Friday, May 24, 2013

Watson, I Need You: Thoughts on Elementary's First Season

A week or so ago, the US broadcast networks announced their lineup of new and returning shows for the fall of 2013, and since then the internet's premier TV sites have been abuzz with a flurry of analysis.  Trailers have been dissected, ratings and demographics calculated, schedules critiqued.  It's all a lot of fun, in an inside baseball sort of way, but in the midst of all this excitement, it's good to be reminded that in the end, nobody really knows anything.  Exhibit A: Elementary, a show that had absolutely no business being any good whatsoever.  On paper, it seems to epitomize all the worst failings of network TV, the kind that make us TV snobs sigh and complain that everything would be better on HBO.  Its genre is arguably the most overexposed, and dramatically inert, on TV, the procedural, and what's more, it's a procedural featuring a quirky, irascible detective surrounded by put-upon enablers, of which we've had far too many over the last decade.  It's based on an idiosyncratic, format-busting British series whose defining traits it seems to have shaved away, apparently in an attempt not to get sued.  And its pilot episode is unexciting, and creates the impression, as I wrote last fall, that the show is little more than a more dour version of Castle, with the NYPD inexplicably allowing a civilian to tag along and even take point on all their murder cases.  And yet, here we are in the spring, and Elementary is not only the only new show of the fall that I'm still following, but it's fast climbing the chart  of my current favorite series.  What's more, and completely unexpectedly, Elementary has found a new, meaningful take on Sherlock Holmes--or, more precisely, on the way that modern pop culture has perceived Sherlock Holmes, to which it offers a much-needed corrective.

For a character who has been modernized four times in the space of less than a decade (I'm counting the Guy Ritchie films as modernizations because they're essentially steampunkish SF)[1], Sherlock Holmes is oddly unsuited to the preoccupations and preconceptions of modern pop culture.  The quintessential Victorian hero, Holmes is defined by control--of his surroundings, of his time and leisure activities, of his emotions, of the people that he or society define as his inferiors: servants, women, lower status men, anyone who isn't as smart as he is.  In the 21st century, we don't think as much of control.  We most certainly don't think as much of the intellect that is the reason--perhaps even the justification--for Holmes's control.  In most modern stories, a character like Holmes--cold, cerebral, calculating--would be the villain, not the hero.  So when called upon to modernize Holmes previous takes on the character have tended to vilify his intellect, to treat it as a curse, a double-edged sword, or something that makes him a little less human than the rest of us.  House is so perceptive of other people's lies and inadequacies that he can't form a successful relationship; Sherlock is an out-and-out sociopath.  Both shows stress that their version of Holmes solves cases not because of any moral imperative or compassion towards the people they're helping, whom they don't care about at all, but for the thrill of solving a challenging puzzle[2].  At the same time, modern pop culture is arguably even more obsessed with Great Men than the Victorians were.  Holmes, the mere consulting detective, will not do as a hero; he has to be something grander and much more powerful.  So Guy Ritchie imagines Holmes as a superhero, who uses his intellect to plan out terrifyingly efficient beatdowns for his opponents and saves the world from Bond villain Moriarty's evil schemes, and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss imagine Holmes as, well, the Doctor, somehow a central figure in the battle between good and evil even if they can't quite articulate why or how.

It's almost a physical relief, then, to come to Elementary and find a Holmes who is much more down to Earth, a Holmes who is, in some ways, much closer to Conan Doyle's original, and in other ways, a much-needed contravention of Conan Doyle's assumptions.  Set in New York, Elementary begins with Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) leaving rehab after a months-long stint for heroin addiction.  Watson--Joan Watson, in this story (Lucy Liu)--is a former surgeon turned sober companion who is hired by Holmes's father (who remains unseen during the first season) to babysit his wayward son through his reintegration into normal life.  Almost immediately after his release, Holmes reaches out to the NYPD--represented by Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill)--and becomes a consultant on their homicide cases.  Dragged along on these cases, Watson soon becomes intrigued by investigative work, and when her period of companionship ends Holmes invites her to stay on as his partner and learn how to become a detective.

