Somewhere between the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie, some kindly relative introduced me to the World’s Greatest Detective with a collection of six or seven of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories about Sherlock Holmes. I think the first story I read was “The Red-Headed League” where, even at the age of 8 or 9, I knew Mr. Jabez Wilson was a bit of a sucker. But I loved the tale, and then I trembled at “The Speckled Band” and hoped the horse wouldn’t get hurt in “Silver Blaze.”
I eventually collected and read all the Sherlock Holmes stories – some a few times – and I have to admit that I like the guy a lot more than his cases. It took me a while to figure out that Sherlock didn’t solve mysteries so much as untangle “problems,” that you were seldom likely to find suspects and alibis and human interest in the stories, that for the most part, a Holmes adventure consisted of a curious situation in want of a rational explanation that Holmes invariably supplied. Oh, sure, there was the occasional whodunnit (The Hound of the Baskervilles, “Silver Blaze,” “The Adventure of the Three Students”), and a great many of the “problems” were intriguing fun. (I have a special fondness for a certain vampire in Sussex.) Still, it says something that my favorite thing about the Holmes canon is Dr. Watson, who put up with a lot in exchange for publication rights.
In a world where people come to blows over literary adaptations, I’m one of those who believes Holmes really comes to life when he is dramatized. (In college, I played two small roles in the William Gillette play that ran the gamut from noble to evil, and I had a blast.) I won’t apologize for any inaccuracies perpetrated on the original characters by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. They were my first onscreen H&W, and I loved them. Bruce is all wrong for Watson, of course, but he’s adorable. And Rathbone, especially in the first few films, really gets the “tortured Thinking Machine” aspects of the character. The series went slightly off the rails when it brought the pair into the 1940’s and tasked Holmes with propagandizing the Allied involvement in World War II; nevertheless, it gave Rathbone the opportunity for flowery patriotic speeches at the end of each film, something the actor craved much more than his character ever would.
Between 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and and 1946’s Dressed to Kill, Bruce and Rathbone made fourteen Holmes films. During the same period, however, they also starred in a radio program, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These are wonderful shows, especially those written from 1943 onward by Denis Green and Anthony Boucher. While many of the original stories were adapted, plenty of original adventures appeared on the airwaves, and a lot of these plots contained the tropes seldom found in the stories but much beloved by GAD mystery lovers. As an extra dollop of proof that Rathbone was an excellent Holmes, after he left in 1946 and was replaced by actor Tom Conway. Conway’s voice resembled Rathbone’s quite a bit, but he didn’t have the flair of the “original,” and he and Nigel Bruce did not have the same chemistry. Bruce left in 1947, and the series went on, limping a little, with different actors playing Holmes and Watson, until 1950.
No detective has been adapted in books and film as much as Sherlock Holmes. August personages like John Dickson Carr (with Doyle’s son Adrian), Ellery Queen, Nicholas Meyer, Anthony Horowitz, and Nick Cardillo are among the many authors who have tackled the sleuth and made him their own. Holmes has also been a staple of the film industry since 1900’s Sherlock Holmes Baffled. In addition to Rathbone, actors playing Holmes include John Barrymore, Raymond Massey, Peter Cushing, Robert Downey Jr., Ian McKellan, . . . and Will Ferrell. We’ve seen Holmes as a boy, Holmes as a girl, Holmes as a mouse . . .
And then there’s television, where Holmes has inspired writers and actors since its earliest days. Appropriately, the first series premiered on the BBC in 1951, with an American series following on its heels a few years later. The 60’s saw Sherlock Holmes pop up on small screens in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and Italy, with Poland and Russia joining the pack in the late 70’s. Some consider the 1984 British series the most faithful to the canon (adapting 42 of the 60 stories) and Jeremy Brett the “Suchet” of Holmeses.
