I’d Prefer Less Moriarty

The other TV show we’ve been watching lately is Elementary, the Americanized modernization of Sherlock Holmes, with Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson. While it’s true that there isn’t a whole lot to distinguish the show from a number of other crime procedurals, there are some clever bits of plotting and the quirkiness of Holmes’ character and their relationship is handled pretty well. It’s entertaining stuff, and you could do much worse.

In fact, although it’s considered heresy to say this, I like it more than the current British modernization, Sherlock, which I’ve seen only the first season of. I like the characters in Sherlock, but the stories just don’t do anything for me. And the final episode of the first season really sent me packing.

I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, but I’ve read the stories and will probably read them again. I like about them that they don’t play fair, that the reader simply doesn’t have a chance of solving the mystery, and most of all, that the mysteries are often so odd.

What turned me off in the British show was the inevitable arrival of Moriarty. And he’s inevitably arrived in the American show, which is making me concerned. I don’t like Moriarty. I don’t like him when he’s transformed into other characters in other shows, either. Moriarty is always portrayed as an End Boss, the ultimate mastermind behind whatever the sinister plot is. He’s the baddest badass the Holmes character ever meets, and when he shows up, boy is it on. You know the stakes have risen.

Except that’s not what’s appealing about Sherlock Holmes in the stories. In the stories we don’t marvel at him stalking Jack the Ripper or D.B. Cooper or Dr. Moriarty, we look at him taking interest in an oddball case involving a dude “hired” to copy pages from a dictionary, or about a guy who gets orange seeds in the mail. These are the cases that interest Holmes, and then us as he uncovers the plots behind them.

Moriarty was no part of this until he was clumsily introduced in a story specifically to kill off Holmes. Suddenly this diabolus ex machina was wheeled in, awkwardly retconned as the man behind all the crime, and then dispatched. Never mentioned before, barely mentioned afterwards. Now he’s the third most important character in the Holmesiverse, and I don’t know how he got there.

The thing that bothers me about Moriarty, and especially when it came to Sherlock and now Elementary is that not only does he come in as the big bad, he also brings with him the old personal vendetta. He’s not The Napoleon of Crime, he’s The Guy Who Really Effin Hates Sherlock Holmes, and he doesn’t just do crimes, he has it in for Holmes specifically. Once he walks on stage, Holmes stops solving crimes and starts a deadly game of cat and mouse where this time it’s personal. What we tuned in to see is cast aside: we know who the bad guys is (Moriarty) and what the endgame is (defeat Holmes).

It also bugs me at this point because it turns the plot into exactly the kind of plot I hate, the one where the good guy and the bad guy just have a giant pissing contest around the city and usually a bunch of faceless innocent nobodies get caught in-between. I hate this story. I don’t like it when the hero is in a situation where, honestly, we’d be better off without him. I don’t want to be thinking, “Why don’t you two take this crap somewhere else and leave the rest of us alone?” If Holmes and Moriarty want to have a battle of wits they can send really hard sudoku puzzles to each other.

In Elementary the arrival of Moriarty is heralded by a guy who we think is him at first, who just turns out to be the dude who does the dirty work. He kills thirty-something people who we know and care zero about because the only thing that matters is the number. All that matters is that we know Moriarty has had a bunch of people killed. Including, oh no, some people he had killed just to get Holmes’ attention! I don’t know why, I can’t articulate why that bugs me. I guess because until Moriarty comes along those deaths are investigated and matter. Once he shows up, they’re just minor plot devices. In Elementary Homes doesn’t even investigate the first murder that sets all this off; he recognizes M’s handiwork from the very beginning. And nothing else matters. And that’s not interesting, and it’s not why I want to watch Sherlock Holmes at work.

In Sherlock Moriarty’s entrance is a little more mysterious, but before too long innocent people have bombs strapped to them somehow to make Sherlock Holmes have to find them and so what. It’s tedious. We’ve seen this play out a thousand times because it’s assumed that every character has to have a Moriarty and they all behave the exact same way. And it diminishes both characters, because the good guy has to drop everything and go chase after someone whose only goal is to just irritate the hell out of him. It turns into a slap-fight except with dead bodies everywhere because The Stakes are High.

(It also doesn’t help that since the stakes have to get even higher, either Moriarty has to keep doing more and more ambitious things until the stakes are absurd or, and this is worse, Moriartier has to come along — the guy behind the guy behind all the crime.)

I know I’m alone in this, but I really don’t need to see Sherlock go after the end boss. I like him looking into the small weirdo crimes and figuring them out. That’s the appeal in the stories. Unfortunately, the current model of Sherlock Holmes seems to be intent on recycling its own mythology instead of actually looking at the thing it’s supposed to be based on.

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