It seems a fool’s errand to try to describe or review TV’s Elementary. Jonny Lee Miller (he’s great but he’s always a little bit “Sick Boy” to me) as one of many versions (modern and not so modern) of Sherlock Holmes delivers enough entertainment week on week – and the reimagined scene, set in New York with a female Watson (Lucy Liu originally as Sherlock’s sober companion and later his fellow detective), is effective in differentiating it. Supporting cast is also usually effective. I am struck in particular by Aidan Quinn as the police captain, as it seems Quinn has been relegated to a lifetime of playing the put-upon also-ran (Desperately Seeking Susan and Legends of the Fall come to mind) or world-weary police captains (in Elementary and in the short-lived US version of Prime Suspect starring Maria Bello).
In the most recent Elementary episode, I felt a strong connection to a very small scene, in which Quinn turns down a promotion. When asked why, he responds, “My ambition is being met.” He does not want to move. (It turns out in his case that the promotion was more of a way to get him out of his current job and is more a threat/not a choice than anything else.) But the bottom line for me is … how is it wrong when you admit that you are where you are because you want to be there? Isn’t finding the right place and right level of challenge and satisfaction and wanting to stay put its own triumph? We can search a lifetime for what we want to do and never find it. But when you find the thing that makes you happy, at which you have talent and from which you deliver results, do you need promotions and to climb a ladder just for the sake of climbing? The whole system is built that way – and not set up for those who are content with building on the foundation they have already built.
Elementary shows us another path, in fact, in the form of Liu’s Joan Watson. After a successful career as a surgeon, she leaves medical practice to become a sober companion. She eventually finds, in her work with Sherlock, that she is a gifted detective and makes a complete career change. For many this would seem ridiculous – after the years of training, education and practice that go into becoming a surgeon, walking away from it seems improbable. But finding one’s real passion – or a passion that becomes obvious or blooms only in later life – should be … if not rewarded, at least considered.
Having Watson’s career U-turn as a template and evolving example provides an interesting juxtaposition for the way the captain is tied to this career ladder he is expected to climb.
Banished has a fantastic premise that feels wasted with this show. It has the chance to explore something we have never seen before. But instead, it makes vague allusions and oblique references to things like interactions with “the natives” and only one character succumbing to snake bite. But if you were the first “colonists” – prisoners and the military men from England – sent to Australia, this should somehow feel wider – told as a much bigger story and through a broader lens, yet with a lot more detail. But it feels like everything about the story and the scenery is too contained, too limited. It never fully conveys how far away they are from everything. They talk a lot about these long prison sentences and the opportunity to go home someday – and even if they all know they will never really get there, or that they will starve before their sentences are up, you never quite sense that urgency or the true sense of eternal banishment that the round-the-world incarceration of geography has imposed.
On a lighter note, the British dude from one of my least favorite shows (another one with a good premise and the opportunity to tell a much-needed story), Looking, gets to beg in the same way in both shows. In Looking he was constantly telling his illicit lover, Patrick, that he will leave his boyfriend someday. But just not yet. Be patient. Eventually he leaves the boyfriend and gets together officially with Patrick, but in the last episode, sets Patrick off by pleading with him to consider an open relationship.
In Banished, he begs for his food back when a bully steals his food every day. Then begs the authorities to take action when he tattles on said bully for stealing his food. When nothing happens because the bully is the only smith among the prisoners, he eventually kills the bully. And then begs for his life and whines and cries in an understandable but not particularly appealing way.
We also get to see Ewen Bremner – best known as Trainspotting‘s Spud – as the colony’s minister/pastor. Funny how nearly the whole gang from Trainspotting are television staples today.
Hopefully, if this series has a second season ahead of it, these kinds of problems can be addressed. I don’t really think a premise with this kind of rich historical import deserves to be a second-rate soap opera.