After the millennium moved forward, the character of Sherlock Holmes followed a similar path to that of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, with the millennium bringing about changes to all three characters that were looser and more controversial. (Even a Poirot portrayer as lauded as David Suchet transformed the character when the series returned from a long hiatus and caused a bit of a ruckus.) As might be expected, the same thing happened to Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie’s modern take on Holmes and Watson was not to my taste, but the two series that appeared on TV nearly side by side that took the detective out of Victorian London and deposited him firmly into the modern day were more interesting.
Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC series which premiered in 2010 and ran for thirteen episodes over four seasons (oh, you Brits and your tiny seasons!) at least placed Holmes and Watson in lodgings at 221B Baker Street and provided some many intriguing parallels to the original stories; some of these worked better than others. Cumberbatch is a wonderfully unique actor, and his quirks worked well in the character of Holmes. For me, though, Sherlock produced the best Watson of them all in Martin Freeman, who imbued this all-too-often sidelined character with complexity and humanity. And in Andrew Scott, the producers found the perfect Moriarty, both terrifying and oddly sexy.
Perhaps it was the success and popularity of Sherlock that provided some confusion to fans when CBS decided to do pretty much the same thing: present a modern-day version of canon lore. The show was called Elementary, and in 2012 it joined a lineup of procedural shows for which CBS has become (in)famous. That fall, you could watch Hawaii Five-O, NCIS, NCIS: LA, VEGAS, Criminal Minds, CSI, CSI: NY, Person of Interest, Made in Jersey, Blue Bloods and The Mentalist. Saturday nights on CBS were taken up with Crimetime Saturday, three hours of reruns of these series (plus older shows like Cold Case and FBI).
Elementary may have faced early criticism by those who saw it as a rip-off of Sherlock, but it soon won over fans, and deservedly so, for its cast, its writing, and its sly allegiance to the canon. It stands out from most of the other shows in the pack listed above for its faithful wallow into the conventions of detective stories and for the chemistry between the actors. When the series premiered, I did watch. I lasted a little over a season, then got busy or lost interest and never went back – until now. On the advice of my friend Sergio (and because the entire series is available on Hulu), I have decided to go back and revisit the show, season by season (there are seven of them). Hopefully, those of you who remember the series fondly, and the few who have never heard of it and wish to explore, will join in.
The premise we are presented with in the pilot goes as follows: Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) has been a frequent consultant on cases presented to Scotland Yard. He was also a drug addict, saddled with a difficult family, and when he fell apart, he fled England and landed in New York City. Now he is attempting to get straight so that he might continue to work on crimes that interest him. He can make the latter come true by working with Captain Thomas Gregson (Aidan Quinn), head of the 11th Bureau, who had met Holmes when he was assigned to observe the Counter-Terrorism division of the Yard. Joining Gregson and Holmes is Detective First Grade Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill – note his name, which is an homage to Dr. Joseph Bell, Arthur Conan Doyle’s early employer, who provided inspiration to the author for Holmes’ character). Bell is leery of Holmes’ ability to help – for about an episode and a half.
Holmes scoffs at drug rehab, and so in order to get straight, he agrees to his father’s demand that he take on a sober companion, somebody who will live with Holmes and help him hold his habits at bay and maintain sobriety. That companion is Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), who used to be a surgeon until she lost a patient. Anyone might imagine that this gender switch was done to allow for that most common of TV series tropes, the “will-they-or-won’t-they?” tension that has appealed to so many viewers in shows ranging from The Avengers to Moonlighting, from The X-Files to Castle. Thankfully, this was not the intent of Elementary’s creator, Robert Doherty. His goal was to create a series about a friendship that blossoms out of a shared love for solving cases.
At least, that is the through-line of the first season. It is the most original aspect of the series and provides a nice counterpoint to Doherty’s parsing out of elements from the original canon of stories in a variety of ways. Most of the latter comes in the form of Easter eggs: Holmes raises bees, writes monographs, and owns a violin (only this Holmes hates the violin); other parallels are more significant, as we shall see. And while most of the first season conforms to the “case-of-the-week” format of most CBS procedurals, there is a definite arc to Season One involving the genesis of Holmes and Watson’s relationship (slowly morphing from wary to warm) and Joan Watson’s parallel transformation from sober companion to consulting detective.
