Elementary has gotten some flak for being the "lesser" modern-day Sherlock Holmes. But now that its first season is over, we're realizing this show understands the Arthur Conan Doyle canon — it's just not afraid to ask questions. Here's why Elementary is the Sherlock Holmes we never knew we always needed.
Warning: Spoilers for season one ahead!
"Let us hear the suspicions. I will look after the proofs."
- Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Three Students
A little Holmes is a dangerous thing.
When Arthur Conan Doyle first published his Baker Street detective in The Strand, demand became so overwhelming he charged ten times more each contract to avoid writing them. When that didn't work, he literally threw the man off a cliff. Even that didn't take - people donned mourning armbands and chased his carriage down the street (there's no fandom like Holmes fandom). Conan Doyle brought him back a decade later: you can't kill a myth.
Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character in film and television – nearly eighty actors in over two hundred works. The earliest was before the turn of the 20th century; he's been a dog, a cucumber, and a mouse. And his legend's so ubiquitous that even when it's not him, it's still him: Hercule Poirot, Adrian Monk, Jane Tennison, Shawn Spencer, Robert Goren: all operate under the shadow of 221-b.
When CBS announced Elementary, a contemporary Holmes series, there was a flurry of speculation, including allegations the show was merely aping BBC's Sherlock, which also brought Holmes to a modern-day metropolis. (Somewhere in the afterlife, Basil Rathbone recalled all those times Sherlock Holmes fought the Nazis, and laughed.)
Two questions were most pressing: In the glut of procedurals, would this be true to Conan Doyle? And, Could it be any good?
"Which is it to-day," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?"
He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.
"It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"
- Dr. John Watson and Holmes, The Sign of Four
There are, generally, two ways to adapt a work: portrayal or interrogation. The former brings canon to life faithfully, for values of 'faithfully' (Vasily Livanov and Robert Downey, Jr. are Sherlocks with roots in canon and executions so different they wouldn't recognize each other on the street.) Interrogation takes the work into conversation with its mythos. In a crowded canon, this approach can say more about the source than a straight adaptation. It's why Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek movie. (Holmes had this treatment in the immortal Without a Clue.)
Elementary interrogates. It gives us Sherlock Holmes in a context foreign to Conan Doyle's iteration in every respect: Watson's a woman of color; Chief Gregson's smart; Holmes enjoys the sexual company of women. Most strikingly, Holmes is exiled to New York because of the addiction that bottomed him out.
There are plentiful nods to canon, from bees on the roof to methods to monographs. But we meet him as a man torn: a great mind and poor manners, employing both as a smokescreen for what he sees as catastrophic failure, courtesy the seven per cent solution.
This is a Holmes knocked from the pedestal of the dispassionate gentleman detective. His relationship with his addiction forms the core of his character, of secondary importance only to Watson in his development throughout the season. And Jonny Lee Miller's fantastic incarnation of Holmes makes sure we feel the weight of addiction in a show that takes it seriously. He suffers the aftermath, and must face the realities of recovery — no easy thing for a man who trades on the illusion of invincibility with all the gusto of the Conan Doyle original.
Also keeping him humble: his supporting cast. There's a popular misconception — the fault of many an adaptation — that Holmes is a supergenius accompanied by an admiring everyman and surrounded by dunces. Conan Doyle's Watson and Gregson would beg to differ, and so this Holmes lives in no such vacuum; he's never the only clever person in a room. When he reveals his addiction, Gregson (not unkindly) points out that as a detective, he had that covered. His sponsor Alfredo's skills in the repossessionary arts outclass Holmes's by a mile. He acknowledges Moriarty as more than a match for himself. Even housekeeper/librarian Ms. Hudson has the effortless memory to which Holmes aspires.
And in Watson, he's found an equal — and that's what the show's not-so-secretly about.
"You know my methods. Apply them."
- Holmes, The Sign of Four
Watson has always been the core of the Holmes mythos. Watson balances, humanizes, and immortalizes. Watson also gets a significant piece of the action.
In Elementary, she is the action.
Watson enters Sherlock's life as his unwanted sober companion; her progression to detective is the architecture of the first season. (And in case you're not sure who literally runs this show, Holmes's arc is defined not by detective work, which starts and stays excellent, but by his progress in valuing Watson.)
