Brad is working his way through full season summary breakdowns of the recent US TV Sherlock Holmes update Elementary (2012-19) and, since he and I have been watching it at about the same time — thanks to urging from a mutual friend — I thought I’d belatedly
jump on that bandwagon share my own thoughts in more compact form.
See, because despite being a fan of the two leads — Jonny Lee Miller playing Holmes as a recovering drug addict, and Lucy Liu as a multi-hyphenate Joan Watson (ex-surgeon-cum-sober-companion-cum-apprentice-in-training) — I had misgivings about starting this…misgivings that sprung, it has to be said, from fear of a lack of respect for the source material. Now, sure, the odd decision has been made not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle anywhere in the show’s credits, opening or closing, but from watching a few seasons of Elementary it’s quite clear that a lot of attention has been paid to Doyle’s stories and characters. Not everything that crops up as a reference to the canon necessarily follows directly, but some characters have surprisingly well-grounded roots that have been allowed to flourish in the contemporary setting so that you can see how such people might actually come to exist and function in 21st century stories.
Key to this is the core pairing of Miller’s Holmes — a gifted man struggling to adapt in a society that has only limited use for his talents — and Liu’s Watson — taking on Sherlock first simply as a client only to get more compellingly drawn into the world he inhabits and the work he does. The actors are superb, of course, but the space given to the characters, to make them believable and for the conflicts that will arise between them to appear organically and be confronted intelligently, is the real boon here. And, of course, the respect that comes with having knocked a few corners off each other builds in an interesting way, so that when they become partners in detection (c’mon, hardly a spoiler…) you’re delighted at the development and eager to see much more of them both (thankfully, there were seven series).
And some changes really work: the Irregulars are now not street urchins but instead a network of professionals with specialist skills (higher order mathematics, say) who Holmes calls on from time to time; the spectre of drug addiction — arguably one of the key tenets of Holmes, a huge part of his having to operate in a beef-witted world and oddly sidelined in the BBC’s much-praised Sherlock — is ever-present and gives rise to some of the most touching scenes in the whole run; and Holmes and Watson consulting for the NYPD alongside Captain Thomas Gregson (Aidan Quinn, still annoyingly good-looking) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) invests the procedural elements with a verisimilitude that feels more edifying than the “You tell us what to do now, Mr. ‘Olmes” approach of other adaptations.
However, I go on. If you’re curious to try this but want to see the show as its best, I suggest the following five episodes from season 1.
‘While You Were Sleeping’ (1.2, o.b. 4th October 2012)
[Scr. Robert Doherty, Dir. John David Coles]
A borderline impossible crime, this, in which a suspect in a shooting is identified easily…with the minor complication that she was in a coma at the time. This being an early episode, it’s interesting to see Sherlock’s attitude and approach chafe on the police and Watson alike — we know everyone will get on eventually, but it’s nice when they don’t just love each other from the off. This also introduces Sherlock’s involvement in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which Brad doesn’t like and which I think has added some of the best ideas and themes of the first few series. All told, this is a well-wrangled plot with a good motive and a clever mystery, and amply demonstrates the mix of detection, humour, and surprises the show would go on to do so well.
‘The Long Fuse’ (1.8, o.b. 29th November 2012)
[Scr. Jeffrey Paul King, Dir. Andrew Bernstein]
When a home-made bomb destroys the premises of a web design company, one of those early left-field advancements that this show does so well casts events in a new light, sending Holmes and Watson in an unexpected direction. Little genius ideas — the new cell tower, the pictures on the wall — highlight how well some of these plots are built, not least from the perspective of understanding Sherlock’s process of detection. And the payoff is well-ceded, which isn’t always this neatly done, even if it does require a skillset we’ve no means to establish. The B-plot involves Sherlock finding a new sponsor via the NA program, bringing Alfredo (Ato Essandoh) into the show. I love Alfredo, and any episode featuring him is to be celebrated.
‘You Do It to Yourself’ (1.9, o.b. 6th December 2012)
[Scr. Peter Blake, Dir. Phil Abraham]
A corpse shot through both eyes at close range and dumped in an abandoned building sees a fever-ridden Sherlock investigating the life of a university lecturer in East Asian Studies. The deductions are sound if not spectacular — knowing the shooter wouldn’t wear a mask, say — and the development swift, the red herrings smelly, and the final reason for the crime itself neat and satisfying. In the meantime, Watson is called into the case of an ex who may have been involved in a hit-and-run while high, giving her a chance to do a little detection of her own; this thread will develop in the coming weeks and end up a core part of what makes the show so good.
‘The Deductionist’ (1.14, o.b. 3rd February 2013)
[Scr. Craig Sweeny & Robert Doherty, Dir. John Polson]
I love a good ‘creepy killer on the run’ story, and this is a very good one. Serial stalker Martin “The Peeler” Ennis (the brilliant Terry Kinney) uses the opportunity of donating a kidney to his dying sister to break out of hospital and go on a spree, bringing FBI profiler Kathryn Drummond (Kari Matchett) into the mix. Drummond shares history with both Ennis and Sherlock, and it’s interesting to see the psychology of the two men intersect in their determination to prove the conclusions she drew about each of them incorrect. Elsewhere, Joan discovers that a pornographic movie was filmed in her apartment by the man renting it, a light and fun enough distraction without introducing any tonal dissonance.
‘Deja Vu All Over Again’ (1.19, o.b. 4th April 2013)
[Scr. Brian Rodenbeck, Dir. Jerry Levine]
Joan begins her detective training in earnest, with the case of a woman who left her husband six months previously and has used none of her credit cards or accounts since. Meanwhile, Sherlock investigates an incident from the same period in which another woman was pushed in front of a subway train after being handed a bunch of flowers by a stranger. Both are good examples of cold cases being unpicked using old data, with dead ends aplenty, and the folding together of the explanations is very neatly done and well-motivated by the criminal. Sure, you have to accept one unlikelihood regarding technology, but when the writers are having this much fun, and being this creative, it’s difficult to mind.
There are, of course, other good episodes in the run, and your mileage will naturally vary, but if you don’t like these then you’re probably not up for Elementary‘s particular brand of crime and detection.
Expect future series in due course…