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The first three episodes nicely establish the working and home relationship between Holmes and Watson and the dynamic between Holmes and the police, as well as providing several cases with some nice surprises in their solutions. While the pilot amounts to a clever cat-and-mouse game, I think my favorite is Episode Two, “While You Were Sleeping,” where our sleuths investigate a pair of murders and quickly narrow down the killer’s identity, only to discover that the suspect has been in a coma after attempting suicide. Each step forward leads to another setback, and the solution is good. Episode Three, “Child Predator,” shows us a Holmes who is quite different from Doyle’s template, one more capable of getting personal with a suspect who gets under his skin. The surprise here may not be so surprising to those of us who have watched lots of these types of shows (there are lots of twists of this type to be found on L.A. Law, The Practice, and Picket Fences), but it’s still a suspenseful and well-performed episode.
The series takes a leap in interpersonal relationships in Episode 4, “Rat Race,” when the secret relationship between Holmes and Watson (and Holmes’ addiction) is revealed to Gregson (who knew about it all the time) and when Watson proves her professional worth to Holmes by saving his life. (As payback, Holmes exposes some uneasy truths about the sexy man Watson has begun dating – and about detectives dating in general.) We are given a deeper look into how this incarnation of Holmes views his calling – and to what degree his skills and preoccupations propel his addictions. In the final scene, Holmes invites Watson to share the thrill of this sleuthing game, but he also issues a warning:
“It has its costs, learning to see the puzzle in everything. They’re everywhere. Once you start looking, it’s impossible to stop. It just so happens that people, in all the deceit and illusions that inform everything they do, tend to be the most fascinating puzzle of all. Of course, they don’t always appreciate being seen as such.”
Episode 5, “Lesser Evils,” is a fairly typical cat-and-mouse game: somebody is murdering terminally ill and/or suffering patients in a hospital. Is it the smirking head of surgery or the smirking janitor? The solution covers many bases and adds a slight layer of complexity to a fairly simple problem. But Episode 6, “Flight Risk,” is a classic problem in deduction that grows and builds, focusing almost purely on Holmes’ powers of ratiocination. A small plane crashes on a beach, killing its three passengers and the pilot. Examining the scene, Holmes immediately deduces that one of the dead bodies perished before the crash, suggesting that either the pilot or one of the other passengers killed him. As one clue is explained, a new one emerges, and the case gets more and more complex.
At the same time, we get a nice leap into Holmes and Watson’s personal relationship as Watson tries to broach a dinner between Holmes and his estranged father. This, too, becomes an ever more complex subplot and leads to the best closing line in the series yet – the name “Irene.”
After the high of this episode, it was only natural that the series might – like the plane in “Flight Risk” – come crashing down to earth. There’s nothing wrong with Episode 7, “One Way to Get Off”: it’s a perfectly adequate storyline, like one we’ve seen in almost every CBS procedural listed above. In fact, we have seen this many, many times before: the twisted serial killer is safely behind bars, and then the killings start up again. Is it a copycat? Was the original arrest invalid? A small amount of tension is added by the fact that Gregson was in charge of the original investigation, and Sherlock is pretty sure at the start that Gregson blew it. But the killer is unbearably easy to spot, and the subplot about Gregson and his ex-partner is under-developed.
Things start out better in the next episode, “The Long Fuse,” (a very good title, it turns out), when a bomb explodes the office of a young start-up firm, and Sherlock determines quickly that the company had been decimated by mistake. His deductions leading to who was the real intended target are more interesting than the solution, alas. But things definitely perk up in Episode 9, a brutal whodunnit about a college professor who is assassinated in public by having both his eyes shot out. At the same time, Watson is trying to help an ex-lover who has been arrested for a hit-and-run and who, since he was drunk, cannot be completely trusted when he tells Watson he’s innocent.
