Welcome back to our exploration of Elementary, Robert Doherty’s modern take on the Great Detective, that ran on CBS from 2012 to 2019. I lasted about a season when the show first appeared, but high praise from friends like Sergio and JJ – and a wee bit more time on my hands for watching TV than I would like – has provided me with the opportunity for a revisit. It was a good decision, as I’m enjoying my wallow into the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, here transplanted to New York City and captivatingly played by Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Aidan Quinn and Jon Michael Hill round out the main cast as Inspector Gregson and Detective Bell.
The first season introduced our main characters and established a nice flow, while Doherty had fun and, more often than not, success in revisiting the classic tropes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character. The best adaptation by far was turning Dr. John H. Watson into a Joan and then eschewing the ho-hum “will they or won’t they?” question for a deep dive into how two strong-willed characters with complicated backstories navigate their way into a professional partnership and close friendship. The least successful switch also had to do with gender: Doherty combined the characters of Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty into one and turned Holmes into a gibbering romantic fool over her. At least we can be thankful that he managed to trick Moriarty in Season One’s final episode and send her to prison for the forseeable future.
Season Two begin with a series of stand-alone mysteries that focus on the Holmes-Watson dynamic and tease us with more references to classic lore, beginning immediately with the first episode, “Step Nine,” which sends our sleuths back to London so that Holmes may assist his first police contact, Gareth Lestrade (Sean Pertwee), who has reportedly gone off the rails in his attempt to nail a man for the murder of his wife, despite the man having been cleared of any suspicion. Doherty and co-writer Craig Sweeny have some high-tech fun with a bottle of milk (why is it in the refrigerator of a lactose-intolerant couple?) and a row of native masks.
However, the real joy of this episode takes place at 221B Baker Street, to which Holmes proudly takes Watson in order to show off his sanctum sanctorum, only to be horrified to find the place has been redecorated in clean, modern lines by none other than Holmes’ brother Mycroft, delightfully played by Rhys Ifans. This is not Doyle’s Mycroft by any means. For one thing, he is thin, not fat (but for a good reason); he is also teeming with emotions I don’t remember the old Mycroft possessing. Fortunately, Ifans gives us a character as quirky and unconventional as his brother, and the humorous climax suggests we can look forward to a return visit.
“Solve for X” provides an interesting case revolving around an actual unsolved problem in computer science, P Versus NP, while wrapping up some loose ends in Joan Watson’s Season One storyline. She meets up with the son of the patient who died on her table and caused her to give up medicine. We learn that, for some time, she has been giving the young man money, and now he seems to be taking advantage of her guilt. Holmes, in his inimitable way, helps Watson come to terms with this situation and find a way out of it. In return, Watson’s budding detective skills come to the fore when she notices a fact in a piece of video that bursts a suspect’s alibi.
Episode 3, “We Are Everyone,” involves a conspiracy of computer hackers with strong political beliefs, who make life difficult for Holmes and Watson while they search for the group’s leader, who may have committed murder for personal, rather than political, reasons. The case is fine, but one of my favorite action movies is Enemy of the State, which does this trope better than the countless retreads I’ve seen on various TV series (the lastest being Law and Order: Organized Crime). “Everyone” does return at the end of the season, so this is a thing we may be with for a while. We also get a murmur of Moriarty at the episode’s end, so we can expect a Natalie Dormer sighting later on.
“Poison Pen” is a great episode, one that gets better and better as it goes along, managing to provide twist after twist and a look into Holmes’ past and emotional life. Would Doyle’s Holmes have had something like this happen to him? No doubt he would not, but it’s good anyway. This one also guest stars the great Laura Benanti as a woman with a dark past whose employer is poisoned, and the question “did she or didn’t she?” leads us to an unexpected and emotionally powerful conclusion.
The title of the fifth episode, “Ancient History,” nicely dovetails into both the case that Holmes and Watson tackle – a case they have to comb the morgue for since they’re experiencing a dry spell – and the personal sideplot about Watson’s girlfriend, who asks her to find the one night stand she had a year earlier and wants to contact again, thinking he may be “the one.” Frankly, the best surprises here are in the sideplot.
“An Unnatural Arrangement” centers on the personal life of Inspector Gregson. Talia Balsam plays Gregson’s wife, who comes home to find a masked intruder. When the man pulls a gun on her and shouts, “Where is your husband?” Mrs. Gregson proves her mettle. The mystery is only beginning there, and it’s . . . okay as a case but works better as a parallel to the troubled marriage between the Gregsons. There’s also a nice thread involving Watson’s desire to prove herself to Holmes and her frustration with his unwillingness to give her room to test her own abilities.