Miller plays Holmes with a jittery, almost manic energy, switching from moments of utter stillness to frenetic action and back again.  What's perhaps most interesting about his performance, and the way that the series presents Holmes, is how unconcerned they both are with making Holmes cool.  He's unkempt and unshaven, but in a way that suggests "junkie" rather than "rakishly disheveled."  His wardrobe seems designed to evoke a child who can't dress himself--shirts buttoned all the way to the top, sweaters in garish colors and patterns, layers that conceal Miller's impressive physique (meanwhile, the lovely Liu and well-built Hill are, if not quite on display, certainly dressed in a way that suggests that Miller's wardrobe is a choice, not a mistake).  He's louche and disdainful of authority, but in a fussy, almost old-fashioned sort of way that makes him seem like a man out of time--he says dorky, improbable things like "Poppycock!", "It is a conundrum," and "I shall keep you apprised of my progress via email" (there simply can't be enough said in praise of Miller's work to sell this kind of dialogue as the sort of thing that a real person born in the 1970s might say while at the same time conveying how weird and out of step such a person would have to be to speak that way).

It was only once I'd watched Elementary that I realized how much an obsession with coolness--in the middle school sense of never being impressed or taken aback by anything that doesn't come from you, and resenting the few things that do manage to pierce your shield of disaffection--had rendered previous Holmes modernizations inert and inhuman.  Sherlock pronounces himself bored by almost anything that isn't a thorny mystery; Elementary's Holmes, as he tells Irene Adler at their first meeting, tries hard not to be boring, to which end he allows himself to be an enthusiast--of art, of beekeeping, of tattoos, of, as he says to Watson in a direct quote from Conan Doyle "all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of daily life."  He wins Irene over by taking her to a completely unknown Roman site in the bowels of London, and there is a sense of joy and wonder in that scene that is quintessentially Holmes-ian, and yet completely missing from versions of the character like House and Sherlock.

That willingness to let Holmes be man rather than superman extends to Elementary's handling of his deductive skills.  This is still a Holmes who can recognize a dozen different kinds of cigar and ash by sight, but part of his genius lies in knowing when a more specialized level of knowledge is required, and in collecting people who possess that knowledge and turning to them when a case requires it (this also means that over the course of the season Elementary amasses a body of supporting players who help to dispel the sense that Holmes is a lone genius).  The show also resists the temptation to conclude that Holmes is the only competent detective around, or that his methods are the only effective ones.  Gregson and Bell's competence is frequently displayed and commented upon, and when Watson begins to take her own cases she often cracks them precisely because she and Holmes have different skill-sets--in one episode, she finds an important clue when she visits a client to apologize for not being able to solve the case, something that Holmes wouldn't have done, while in another she realizes the identity of the killer by relating her own feelings to them.

The show even punctures some of the more famous Holmes-ian aphorisms, such as the notion that it's important to keep useless information out of the brain in order to keep useful, potentially crime-solving information in it.  "That's not even how the brain works!" an exasperated Watson replies, and later in the episode Holmes solves the case by imbibing some of the information he had previously dismissed as useless.  And, of course, Elementary's Holmes has a moral compass.  The show makes no bones about the fact that he derives satisfaction from his investigations in their own right, or that he regards the people he helps with professional detachment, but unlike House or Sherlock it doesn't stress either fact, or pretend that they make Holmes a flawed person.  What it stresses, instead, is the fact that despite his detachment Holmes does have compassion for the people he helps, and disdain for those who take lives or hurt people.  It's particularly gratifying when the show makes this point by referencing Conan Doyle directly, as it does in an episode in which Holmes expresses "a particular disdain for blackmailers.  They are in some respects more despicable to me than even murderers," echoing Holmes's words from "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" (also the name of the blackmailer in the episode) that "I've had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow."

