Few characters have stood the test of time like Sherlock Holmes. I've loved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories since childhood; one of my proudest possessions is a 1928 collected edition of his short stories. And so when I first heard of the CBS series Elementary, I freely admit that I reacted with derision.
Sherlock Holmes set in New York? And Watson a woman? It surely wouldn't take long for the series to devolve into some sort of "romance" plot, right?
I was wrong. Only two months ago, I decided to try watching an episode of Elementary. To my surprise, I was hooked — to the extent that I've now plowed through four seasons, and am up-to-date with the fifth. I'd thought Benedict Cumberbatch defined the modern Sherlock Holmes, in the same way Jeremy Brett did a couple of decades ago; again, I was wrong. I'd not reckoned on the skill of Jonny Lee Miller.
What is it that makes Elementary work so well? Why would I, an avid fan of the original #SherlockHolmes — the one written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself — recommend this series?
This Sherlock Is A Broken Man, Putting Himself Back Together
How would Sherlock Holmes respond to the twenty-first century? Both Sherlock and Elementary ask that question, but the answers are very different. In Sherlock, you don't really see the true modern London; you see a sort of romanticized, simplified version. It's a halfway house between the London of the real world and that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with few traces of the diversity that's part of the modern metropolis.
In contrast, Elementary pulls no punches. The Sherlock Holmes of Elementary is the same genius we know and love, but he's faced by a world that's simply overwhelming to his hyper-acute senses and instinctive deductive skills. In the classic stories, Holmes used drugs to stimulate his mind during periods of boredom; in Elementary, he uses drugs at times when he hasn't got anything to focus on, and so his mind is simply overwhelmed by the world around him.
This inversion, tied to a personal tragedy, has left the Sherlock Holmes of Elementary a truly broken man. We're introduced to him as a drug addict battling with his addiction, forced to work alongside Lucy Liu's Joan Watson. The traditional dynamic of power between Holmes and Watson is skillfully inverted; Watson is Holmes's "sober companion," there to keep him on the straight and narrow. The relationship between the two characters begins in an antagonistic fashion, with Holmes resenting Watson's intrusion into his life, but ultimately becomes one of real friendship.
And that, I think, is what Elementary gets so very right. Where Sherlock invites us to marvel at its genius, Elementary allows us to dive deep into the experiences of a very broken man, and to watch as the pieces of his life are gradually pieced together. As the series progresses, Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock Holmes learns what it is to be human.
It's the kind of character progression you see in Conan Doyle's stories, with Holmes gradually mellowing out and learning to embrace parts of life he had never accepted before.
Lucy Liu's Joan Watson Is Superb
Of course, every Holmes needs his Watson — and Lucy Liu's Joan Watson is simply superb. She starts off in the traditional "Watson" role as the audience surrogate, standing in for us and marveling at Holmes's genius. But she's far too intelligent to stay in that place; this version of Dr. Watson watches Holmes at work, and learns from him. She begins to find fulfilment in Holmes's "Great Game," and ultimately dedicates herself to that life.
Joan Watson isn't Holmes's sidekick. She becomes his equal.
The series goes to great pains to demonstrate this. The first season peaks, of course, in a confrontation with Moriarty. Like so much of this series, the Moriarty of Elementary is a smart inversion of the one we know and love. The dynamic between Natalie Dormer's Moriarty and Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock Holmes is phenomenal; you'll truly believe the deep backstory that the show's given them. But because of this backstory, this is a Moriarty who knows Sherlock Holmes too well. He simply cannot beat her.
She doesn't know Watson, though. In Elementary, the climactic victory doesn't go to Sherlock Holmes; it goes to Joan Watson. It's done in such a wonderfully respectful way, too, honoring both the original characters and the show's own versions of them.
A Beautiful Sense Of Humor
Ultimately, though, I'm not just drawn to Elementary because of the actors; I'm drawn because of the show's style. It has the same whimsical charm that I see in Conan Doyle's works, and that I love so much in Jeremy Brett's iconic portrayal of the character.
Elementary knows that it's dealing with somebody whose deductive skills are beyond all common sense, and it fairly revels in that self-awareness.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself wasn't actually a fan of Sherlock Holmes; he even tried to kill him off in "The Adventure of the Final Problem." Doyle knew that Holmes was unreasonably clever, that his deductive skills were absurd, and that the crimes he solved were absurdly sensationalized. When Holmes made great deductive leaps, they were often inspired in part by tiny bits of trivia Doyle had read in the papers; given that fake news was a problem even in Victorian London, those trivia are often completely wrong.
But Doyle didn't mind; he didn't take the character seriously enough to care.
If you read the Sherlock Holmes stories with a careful eye, you'll see a rich vein of humor and self-awareness running through them. On occasion, you get the sense that Watson's exclamations of wonder are accompanied by an eye-roll from the author.
Elementary catches that same, slightly mocking, tone; it laughs at its own protagonists, amused at the absurdity of their skills. I freely confess that, for me, this is something I prefer by far to the strange hint of smugness you get in the BBC's Sherlock, a show that's a little too proud of its own cleverness.
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As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I have to say that Elementary has absolutely captured my heart. Is this the Sherlock Holmes I know and love, lifted straight from the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? No. What it is, instead, is a wonderfully creative adaptation of those stories one that captures the same humor and joy, that subverts and inverts my expectations, leaving me grinning with joy and delight.
Which Sherlock Holmes adaptation do you prefer?
(Poll Image Credit: CBS)