Watson becomes a welcome presence, a potential protege, a nominal apprentice, and an investigator in her own right. The role of companion (not caretaker — by episode 2, Holmes is told to get his own coffee, thanks) is presented not as Watson's destiny, but as a way to whet her appetite.
And it does. Watson, an ex-surgeon, is intelligent and ethical — handy skills for a detective, a Watson of the sort who investigated Baskerville Hall. (She's an sometime audience proxy made to ask How Sherlock Knew That, but Lucy Liu's makes exposition drier than it has a right to be.) She progresses, with Holmes's encouragement no less, until her skills are so sharp that Holmes trusts her judgment even — especially — when he's most out of control.
There are pitfalls. As she's the beginner, Holmes does a lot of explaining, and her initial focus as sober-companion sets up a pattern of Holmes vocalizing turmoil while she keeps a clamp on hers — a habit hard to break as later episodes filled with subplots and supporting cast. However, she's no enigmatic sidekick or meek orbiting body. She has zero problems calling him an asshole, often — he's still Sherlock Holmes, master of the atrocious sentiment, and when he calls her a conductor of light, her eyes roll to the ceiling). She also has a world of friends and family outside the brownstone.
That's fitting; one of Conan Doyle's finest tricks was that Watson functioned perfectly well alone — but Holmes fell apart on his own. Here, Watson finds herself at ease amid police, witnesses, and suspects, with the erratic Holmes encouraging anything that could make her stay. (Not that way; they share a love of all outside the humdrum, but Elementary is otherwise uninterested in kissyface subtext. Their connection is their investment in one another, and their prickly negotiation of boundaries — ongoing, as he continues to present her with breakfasts in bed for which she did not ask.)
That a woman of color on a major network show should have a character this focal and active without any romantic angle is a rare bird. It's also deliberate.
"It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles."
- Holmes, The Man with the Twisted Lip
The show has plenty to work on. Its single greatest setback is that it's on CBS. Their procedural recipe, deliverable in demographic- and syndication-friendly seasons, means narrative stagnation is a constant threat, and characterization and canon are on the line whenever the network comes calling.
And oh, they've come calling. (Remember the time Sherlock and Watson looked up a clue on a sponsored computer product while he sat on the toilet? I sure do! Bing me!) The Super Bowl episode is the worst offense, a disaster-turned-mirrorverse-pilot in which questionable elements are hurled at viewers. Holmes is sexual because Lesbian Strippers! He solves crimes because Dumb People! Crucial plots are dropped because Audience Numbers!
The show's procedural-itis, to no one's surprise, also gets underfoot: cases are generally forgettable, exposition happens half again as often as necessary, and cliches arise — the callous interrogation of a domestic abuse victim, some halfhearted spy rhetoric, and the ol' murderous-callgirl gambit are all deployed. It's not shocking, given their twenty-four-case dossier, but they're sour notes in a show that knows better.
And we know it knows better, because of a proliferation of "trifles" that build a remarkable and nuanced world — presented not in the service of Conan Doyle, but in the service of everything else.
Beyond Watson, the show holds a modern frame: women and people of color are everywhere, as cops, doctors, groundskeepers, geneticists. It's not just that Sherlock's sponsor is a POC security expert; it's that when he and Joan meet she makes some assumptions, and he calls her out; they become friends. When the show follows Detective Bell's rocky relationship with his brother, he code-switches between the stationhouse and his brother's. Joan treats most women as allies, not obstacles, and has a complicated relationship with her mother that still avoids Asian-mom cliches. Ms. Hudson is a trans woman character, played by a trans woman, whose identity is unquestioningly accepted and whose attractiveness is taken for granted while not defining her.
It all matters. And it's all notable, if for no other reason that so much of it has nothing to do with Holmes. When it does, it illuminates him or teaches him a lesson. (He accepts Ms. Hudson's gender preferences without question — that's good! He makes note of Watson's menstrual cycle and gets called out for misogyny — that's also good!) The world of Elementary doesn't support a Holmes whose intellect justifies dickweedery; Holmes has to negotiate that as much as he does his cases, keeping just enough bullshit in reserve to give Watson something to roll her eyes about occasionally.
By and large, he's made progress, especially given his past rubric, in which Irene Adler was, by his own admission, the first woman he ever respected.
Which is interesting, given Irene.
"To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman."
