TV show that is based on a character who originally comes from a series of novels. I did at first wonder if maybe this would be structured as though it were a Conan Doyle novel – first person from Watson’s perspective – but it is in fact, quite rightly, Elementary to a tee.

The Ghost Line genuinely feels like an episode of Elementary we never saw; it follows all the structural cues of the episodes, with the pre-titles murder, an unceremonious wake up from Sherlock, and a simple homicide that leads to a much larger plot. The portrayals of all the characters are dead on (Gregson, Bell, and Alfredo all appear), but I feel the need to single out Sherlock and Joan, because the writing here absolutely matches the performance of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. You can genuinely hear them saying the dialogue throughout – I would go as far as to say that of all the tie-in fiction I’ve read (which is a not inconsiderable amount, with Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Primeval amongst them) that Adam Christopher captured the characters he was writing better than anyone else. Or I got a very strange case of Elementary specific tinnitus while I was reading the book.

Something I particularly enjoyed was a focus on Watson’s, rather than Holmes’, deductions. Often it’s difficult to get Sherlock’s deductions right (even Conan Doyle had trouble!) and although we do see a few of those here, much of the deductions come from Watson – something I really enjoyed, because it fits in with Elementary’s general theme of Watson learning to become a consulting detective, and indeed becoming one. It’s great stuff.

There’s plenty of references to the Conan Doyle novels throughout – there’s Sherlock shooting, rather than stabbing, a pig to conduct an experiment, as well as a reappearance of the Blue Carbuncle itself. It also builds on some things that have already been established in Elementary, like Sherlock’s interest in the tunnels beneath London, and the fact that Sherlock has already been involved in the recovery of the Blue Carbuncle before. It is very clear, throughout, that Adam Christopher really loves Elementary.

(Rather fantastically, there’s also references to Batman, and to Doctor Who. I shan’t point them out, because part of the fun was spotting them, but I will say that I was genuinely pretty surprised by one of the most obscure Doctor Who references I’ve ever seen; Sherlock appears to have worked for a particular organisation who were part of the Virgin New Adventures! [And also Time Flight, I’ve since learned] That’s so obscure I was tempted to write it off as me picking up on things that weren’t there, but Adam Christopher is a fan, so…)

All in all, then, this is a fantastic book. There’s very strong prose throughout, an inventive plot, wonderfully drawn characters, and I learned quite a lot about the tunnels beneath New York.

I’d definitely recommend this for fans of Elementary, and I’m really looking forward to the next novel, Blood and Ink.

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Sherlock vs Elementary

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Elementary is better than Sherlock.

It’s kinda weird to be saying that, especially considering what pretty much everyone thought when it was announced.

Sherlock had had a very successful first season, everyone was amazed at how brilliant it was, and everyone was applauding Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman – pretty much everyone who was connected to the production really. “Why, it’s so original and innovative to have Sherlock Holmes set in the modern day!” the people would say.

And then along comes the announcement that an American network is going to be making their own version. Sherlock Holmes in modern-day New York. With a female Watson. “Probably so they can sleep together” the people would say. The whole thing does sound a lot like gimmicky plagiarism really, doesn’t it?  At least at first.

So when I saw Elementary was on, I decided to watch it, mostly out of curiosity. To see how bad it would be, really.

And I was amazed at what I saw. At the minute, I’m about halfway through the first season – I think I’ve reached episode 14 by now? I am totally and completely convinced that Elementary is better than Sherlock. 

A big part of it is probably due to the format of it – half a season of Elementary is equivalent to all of the Sherlock we have at the minute, meaning Elementary has quantity on its side. But it’s also been quite intricately plotted – over just 12 episodes, the Holmes and Watson from Elementary have developed more than their Sherlock counterparts had in the same amount of time. And I have no doubt the Elementary characters are going to develop even more.

I’d also argue that Johnny Lee Miller’s interpretation of Holmes is much more faithful to the Doyle books than Benedict Cumberbatch’s ever has been – whilst that’s not to say that Cumberbatch doesn’t always do brilliantly, Miller is more of a Sherlock Holmes than he is. (That’s probably worth another post someday)

I also think that Elementary has actually been able to perform better than Sherlock because of the different approach to the source material which it took. Rather than adapting famous Holmes stories, Elementary has taken the characters – pretty much as they were, albeit with a few changes to their backstory, and, indeed, gender – and placed them into new settings. This gives it all of that innovation and originality than people lauded Sherlock for, and expected Elementary to lack. (It’s also probably worth noting that Sherlock has only really adapted three of the original stories, meaning that what Elementary does isn’t all that different)

So, that’s why I prefer Elementary over Sherlock. I’ll probably write another post about how the Holmes (and maybe Watson) from Elementary are more faithful to the original stories… sometime next week. And maybe even individual episode reviews, I don’t know.

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