Episode 7, “The Marchioness,” promises so much: the return of Rhys Ifans as Mycroft and a plot involving a retired race horse turned stud called “Silver Blaze.” Mycroft is in New York this time around, opening a new restaurant (called “Diogenes” – clever!). His business partner happens to be his ex-fiancee, the owner of the aforementioned Silver Blaze. Someone tried to kill the horse and ended up killing the stablehand. From there, the plot devolves into a brouhaha of personal slights (Holmes slept with Mycroft’s ex, and Mycroft slept with Watson at some unknown point in their visit to London) and various disguises (both of the human and equine variety).
Things pick up fast – and start us on several longer arcs – in the next three episodes. Mycroft sticks around for “Blood Is Thicker,” which provides us with a mystery full of twists – who stabbed Haley Tyler and threw her off the balcony onto a passing delivery truck, and why was she killed? – and an equally twisty side story – to what lengths, and why, will Mycroft go in order to get Sherlock to return to London?
For the time being, Holmes is fixed in the Big Apple, and in “On the Line,” he meets a creepy foe in Lucas Bundsch (Troy Garity). A young woman has committed suicide on a NYC bridge in such a way as to frame Bundsch. Holmes saves the man from a false charge and instantly regrets his move when he realizes that Bundsch is a serial killer. The rest of the episode becomes a cat and mouse game, made more meaningful by the interplay between Holmes and Watson, who accuses her partner of unbecoming rudeness to the police detective who was in charge of the past investigation into Bundsch.
“Tremors” is a story told in retrospect at a hearing where a police judge will determine whether Holmes’ aberrant behavior, which resulted in Detective Bell getting shot, is reason to terminate his services to the police force. These last two episodes do a nice job tossing around the question about the consequences – to safety and police morale – of using a personality like Holmes as a consultant, and by the end there are repercussions through which Holmes will have to work to regain the trust of those he most admires on the force.
This question, along with the conflict and of-course-it’s-gonna-happen-but-when rapprochement between Holmes and Bell, resolves itself over the course of the next three episodes in STD (Standard Television Development) fashion. The main problem for me here lies in casting, since two hidden villains are played by actors who can barely hide their smarmy intentions. (I’m talking about you, Richard Masur.)
Episode 11, “Internal Audit,” about the murder of a crooked hedge fund manager (a character that TV has relied on for far too long now) chugs along just fine until an ending that is both obvious and unlikely. We reach the halfway point of the season with “The Diabolical Kind,” which brings Natalie Dormer back as Moriarty for a shoddy reworking of the “a terrible crime has occurred and nobody can help us but the hero’s arch enemy” trope. Very little works for me here, not the trope itself or the deal authorities have made with Moriarty, or the humanizing of the villain herself, which goes against the grain of any Sherlock Holmes fan. Nobody said that Elementary has to follow the basic premise Doyle set out; I simply find it personally tiresome.
It also interferes with the more interesting matter of Holmes having to figure out how to deal with Detective Bell, who leaves the Homicide unit at the end of this episode for a department called “Demographics,” that seems to have some connection with Homeland Security. Unfortunately, we have another example of casting an actor as Bell’s new boss who reeks of barely hidden villainy. And sure enough, in Episode 13, “All In the Family,” Bell’s finding of a dead body in a barrel leads to a so-so case involving sordid Mafia history and a crooked cop. When it comes to stories about the Mafia (sorry, Don Vito), I share Holmes’ antipathy: ““Mafia lore interests me about as much as the criminal derring-do of the Freemasons or the druids.” Paul Sorvino is wasted as a crime boss, and the whole reconciliation process between Holmes and Bell feels conveniently plotted.
Episode 14, “Dead Clade Walking,” provides a much-appreciated lift with a complex and engaging case that begins when Joan looks into one of Holmes’ cold case files that he handed her a few episodes previously and spots an unusual rock at a murder scene, thanks to her geologist friend, a gay woman named Gay. This leads to the world of paleontology and a missing priceless fossil. Jane Alexander makes what amounts to a cameo appearance as an auctioneer with some important information; she also happens to be Holmes’ erotic penpal! And then there’s the side plot involving a drug addict named Randy. Earlier in the season, Sherlock’s sponsor Alfredo made Holmes a sponsor himself, and in this episode Randy is being a handful. Between his personal a professional life this week, Holmes receives multiple lessons on empathy.
Episode 15, “Corpse de Ballet” (nice title), has a lovely shocker of an opening: the dress rehearsal for a major ballet company is cut short when one of the new ballerinas is, herself, cut short – well, cut in half, actually. What follows gets more perturbing as it goes along, mainly because Holmes is so UN-Holmes-like here, following his main suspect around like a horndog, proclaiming her innocence based solely on his fondness for her, and finally sleeping with her. I actually had trouble following the culprit’s motive. All is not lost, however, the subplot, featuring Watson’s attempt to locate the missing friend of a schizophrenic homeless man she cares about, is well-plotted and emotionally affecting; plus, it reveals some new elements of Joan’s backstory that I assume will show up later.
