Right. On to the review:
It would be far more accurate to say that Elementary is an adaptation of the mythology of Sherlock Holmes, rather than simply an adaptation of the Conan Doyle stories. If I were being completely honest, it is this fact that makes Elementary the adaptation I never realized I’ve been yearning for. With the exception of Holmes’ rooftop beekeeping and writing his “Practical Handbook of Bee Culture with Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen,” there are very few explicit references to the canon. Instead, Elementary’s mark as a Sherlock Holmes adaptation is established through the show’s focus on building the characters and the singularity of their relationship. It is perhaps the most organic modernization of Sherlock Holmes I’ve seen, yet, precisely because it’s obvious that the writers did more than just take the characters from 1887 London, make them look and sound contemporary, and plop them into 2012 NYC. The clothes, the language, and the set are all window dressing; it’s the psychology, rationales, functions, and behavior of the characters I want to see fit in a modern setting.
What sets this Holmes apart is that he has all the innate character and personality traits of the Holmes in the books, but he’s enculturated by the sociopolitical/economic environment of the time period he’s born in: our time period. His actions, experiences, and choices are informed by this small but significant fact. It’s the same with Watson; perhaps even more so because of the gender-swap. Changing John to Joan should not, and indeed does not, inherently change the way Holmes and Watson relate to one another. They are actually on more equal footing from the beginning in this show than in previous adaptations. That being said, it would be naive of me to say that the gender-swap doesn’t at all have an effect on their dynamic.
Miller’s Holmes is essentially the same man as in the stories. And to anyone who says otherwise, I encourage you to re-visit the books. He’s brilliantly astute, he’s rude, he’s empathetic, he’s sarcastic, he’s mischievous, he’s impatient, he’s cold and distant-by choice, rather than nature. He understands sentiment. He can be kind, he can be abrasive, he can be gentle, he can be manipulative… He is many things at once and it’s this multifaceted-ness that sets me at ease about how this literary character will be treated. That Elementary explores a Holmes with a drug addiction is not to go unnoticed. He doesn’t just use drugs and magically put them aside, he struggles with the addiction. He’s frenetic and almost tremulous with a barely-controlled rage. He’s contradictory and condescending, but oddly self-aware. Something which I think lends itself to a kind of earnestness about him.
Liu’s Watson is intuitive, sharp, and extremely capable in her own right. She stands on her own merit, continuing Holmes’ investigation without him and finding the clues that lead him to solving the case. This Watson exudes such strength, intelligence, and humanity. She is not an enabler and I think it has everything to do with her being a woman. She doesn’t let him bully her and she doesn’t let him get away with his often-times horrendous behavior towards people. She doesn’t take his crap at all and that’s borne straight out of the kind of gender politics we play in the inherently sexist society we live in. Watson diverges from the canon in all the ways that the modern world would demand of him (her) and it honestly floored me a bit because I haven’t seen this Watson quite as often as I’d like.
The root of what’s continued to pull people towards Sherlock Holmes for the past hundred-and-twenty-five years is not the cases, but the relationship between Holmes and Watson; it lies in how they relate to each other as human beings. Every Holmes and Watson recognize something of themselves in each other and in Elementary, I’d say it’s an almost abject sense of isolation. Holmes, you must remember, is not at the top of his game-he’s a recovering addict, just out of rehab. He’s purposefully disconnected from everyone and everything around him but his work. His isolation is expressed in the usual way, through his intellect and his abrasiveness. He spends most of the episode attempting to rid himself of Watson and, what really gets to me, is the way he avoids making eye contact with Watson, except when necessary for the case. Watson’s isolation, on the other hand, is expressed in the way she is focused on her job-on Holmes. Except when she is with him, Watson is always shown by herself: when she wakes up, when she jogs, when she goes to the opera… She uses her work in much the same way that Holmes uses his: as a mode of deflection. She spends a lot of time looking at Holmes, watching Holmes-anything to keep her focus away from herself.
Where Holmes is stand-offish but animated, Watson is amiable but decidedly closed off. Everyone knows that in order for this dynamic to become the incredible relationship we see in the books, Holmes and Watson must connect. Its American show format necessitates that Elementary will slowly set up the characters and their relationship, but the pilot does a great job of giving us a firm foundation to start with. There are a couple of moments I could choose from to demonstrate what I am talking about, but my favorite is the a moment of pure transparency at the end of the episode. Holmes, in an NYPD holding cell, apologizes to Watson for wrecking her car and demonstrates regret at the thought of having to leave his brownstone. Watson, in turn, admits that she’s decided to continue as his sober companion despite their rocky start. It is a real moment of honesty between the two and the conversation is conducted entirely through a pane of glass; literally and symbolically, Holmes and Watson are separate, but for the first time, they are transparent.
In a lot of ways, this show is one of the most faithful modernized adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, full of little character details and elements that will ensure its potential as a successful interpretation of arguably the most beloved fictional character of all time.
If I didn’t believe in love at first sight before, I certainly do now. Question is, do you?
Elementary airs Thursdays at 10/9c on CBS. Tune in and let us know what you think!
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