Elementary – Early Thoughts On the Latest Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

There’s been quite a bit of speculation on whether or not we Americans can make a successful television series out of Sherlock Holmes.  Particularly following on the heels of the BBC’s wildly popular and praised Sherlock (of which I am a HUGE fan).

What no one seems to be mentioning is that it’s all been done before.  Multiple times.  I mean, what were House and his oncologist friend, Wilson, if not surrogates for Holmes & Watson?  Or those two guys on USA network’s Psyche?  Or, to varying degrees, the dynamic duos in The Mentalist, Bones, Monk and Perception?  I’m willing to bet money there are others.  Any time writers combine a quirky, socially awkward genius with a knack for solving crimes and a more practical partner to play straight “man” –  they pay homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations.  Even introducing a female Watson is by no means revolutionary. Out of the previous examples I gave: The Mentalist, Monk and Perception all place strong women in Watson’s shoes.

I point this out not to detract from CBS’s latest addition to the long and distinguished tradition of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but to establish precedent (something very important to Holmesian enthusiasts).  If you’re questioning the authenticity of Elementary based on a.) it being American-made, b.) set in New York City and c.) the introduction of a female Watson – fear not.  Elementary is so well done that within minutes these concerns fade into the background.  True fans know: the popularity of Sherlock Holmes stories is derived from the chemistry between the two main characters – Holmes & Watson.  And Jonny Lee Miller & Lucy Liu have it in abundance.  Elementary incorporates the canon but isn’t afraid to stray just far enough into new territory to keep things fresh.

I just thought of another example – Mulder & Scully on the X-files.

Borrowing an innovation from Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Miller’s Sherlock is a recovering addict.  Whereas past Watsons have acted as Holmes’ caregiver in theory – Liu’s Watson is one in fact.  She is a “sober companion” hired by Holmes Sr. to live with Sherlock and keep him on the straight & narrow.   Liu has taken the route of less awe and more annoyance in her portrayal, which is consistent with most modern versions.  To be honest, removing gender from the equation, I found Miller’s Sherlock to be the more groundbreaking (in a throw-back kind of way) interpretation of character.

Based on the first episode, it seems Miller has chosen to be much less overtly obnoxious than the BBC Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch.  While I love Cumberbatch, I found myself liking Miller, too.  For opposite reasons.  It’s easy to forget that only in the more recent interpretations has Sherlock Holmes been so self-absorbed, pompous and attention seeking.  Doyle’s Holmes, while brilliant and peculiar, was never cruel or mocking.  Perhaps he could be a little condescending at times – but often deservedly so.  And always with an indulgent edge, particularly towards Watson.  Miller plays much more closely to the original stories.  There are scenes in Elementary where it is apparent Sherlock realizes he should stop, that he is straying too far from social norms and into territory where he could do real emotional damage to those around him.  But, when pressed, he is unable to stop himself.  Miller’s detective needs to solve problems.  Why can’t he realize that it’s not always helpful to reveal the answers?  He compulsively sees everything.  Why does he have to reveal everything he sees?

Plus, I’m very pleased to report that the Sherlock Holmes we meet in Elementary is not infallible.  Nor, it seems, is he immune to women.  The producers have been adamant that there will be no romance between the two main characters.  Which opens up a whole other host of interesting possibilities.  Doyle’s Watson marries, possible more than once.  (There’s a very funny essay by Jane Nightwork entitled “Dr. Watson’s Secret” discussing Doyle’s inconsistencies regarding Watson’s first – and mysterious second – wife).  And, despite what the recent Guy Ritchie films would have us believe (proof that a Brit can make every bit of a hot mess of these stories as an American), Holmes never showed a seconds worth of jealousy about his friend’s domestic bliss.  So why shouldn’t Liu’s character in future seasons fall into a relationship outside of her and Holmes’…ummm…relationship?  Why not explore the impact it might have… or not have… on the great detective?

While the first crime was a bit lackluster in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter.  The producers need to pull off the relationship, the camaraderie and the emotional connection between the hero and heroine to make this show a success.  And at the same time layer in some of the more beloved elements of the original books – the Baker Street Irregulars, Mycroft, “the woman”.  Hopefully they know enough to stay far away from the original cases at the risk appearing derivative of the BBC’s SherlockElementary needs to go bold to capture viewers.  A female Watson got our attention, but they’ll need to go even farther to keep us tuned in.

Elementary airs Thursdays on CBS.