Not quite so Elementary

After watching the pilot of Elementary, I have to grudgingly admit to being intrigued. I was quite prepared to dislike it for the same reasons that I dislike the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movies (don’t get me started) and to a lesser extent the qualms I have about the BBC Sherlock series. (NOTE: Before I get hate mail, I do like the BBC series; I simply have qualms.)

Jonny Lee Miller as George Knightley in the 2009 BBC Emma

The CBS series starring Jonny Lee Miller (or Mr. Knightley to lovers of the 2009 BBC Emma) and Lucy Lui (the Kill Bill movies), like the BBC series, places Sherlock Holmes in the modern day. Unlike the BBC Sherlock, however, Elementary is set in New York City and Holmes is a recovering drug addict. Lui plays Joan Watson, a former surgeon who is employed by Holmes’ father to be the detective’s sober companion.

So why am I intrigued? Why do I not get on my high horse and condemn Elementary for violating the Holmes Canon? Perhaps it’s because the series has almost completely thrown the Canon out the window. With a modern day Holmes practicing in New York and a female Watson and an extant father, this Holmes is so unlike Doyle’s Holmes that he doesn’t suffer by comparison. There are nods to Canon, of course. In the pilot, Holmes acts as a consultant to Capt. Tobias Gregson of the NYPD and Holmes is a beekeeper. In his spare time, he’s even writing a treatise on beekeeping that sounds very much like the real Holmes’ Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen.

And yet the series also goes out of its way to violate Canon. How easy it would have been to make Watson a former military surgeon who’d served in Afghanistan, but instead she’s a surgeon who’s lost her license after a patient died. And unlike the misogynistic real Holmes, Miller’s Holmes appears to enjoy kinky sex (although it’s possible he’s just into the kinky part and not the actual sex). And as mentioned before, Holmes’ father is alive in the series, a fact that actually drives the series—Holmes must agree to the sober companion and remain drug free or his father will cut off his support.

Now we all know the reason why this series exists and why it has taken this form: CBS wanted to make an American version of the BBC’s Sherlock, but its creator Steven Moffat objected and CBS was warned that any series it did develop better not resemble Sherlock. And thus we get a series that is really quite different from Sherlock.

For instance, the BBC series goes out of its way to reference the Canon with plots that parallel the original stories: A Study in Pink and The Hounds of Baskerville. But based on the pilot episode (unimaginatively titled “Pilot”) of Elementary, I suspect most of the plots will resemble Law & Order episodes and avoid the outré elements of Doyle’s stories (Tonga, orange pips, speckled bands, etc.) and concentrate on the relationship of Holmes and Watson. Of course, basing my expectations on a single episode would be theorizing in advance of the facts. However, the synopsis of the second episode, While You Were Sleeping, doesn’t offer much hope: “Sherlock uses his powers of deduction to consult on the murder of a young man who is shot upon entering his apartment. Meanwhile, Watson has dinner with her ex-boyfriend, Ty Morstan.” Again, however, we see a little nod to Canon here in the name of Watson’s ex-boyfriend.

Miller’s Holmes is also quite different from Cumberbatch’s. There’s the same manic energy and the same ability to rattle off the chain of observations that led to the deduction, of course, but Miller’s Holmes seems very aware of the people around him. When he cleverly deduces the location of a murder victim and we see a woman in a pool of blood, Holmes says, “Sometimes I hate it when I’m right.” And he also pulls his punch when he explains how he knew Watson was a former doctor, failing to mention he knew she had caused the death of someone and was accused of negligence. He also admits that he appreciates Watson’s ability to obtain information with interpersonal skills, rather than his blunt force application of logic.

Actually this last example violates Canon in a subtle way. We know from the real Watson that Holmes was actually a very good interrogator. Cumberbatch’s Holmes could simulate compassion but was indifferent if his compassion was shown to be a sham. The real Holmes never did this because his compassion was real. So it’s interesting that Miller’s Holmes should be bad at displaying compassion and yet appreciative of another person’s ability to display it.

Another thing that I find fascinating in these modern-day adaptations of Holmes and Watson is how Watson is changed. I always thought from the Canon that Holmes needed Watson far more than Watson needed Holmes. If Watson had never met Holmes, I think Watson would have led a happy if less adventurous life. It can be argued he would have led a happier life.

In both Sherlock and Elementary, however, Watson is definitely damaged goods. We’ve seen in the BBC Sherlock how Watson’s adventures with Holmes helped him overcome post-traumatic stress. Martin Freeman’s Watson apparently thrives under stress. Lucy Lui’s Watson is also damaged, and I suspect that saving Holmes from himself will be just the penance she needs to balance the life she lost on the operating table.

OK, I’m intrigued by Elementary, but do I like it and do I recommend it? Cautiously I like it, for probably the same reasons I enjoy Castle and definitely not for the reasons I enjoy Sherlock. I watch Sherlock through a magnifying glass and with my annotated Holmes at the ready. It’s frankly exhausting and I’ll be mulling the plot for days. (My husband practically needs a tranquilizer after watching an episode.) I also know there are only three episodes per season and the betting is that given the high profile of the two stars, the third season will probably be the last, so I have to extract every last morsel of entertainment.

In contrast, Elementary’s probable 22-episode run should have enough time to really examine the Holmes-Watson relationship, and it doesn’t hurt that, like Castle, Elementary has nice eye candy in Miller and Lui. And frankly, the special relationship between Holmes and Watson is why I enjoy the original stories. I do wish the producers and CBS would have  had the courage to make a subtler series, like House. I remained oblivious to the parallels between Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) and his friend James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and Holmes and Watson for quite some time. And when I finally realized the parallels, I appreciated the show even more.

Here’s hoping that Elementary will surprise me in the same way that House did, by revealing a depth of which I was unaware.

UPDATE: By no means do I intend to review each episode of Elementary, but it is interesting to note that the plot of the second episode has an outrageous element worthy of Doyle. I don’t want to give it away, but like many stories in the Canon, one can raise numerous objections as to its plausibility. So oddly, it’s outlandishness makes it seem more authentic and there are further nods to Canon and again I enjoy the adversarial relationship between Holmes and Watson.

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