It’s not that we haven’t seen similar solutions to this main crime before, but it’s carried out well here from segment to segment. And the personal stuff is meaningful, too. Holmes has a bad cold, which affects his judgment and ends up causing serious problems for an innocent suspect. Watson treats Holmes’ cold with Chinese herbs, and Holmes helps Watson with her ex. In the end, a truly evil killer is unmasked, and our sleuthing team grows closer. The only problem with this episode? ROT-13: Gur gvgyr, “Lbh Qb Vg gb Lbhefrys” tvirf gur ragver tnzr njnl.
Episodes 10 – 12 offer a healthy dose of Holmesian mythology and continues the “will she or won’t she?” – as in will Joan stay on to assist Sherlock or move to another client – all while offering two interesting cases. Episode 10, “Leviathan,” is named for a super-safe that has already been broken into once. Although the gang who did this were apprehended, tried, and convicted, another burglary has happened again, and the manufacturer of the Leviathan safe asks Holmes to figure out how it was done while the police figure out whodunnit. Holmes manages to answer both questions, teaching me something about DNA along the way. Episode 11, “Dirty Laundry,” is a domestic mystery about a family with enough dark secrets to . . . well, to inspire another popular TV series.
It is with Episode 12, simply called “M” that we get our first episode totally devoted to mythology. A soccer-loving serial killer whom Holmes ran across in England has made his own trek across the ocean. I won’t go into all the plot, but the names Sebastian Moran, Irene Adler, and Moriarty inform the plot. (Moriarty is on their way into the series; unfortunately, the series’ depiction of the character has already been spoiled for me.) Sherlock shows an actual set of recognizable emotions here, which results in his suspension from working with the police. That suspension lasts one episode – perhaps more could have been made of it? – and the problem that gets him reinstated, “The Red Team,” didn’t amount to much for me. Sure, the original Holmes was known to work on cases involving the government; hell, his brother Mycroft is the British government! (Mycroft shows up next season.) Here, the case isn’t a case so much as it results from Holmes’ hobby of poking about the internet looking for conspiracy theories. The vagueness of strategic plot points here caused the whole episode to lose much of its potency.
However, the next two episodes are not only great fun but shift the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, as Joan gets to practice her own deductive skills. The title of Episode 14, “The Deductionist,” however, describes Holmes – at least the way an ambitious FBI agent (who happens to be another one of Sherlock’s “exes”) did in a book she wrote about the sleuth. The opening scene would fit right into an episode of Criminal Minds, as a team of doctors welcome Howard Ennis, a truly demonic serial killer (Terry Kinney, good in everything he does) in order to remove one of his kidneys and transplant it into his dying sister. Raise your hand if you think this sort of thing ever goes well. The twists might not totally surprise you – again, this sort of thing happens on CM all the time – but they’re well-handled and beautifully acted. Also, Watson gets a subplot involving her sublet apartment and gets to prove her own abilities at detection.
Episode 15, “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs,” is even better. After a nice, twisty little opening where a young woman is abducted, we find Sherlock and Joan at home where a surprise guest walks naked out of the bathroom. It happens to be Holmes’ ex-drug-dealer (John Hannah), and the abductee from the top of the show is his daughter. This unlikely trio works together to rescue the girl, (with some surprising deus ex machina support from Holmes’ still-unseen father), and all comes out well despite a surprise double-cross.
Episode 16, “Details,” focuses on Detective Bell: he is attacked, he is framed, he has an ex-con brother, which is not the only secret Bell is keeping. All of this is well-handled but standard CBS series fare. It is accompanied by an amusing subplot where Holmes, upset that Watson was attacked in their home by an assailant at the end of the last episode, uses some unsettling tactics to push her toward studying self-defense. This episode marks the official beginning of Watson’s apprenticeship to Holmes when he reveals his knowledge that his father has stopped paying Watson to be his companion.
