PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

CBS’ Sherlock Holmes Is Quirky and Passionate, but also a Bit 'Elementary'

This series presents an excellent character study of a recovering addict and his temptations, making Holmes more vulnerable than the iconic character that is usually portrayed in other Sherlock Holmes adaptations.


Elementary

Distributor: Paramount, CBS DVD
Cast: Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu
Extras: 6
Network: CBS
Release date: 2013-08-27
Website
Amazon

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.