What follows is a two-episode arc featuring Sean Pertwee’s return as Gareth Lestrade, whose self-imposed rivalry with Holmes was established in the first episode of the season. In “The One-Percent Solution,” Lestrade is now working in America for a financial CEO whose staff was blown up by a bomb at a work luncheon. Holmes has to figure out whether his former Scotland Yard partner’s dodgy behavior stems from jealousy or culpability in the crimes.
Spoiler alert! The case results in Lestrade losing his job and temporarlly moving in with Holmes, where he suffers a serious crisis of confidence that Holmes and Watson must deal with in “Ears to You.” (You have to love these puns when they’re good!) The main case is quite fun: a man suspected of having murdered his wife a few years earlier receives a box containing a ransom note and what seems to be his wife’s ears. There is much interesting and twisty stuff about DNA in this episode. Meanwhile, Lestrade gets mugged and, encouraged by Joan, attempts to locate his mugger and retrieve his stolen wallet. This subplot also has a lovely ending that restores Lestrade to his former glory and reveals that maybe Holmes isn’t wholly bereft of empathy.
The next episode tries to accomplish the same thing, with a twisty story about a cancer researcher’s murder juxtaposed to an emotional side plot about Detective Bell. Unfortunately, “The Hound of the Cancer Cells” is substandard to “Ears to You” in every way. First of all, that title is terrible and has nothing to do with the Doyle novel (which will be covered in a later season). The main plot is reasonably clever, although the idea of calling a cancer breathalyzer “The Hound” just to conform to this title feels forced. And the whole story of Bell trying to locate a teen girl who has reneged on her promise to testify at a murder trial feels rehashed.
Things really brighten up with Episode 19, “The Many Mouths of Aaron Colville,” a stand-alone case that showcases the best of the series’ way of approaching a Holmesian problem. Bell summons Holmes and Watson to a mortuary where an employee has been found seemingly murdered with a bite mark in his neck. In a series of very cool deductions, Holmes explains away the man’s death, but the bite marks lead Joan to a serial killer with ties to her past existence as a doctor. Each revelation leads to new ones, and it seems to me that Elementary does these sorts of cases much better than its more standard whodunits, where the culprit is often easily spotted among the guest cast due either to standard series procedural plotting or the actor cast as the killer.
This is the one problem for me about the next episode, “No Lack of Void.” Again, we have a very nice hook at the beginning: Watson shows up at the police department just as Gregson is in need of a doctor when a pickpocket who was just brought in from Washington Square collapses in his cell. His death – from anthrax! – leads Sherlock and Joan on another merry chase, but the ultimate culprit seems pretty obvious. The chase is actually not so merry for Holmes, whose visit to his old friend Alistair (Roger Rees) is curtailed because of Alistair’s sudden death.
We saw Alistair, a fellow recovered addict in Holmes’ life, in Season One when he pretended to be Holmes’ father as a stunt to put Joan off her game. I have complained to my friend Sergio that I grew tired of all the NA meetings and focus on Holmes’ addiction in the series. This strand works better when it’s dealt with personally, as it is here – and the late, great Roger Rees is charming as Sherlock’s late friend.
That said, Episode 21, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” begins at a meeting where a woman who had helped Holmes in the first stages of his recovery reveals her concern over her missing sister. This episode also marks the return of Rhys Ifans as Mycroft and the start of a four-episode arc that will take us to the season finale. The writers have been toying with us since Ifans’ debut as to what kind of person Mycroft is. Certainly, as a cancer survivor, an international restauranteur and a bit of a dandy with the ladies, this version seems incredibly far from the original.
We should have known better, of course, and it takes a fantastical multi-part story to reveal the truth behind Mycroft’s façade. At the end of “Twisted Lip,” Joan is kidnapped, a situation that is resolved at the end of “Paint It Black.” This leads to some truths about Mycroft’s involvement with MI6, British Intelligence. And, yes – we do get a take on Doyle’s famous line, “Mycroft is the British government.” But it’s not as simple as that. In series TV, it never is.
I mentioned in my first season post that Sherlock Holmes (the original) was certainly known to get mixed up in political problems; in fact, that’s usually why Mycroft was around. Sure enough, the final two episodes, “Art in the Blood” and “The Grand Experiment,” Holmes and Watson are brought into the fold of British Intelligence. In a nod to “The Bruce-Partington plans, there’s even a victim named Arthur Cadogan West. In these final two hours, acts of betrayal provoke acts of courage and sacrifice, and Rhys Ifans’ visit as Mycroft Holmes sadly comes to an end that looks like it may be permanent.
Oh, and Holmes leaves the force and joins MI6 after Watson leaves Holmes. And Holmes’ sobriety is in danger!!!! Honestly! Isn’t that always the way with the season finales of these shows? Tease, tease, tease! With five more seasons to go, what are the odds of a Holmes-Watson reunion and more police cases?
I’d say pretty good.