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Elementary: The First Season

(CBS; US DVD: 27 Aug 2013)

Sherlock Holmes “is so beloved, and there’s so much history, and there have been so many different takes on the character… you really want to try to distinguish yourself and give the people who care about the character another way of seeing him,” Elementary’s creator and frequent scriptwriter Robert Doherty explains in one of the first-season DVD set’s behind-the-scenes interviews. Elementary certainly provides a different, and successful, take on the classic interpretation of Victorian Holmes. The hit drama (the only one of CBS’ five new series to be renewed) helped the network become the most highly rated US network during the 2012-13 broadcast season.

Executive producer Carl Beverly adds that Holmes is “a guy who most of the audience knows. They know what to expect. They know he’s smarter than the next guy. They know he solves the crime, and so I think some of the other ideas about his personality or his character that might normally be harder to digest are more enjoyable” to portray in the series. Thus, in Elementary, Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is portrayed as a recovering drug addict.

Every episode includes a few comments from the detective or his associates about his addiction, and scenes occasionally take place within a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Whereas some critics have deemed this emphasis a brave interpretation of the Great Detective, others (myself included) find that Holmes-the-addict is an interesting character, but one limited by such emphatic focus on one aspect of his life. Even moving the character from London to New York and from the 19th century to the 21st feels less jarring than the constant reminder that Holmes battles his addiction daily. Of course, the series presents an excellent character study of a recovering addict and his temptations – a role series’ star Miller plays well, making Holmes at times more vulnerable than the iconic character is usually portrayed in other Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

Despite moments of vulnerability, such as when the consulting detective reluctantly begins to admit that he does better working with new associate Watson than conducting investigations on his own, Holmes also can be a much darker series hero. In the episode “M.”, for example, he plans to torture and kill M, the man he believes is responsible for killing the love of his life, Irene Adler. Although Holmes regularly consults with the police and often is on the side of justice, he only wants vengeance for his lover in this case.

In addition to presenting a modern, sometimes manic, always mesmerizing Holmes, Elementary’s creative team also dramatically changed the character formerly known as John Watson from the Arthur Conan Doyle canon. In the CBS series, John becomes Joan (Lucy Liu), the doctor is transformed into a sober companion who later becomes Holmes’ protégée in deduction, and Watson is no longer a war veteran. Again, this reimagining of an iconic character may be perceived as either brave or foolhardy, but audiences warmed to the Holmes-Watson relationship as it developed throughout season one.

However, the fact remains that Joan begins her association with Sherlock not out of friendship but because of her employment. Even when she agrees to remain with her former client beyond her initial contract, she becomes Holmes’ student as she learns how to become a detective. This shift in the relationship is once more based on work (Watson receives a stipend and free housing) as the foundation of their relationship instead of the traditional assumption of affection and loyalty between canon Holmes and Watson.

Perhaps, as Doherty scripted the relationship’s evolution across first-season episodes, he wanted to reassure viewers that Sherlock and Joan would not develop a romance fraught with sexual tension. During interviews in 2012, months before the series premiered, the creator assured audiences that he would “honor the original relationship”, which, to his knowledge, did not include the pair sleeping together. His solution to have the duo gradually begin to trust one another and for Joan to become invested in Sherlock’s work has, by the conclusion of the first season, resulted in an effective partnership, but the early episodes when Joan is a sober companion still seem awkward as a device to bring the two together.

Of course, every recent Sherlock Holmes adaptation reinvents the detective’s nemesis, Moriarty, and Elementary does so with a surprising twist in the season-ending two-parter, “The Woman”/”Heroine”. In fact, the episodes involving whispers of or scenes with Moriarty (e.g., “M.”, “A Landmark Story”, “Risk Management”, the finalé) are the best of the first season. These scripts are centered on Holmes and his most important relationships – Irene Adler, Moriarty, Joan Watson. The stories also give Miller much more emotional material to play, whether grieving a lost love; revealing a surprisingly playful, sexy side during the pursuit of romance (a story told through flashbacks); or bringing down his enemy. These episodes can stand alone, but when watched on DVD as an arc of related stories building to the dramatic first-season climax, they show how good a series Elementary can be.

Unfortunately, most episodes are independent police procedurals, and Holmes often appears to work with the NYPD more than with Watson. Although the “whodunit” stories are entertaining, they often could be solved by someone far less genius than Sherlock Holmes. The pilot episode effectively establishes the premise that Holmes’ deductions greatly assist the police’s homicide investigations, but later episodes merely follow CBS’ familiar formula for a successful crime drama:  oil-and-water partners who nonetheless work together to solve a crime before the closing credits. At times, Elementary does not seem to specifically require Sherlock Holmes; any quirky, brash, workaholic detective would do equally well.

The DVD extras similarly are a mix of the expected – cast and creator interviews – with a few gems for those who want to learn more about the way an episode is put together. The best segments, previously available in a five-part web series, are “Seeing Is Believing”, showing how visual effects and lighting add layers of meaning to the plot (e.g., through flashbacks, in creating a scene’s tone); “Devil in the Details”, explaining the significance of just the right prop, for example; and “Pieces of the Puzzle”, illustrating how music added in post-production can change the audience’s understanding of a scene and how the way a scene is edited helps the audience understand nuances of plot. These informative segments show more than tell, unlike the longer interviews, which tell – and often repeat key points – how the series was conceived and its first-season structured.

Although this adaptation of Holmes and Watson may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the series provides enjoyable mysteries within the limitations of a one-hour (with commercials) drama. It is slickly produced; the opening title sequence alone is worth a closer look. The actors, especially Miller, make the most of what they are given to do. In Miller’s case, his Holmes can be convincingly wide-eyed, cunning, or coolly logical.

The dialogue often includes snippets of canon, but this adaptation more often attempts to traverse uncharted Holmesian territory. Nevertheless, the series’ insistence on portraying Holmes primarily as an addict and its reliance on the solved-within-an-episode police-procedural format far more often than offering story arcs with greater emotional and intellectual depth makes this adaptation of Holmes rather, well, elementary.


Lynnette Porter is the author of performance biography Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Communication Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

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