Elementary, the new Sherlock Holmes series from US television network CBS, could not have been better named. The title comes, of course, from the well known Holmes quote, “Elementary, my dear Watson” – and after viewing the pilot episode it seems very fitting indeed, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not, in fact, write the line, and Sherlock Holmes never uttered it.
You may be forgiven for thinking that as a Sherlock website, Sherlockology is too biased towards Sherlock to offer a fair and balanced opinion on Elementary, but our love of the BBC show stems mainly from the fact that we are Holmesians and know a faithful adaptation when we see one – irrespective of the time period it is set in. This is where Elementary fails – and on an elementary level.
CBS welcomes you into the mind of the world’s most famous detective, describing their Sherlock Holmes as “obsessive, impulsive, volatile” and even “certifiable”. Holmes is a rehabilitated drug addict. He is tattooed, unshaven and unkempt; sporting t-shirts proclaiming “I am not lucky – I am good”. He can predict baseball scores and writes books in his head (giving a nice little nod to the canon and Sherlock Holmes’s retirement years of bee keeping).
This Holmes even displays an attraction to women. Despite claiming he finds “sex repellant”, he says his “body and brain require it to function at optimal levels”. Having relocated to New York to resume his work as a consulting detective, Holmes leaves his famous address behind, although his new living quarters are just as chaotic as 221B Baker Street.
Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is likeable, eccentric and delivers all the humour in the hour-long first episode. True to Holmes, he declares that he never guesses but observes and then deduces the facts. We are shown clues and watch Holmes piece them together – and make some giant leaps in the process, which are never explained. Canon Holmes would say it is dangerous to theorise without data, yet this is exactly what we are left to assume is his method here.
The most glaring departure from the original is of course CBS’s decision to swap Watson’s gender (a sex change which seems somewhat ironic, considering Sherlock Holmes described Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle story His Last Bow as “the one fixed point in a changing age”).
Elementary uses its female Watson to hammer home Holmes’s insensitivity, by contrasting it with the more emotional place she comes from. Watson is employed by Holmes’s father as his “sober companion” for six weeks, and his somewhat derogatory descriptions of her include “addict sitter” and “glorified helper monkey”. In fact, it is something of a mystery what her contribution to Holmes will be to him, in comparison to that of the brave, ex-army medical man we know and love, who is useful to his friend on so many levels.
Dr Joan Watson, who gasps and leaves the crime scene on discovering the body, would be unlikely to be of much use in a dangerous situation without her male counterpart’s army training, and instead of encouraging Watson to accompany him on a case, Miller’s Holmes takes steps to prevent her (perhaps due to professional jealousy, since later in the episode she appears able to make deductions almost as well as the great detective himself).
What is special about the relationship between Holmes and Watson (which many would argue is the most important ingredient of any Sherlock Holmes story) is the fact that Holmes normally struggles (or chooses not) to make meaningful connections. The fact that Elementary’s Holmes is attracted to women – coupled with our prior knowledge of Holmes and Watson’s intimate friendship from the original stories – rather disappointingly suggests that a will-they/won’t-they theme is likely to appear in future episodes.
In terms of other Conan Doyle stalwarts, we lose entirely Holmes’s landlady Mrs Hudson, as well as Inspector Lestrade, who is replaced with a lesser-known canon detective Captain Gregson. Having met Holmes while in London – observing Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Bureau, following 9/11 – Elementary’s Gregson is, by all accounts, the best the NYPD can muster.
Aidan Quinn’s performance in the role is strong, as are those of all the supporting actors, who do well with the material they are given. Yet it still feels like a bog-standard US crime drama – a CSI Baker Street if you will (but without Holmes demonstrating any scientific or forensic knowledge).
Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are self-confessed Sherlock Holmes “fan boys” and have suggested that a possible reason for the enormous success of Sherlock is their genuine passion for the subject. They don’t just knock out a crime plot, tack on characters with familiar names and call it a Sherlock Holmes story, they have carefully and respectfully translated the artful original work of Conan Doyle into the modern world to allow the 21st century to experience Sherlock Holmes in much the same way as the Victorians did when the stories were first published.
Despite Elementary’s executive producers Robert Doherty and Carl Beverly claiming a thorough knowledge of the original material, there is simply no evidence in the pilot episode to support this. The case is a cleverly calculated murder of the ilk that Holmes would certainly enjoy, but as a Holmes enthusiast, you can’t help but feel the greater crime is one of identity theft.
Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character in film and television, having been depicted a record-breaking 254 times since his creation in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet. But, as with Doctor Who and James Bond, we all tend to favour our first. For some, Sherlock Holmes will always be Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or perhaps Douglas Wilmer. For a whole generation, Holmes simply was Jeremy Brett, in the Granada series of the 1980s and 90s, which attempted the enormously ambitious undertaking of televising every single one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
Tragically, Brett died before all 60 adventures could be dramatised, but if you want a Victorian Sherlock Holmes, revisit the stunning performances and chemistry between Brett and Edward Hardwick/David Burke, and for a modern reimagining, there will be no better than Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock.
Ellie Norwood played Holmes in 47 silent films and Jeremy Brett completed 41 of the Conan Doyle stories. Elementary’s first series has just been extended to a run of 22 episodes, meaning that if a second season is commissioned, Miller’s incarnation could well be on his way to being the most prolific on-screen Holmes of all time – and surely that would be the greatest crime of all.