- Watson, A Scandal in Bohemia
Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty loom large in canon — much larger than their presence (each appears in only one story). With Irene the only woman to outwit Holmes, and Moriarty the only man to defeat him, they're certainly exceptional, with enough mystery to make them tantalizing subjects for adaptation. Adaptations often shortcut; Moriarty becomes an omniscient nemesis, Irene a romantic interest. The former's understandable — every superhero needs a villain worthy of his steel, though some give him an exhausting amount of personal culpability in the world of crime.
Irene Adler is trickier. It is, one supposes, harder to wring drama out of one meeting and a screw-you note than it is to construct some thwarted yearning. Still, recent adaptations haven't done well by any definition, leaving an unfortunate legacy of dead girlfriends and mostly-lesbian dominatrixes.
Elementary doubled down early by revealing his relationship with Irene was so profound her death drove him to a heroin habit. (Those expecting that to pan out shouldn't get their hopes up; their relationship has the faux-depth of a 13-year-old writing Mary Sue fanfic in a Moleskine, and makes Irene initially as disappointing as her recent forebears.)
His obsession with her murder threatens to derail his recovery, and at times his entire life; halfway through the season, after tracking down the man he thinks is responsible for Irene's murder, he takes matters into his own hands — and only Moran's proof of innocence keeps Sherlock from slicing him open; it's a ruthless reaction to the loss of Irene, and the same Holmes willing to shoot Killer Evans in cold blood in "The Case of the Three Garridebs."
Then the show revealed that she was alive; a shock for Holmes, but a promising unfridging. Then it revealed she was back, a victim of Moriarty's master plan damsel-distressed but determined to recover.
Then it revealed she was Moriarty.
It's a conflation of the two most formative guests in the Holmes canon that's in some ways too neat — Big Bad by merger. On the other hand, given that she's the first 21st-century Irene not to be fridged or revealed as someone's puppet — that she's in fact the ruthless brains behind it all is significant.
But the big twist isn't even the reveal, it's the fallout: Moriarty's downfall belongs to Watson.
Make no mistake, Holmes is as obsessed with Moriarty as he was with Irene, and deduces the master plan. But Watson's responsible for the key tipoff to Irene's identity, and in cutting Moriarty off at the pass. Even the Big Talk, where hero and villain square off in public to gnaw on loaded dialogue, has Watson sitting opposite Moriarty.
And when Moriarty bemoans that the defeated Sherlock was the only one who could surprise her, Watson springs her trap and reveals the master plan that wins the day. (Holmes, smiling: "Turns out there are two.")
"Oh! a mystery is it?" I cried, rubbing my hands. "This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together."
- Watson, A Study in Scarlet
That a Sherlock Holmes adaptation should bring a crucial character back for a showdown is expected. That both the text and Holmes recognize Watson as the primary protagonist is extraordinary. And yet, the interrogation of the canon has brought a master detective in line with his own fallibility, and promoted the worthy apprentice. Thus Holmes's first-season arc is acceptance (accept his misjudgment, accept his continuing struggle with addiction, accept Watson), and Watson's is action (solve the mystery, stand up to Holmes, vanquish the mastermind). It's a thoughtful read on the Conan Doyle canon, and has brought home the ambitious promise of this show's examination of the myth in 221-b.
It's not a faultless show (oh, CBS). It's certainly taken liberties — so many that for some, it's an original procedural with borrowed names. But that oversimplifies the work Elementary has done to question what it means to be Holmes and Watson.
We have, at last, a true partnership for Holmes and Watson, couched in that particular soulmate simpatico of 221-b, and moving distinctly forward without losing sight of the canon. (In the season coda, Sherlock points out some emerging bees — a hybrid, born from a rare breed not expected to be compatible with outside species; aware of their symbolism, he christens them Euglassia watsonia.)
Elementary will return; with the success of its increasingly-serial first year, one imagines the second season will find breathing room, sand off the expositionary edges, and give our consulting detectives more adventures to sink their teeth into.
Until then, Holmes and Watson will be together on a Brooklyn rooftop, keeping bees, and that's turned out to be a pretty awesome thing.
Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, Mechanique, won the 2012 Crawford Award and was nominated for the Nebula; her second novel is forthcoming from Atria in 2014.
Her nonfiction has appeared at NPR.org, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Tor.com, and others. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog, genevievevalentine.com.