Earlier this year when the buzz for Elementary began (“buzz” being the kinder term for “collective melodramatic freak-out”), CBS needed its own eye logo to watch its back. Sherlock Holmes in America, John Watson turned into a woman—sound the battle alarm! Rally the Baker Street Irregulars! I can almost imagine it now: non-canonical deerstalkers torn asunder, blood on the cobblestones, singed bushy mustaches still smoking at both ends.
As someone who follows television like a weird obsessive superpower, I’ve rarely seen this kind of preemptive vitriol. Yes, Elementary is Holmes in America and, yes, Watson has breasts—and it premiered to solid CBS ratings, which means it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So put away the pistols and the sexism and let’s talk about the latest embodiment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary dream team.
After a sojourn to a New York-based rehab center, following a yet unknown bottoming out in England, Elementary opens with Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) working as a consultant to the NYPD. The only caveat to Holmes’s freedom is that he must have a “sober companion,” hired by his wealthy father, for the first six weeks after his release. Enter former surgeon Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), intent on helping Holmes settle into his post-seven-percent solution life even as she’s dragged into a world of crime she knows little about.
The two most prominent early cases against Elementary seemed to be, first: how could you take Holmes out of London? and second: there’s already a modern day adaptation on the air and that’s Sherlock…which isclearly the greatest Sherlock Holmes adaptation in known history, like ever; no really, I mean it; don’t even think something will ever come this close to universal feat of perfection and flawlessness because it just clearly can’t. (I hope I’m interpreting that second argument right.)
I sympathize with the first dispute, because a Londonless Holmes sounds about as absurd as dropping Paul Bunyan onto the White Cliffs of Dover. But Americans didn’t steal Sherlock Holmes; by now the 125-year-old Holmes belongs to the collective consciousness (and, more importantly, is no longer immune from copyright infringement). As Elementary proves, Holmes is still Holmes even without the London fog, and a Holmes out of his element can provide some great thematic challenges.
As for Sherlock, the superb BBC production that brought the Great Detective and his Boswell into the age of smartphones, there’s no doubt that Elementary’s announcement induced a sigh of “too soon, CBS” from many. Even I wasn’t immune to the sentiment. (Of course, there already was an American Holmes pastiche on the air in the form of a crankypants diagnostician named House. Fox did it before it was cool.)
As a procedural, Elementary easily vaults ahead of most of its network brethren. Even if the episode’s villain were to hypothetically have an awkward scene where he hypothetically gives away his hypothetical plan because there’s no way he can hypothetically get caught, the rest of the pilot is still sharp enough to give it a pass this go around. I do hope every murder, kidnapping, and grand larceny case are as artistically showcased as the slo-mo death scene in the show’s opening minutes—I can’t wait to see slo-mo white collar crime.
If Elementary has a problem, it’s history. The Sherlockian method of deduction has so invaded pop-culture that it’s become decidedly quaint. For anyone over the age of twenty reading a Sherlock Holmes story for the first time, there’s a certain level of inherent déjà vu that comes with many of the stories’ final revelations. Doyle may have perfected it, but a vast majority saw it on CSI first. The genre has been strip-mined over the years, meaning Elementary will have to provide fresh character obstacles. The mysteries may be commonplace, but how Holmes and Watson react to them—and each other—doesn’t have to be.
If Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is full of teenage swagger and angst (he doesn‘t have friends!), Miller’s is a pouting toddler who’s smarter than his crèche mates but unable to express why. In some ways, the Holmes of Elementary is closer attuned to Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of the character in the late ‘80s Granada series. Prickly, but gentlemanly; prone to black moods but without any cruelness in his eyes—this Holmes doesn’t bask in his own righteousness or giggle at the cleverness of criminals at a crime scene. Miller is a much more broken Holmes. When we watch him discover the murdered body of the episode’s victim, his remark of “sometimes I hate it when I’m right” is wearily sincere.
Like any true Watson, Joan exists to be more than a springboard; she’s an idea catalyst whose presence is the yin to Sherlock’s yang. She needs to pull him from his isolation, all the while feeding off of his energy to get her own life on track. I’m undoubtedly worried about television’s need to turn a beautiful platonic relationship into a will-they-won’t-they duet, but the writers clearly had fun addressing this in their first meeting as Holmes, trying to memorize what’s happening on seven TV screens all at once, offers Joan a “love at first sight” monologue before she (and we as the audience) realize that he’s pulled it from one of the monitors. With this gag already out of the way, perhaps I can put my fears to rest—at least until season three.
I’ve seen a quote floating around recently, which is probably more adept at describing the recent reincarnations of Holmes that I can ever could. It also works as a succinct reminder that one version of Sherlock Holmes doesn’t inherently cancel out any other. Taken from Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, it is Holmes himself who says: “Everything comes in circles. […] The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It's all been done before, and will be again.”