Episode 17, “Possibility Two,” is entertaining but suffers from an extreme dose of improbability as Holmes takes on the case of whether or not a man’s surprise diagnosis of dementia is actually a massive scientific conspiracy. It is, of course, although not a particularly stunning one. As for the science: yes, perhaps it is possible to fake DNA and recreate the genomes of hereditary diseases, but since this is beyond the ken of the average CBS viewer, we simply have to go along for the ride. (Additional points for having the first victim run an organization known as the Musgrave Corporation.) Greater fun is had as Holmes puts Watson’s burgeoning deductive skills to the test by making her take repeated trips to “the worst dry cleaners in the world.”
Episode 18, “Snow Angels,” is more adventure than mystery, although there is a half-hearted twist tagged on to the very end. As an adventure, however, it works just fine. A nor’easter has hit New York just as an armed robbery that resulted in the death of a security guard bodes a larger game afoot. Holmes and Watson need to be on the move despite all the snow: enter Pam (Becky Ann Baker), a snowplow driver who lends assistance as the sleuths attempt to figure out the criminals’ plans and then stop them. Bonus points: the inimitable Mrs. Hudson makes her first of several appearances on the series. True, she’s Ms. Hudson, she’s young and beautiful, and she’s transgender. But, boy, can she clean!
When I saw the blurb for Episode 20, “Dead Man’s Switch,” and the mention of a serial blackmailer, I smelled canon a mile off! Sure enough, the blackmailer here is one Charles Augustus Milverton, a despicable cad who is dispatched quickly – while Holmes, hidden in his apartment, is watching. Milverton’s death will ignite a terrible punishment on his victims with the release online of certain videos, so Gregson hushes up the murder and Holmes and Watson race against time to find the blackmailer’s accomplice. There’s also a nice subplot as Holmes nears his one-year anniversary of sobriety and yet mysteriously (well, maybe not so mysteriously) refuses to accept his chip. This case features Holmes’ sponsor Alfredo (Ato Essandoh), a former car jacker and addict who has developed a warm relationship with the team and who has appeared on a recurring basis since episode 8.
Twenty episodes in, and I’m ready to call Elementary as an above average CBS procedural show, and an enjoyable modern take on a classic detective. As so often happens with potentially long-running series, most of what we have watched up till now is a series of “cases of the week” while we establish and build the relationship between this version of Holmes and Watson, a relationship that by now thankfully seems in no way headed toward romance but in an intellectual partnership and a some-sort-of-friendship between two people, each gifted in their own way, who just happen to be a man and a woman. We’re also seeing that Lucy Liu’s version of Watson is more than a . . . well, a Watson: she’s working her way up to partnership rather than settling for mere “sidekickery.” We have also seen various allusions to the canon – Inspector Gregson, Ms. Hudson, Charles Augustus Milverton – that serve as little Easter eggs to fans of the original stories.
The final four episodes of Season One double down – maybe even triple! – on canon lore, as the early promise of characters like Moriarty, Sebastian Moran, and Irene Adler bear fruit. It’s hard to delve deeply into this story arc without massive spoilers; suffice it to say, Holmes is challenged by Moriarty, meets Moriarty, learns the truth about Irene Adler’s death, and falls victim to his arch-enemy’s long con.
Or does he?
I’ll be honest: nothing that happens here beats Andrew Scott’s take on the Professor in Sherlock or the overwhelming effect he has on that version of Holmes and Watson. And if I’m being really honest, the American take feels a little underwhelming and very soapy. Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of Irene Adler ironically lacks the mystery of the original; I didn’t really buy her as an artist, as “the woman” who would endow the almost inhuman Holmes with a full range of emotion and vulnerability, and as a lot of other things she’s tasked with playing. That’s why I’m thankful that the arc happens now, and we can move on to Season Two without playing an all-encompassing game around the Holmes-Moriarty dynamic. (Everyone remember the endless black ooze in The X-Files???)
I’m grateful to Sergio for
endlessly nagging thoughtfully advising me to return to Elementary, and I look forward to covering the entire series down the line and seeing how long this nice vibe between Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu can last. Be patient, folks: it may take me a little while to get to Season Two . . . but that’s the way the Reichenbach falls.