This is not to say, however, that Elementary's Holmes is a saint.  The show may not ask us to believe that being smart and observant makes Holmes a bad person, but it does present Holmes as someone who grew up rich, privileged, and smarter than everyone around him, and reaches the obvious conclusions.  As several characters point out, Holmes is self-absorbed and selfish, unaccustomed to thinking about anyone other than himself.  What Elementary doesn't do, however, is use Holmes's genius to justify his bad behavior, or the other characters' tolerance of it.  As Watson learns early in the season, the defining tragedy of Holmes's life, and the event that precipitated his spiral into addiction, was the murder of his lover, Irene Adler, and his inability to bring her murderer to justice.  In the season's lynchpin episode, "M.", Holmes catches the murderer's scent again (the architect of Irene's murder turns out to be, unsurprisingly, Moriarty), and lies to Watson and Gregson in order to get his chance at violent revenge.  It's a betrayal that has serious repercussions--in particular, Holmes and Gregson's relationship never fully recovers; though Gregson recognizes that he still needs Holmes's skills, his personal opinion of him is ruined, and for the rest of the season he is the show's most outspoken advocate against the notion that Holmes can change.  The show itself, however, is more hopeful--when Moriarty resurfaces again later in the season, Holmes refrains from going outside the law, explicitly stating that this is because he realizes that there are things he could do that would cost him his relationship with Watson. 

What's most interesting about Elementary's handling of Holmes, however, and what to my mind makes it not only an excellent Holmes adaptation, but a necessary and almost revolutionary one, is its handling of addiction and recovery.  Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes a drug addict, and his handling of addiction in the Holmes stories and novels is surprisingly in line with contemporary attitudes towards drugs, especially considering that Holmes's drug of choice, cocaine, wasn't even illegal at the time[3].  Nevertheless, the Victorian attitude towards addiction and the modern one are opposed in ways that touch on the very heart of the character, his control.  A Victorian gentleman seeking to shake off an addiction might be exhorted to control himself, but in the modern narrative of addiction and recovery, control is, at best, an illusion.  The very first of the twelve steps is the recognition that an addict has no control over his addiction, and the serenity prayer urges acceptance of that fact.  At the core of the recovery process as practiced in organizations like AA is the willingness to humble oneself, whether that means surrendering to a higher power or facing up to the damage you've done and the necessity of making amends.  That humility is completely antithetical to what Sherlock Holmes, as created by Arthur Conan Doyle and as reimagined by people like Guy Ritchie or Steven Moffat, is--a character who, even at his finest moments, acts from a position of strength and authority.

As a result, recent modernizations of Holmes have found his addiction impossible to cope with[4].  If Ritchie's Holmes is an addict, then the point is mentioned so briefly that I don't remember it, and while Sherlock pays lip service to the notion that its title character has a history of addiction, in the show's present that addiction is essentially cured--when Mycroft tells John, after Irene Adler's alleged death at the midpoint of "A Scandal in Belgravia," that Sherlock is in danger of falling off the wagon, does anyone in the audience believe him?  House, meanwhile, acknowledged almost from its outset that its main character was an addict and showed how addiction soured his life, ultimately destroying almost everything he cared about.  But it could not face the possibility of recovery, and the humility required by it.  To do so would be to take apart too much of what House was (which is probably why, when the character does enter rehab in the sixth season, the result is utterly generic--all the familiar platitudes of recovery, but the person imbibing them is completely unrecognizable as House).

Elementary is the first Holmes modernization I'm aware of to not only take addiction seriously, but to suggest that, even for someone as proud and self-regarding as Sherlock Holmes, recovery is possible[5].  "I've finished with drugs.  I won't be using them again," Holmes tells Watson when they first meet, and a lifetime of imbibing not only Sherlock Holmes, but the characters inspired by him, and in fact all of pop culture, tells us to believe him.  Of course Sherlock Holmes can just decide that he's not going to do drugs anymore.  Isn't the very definition of a hero someone who doesn't have unappealing weaknesses like an uncontrollable compulsion to take drugs?  When Holmes denigrates Watson's efforts to get him involved with the apparatus of recovery--attending NA meetings, finding a sponsor--we're similarly inclined to be on his side.  Surely Sherlock Holmes doesn't need the same depressing crutches as ordinary people?  Surely he isn't anything like those other addicts?  Surely he's special?  And indeed, even when Holmes acquiesces to Waton's demands, he does it in a Holmesian way, regaling his support group with tales of his previous cases, and taking a case that involves his former drug dealer because "You mistake the support group ethos for a complete system of living.  It is not; at least not to a man like me."

And yet, over the course of the season Elementary consistently chips away at the notion of Holmes's specialness.  When Watson tries to explain Holmes's reticence to his new sponsor Alfredo (Ato Essandoh), he tells her to be patient, because "Newcomers like him don't always understand the scope of the work involved."  In one sentence, the show dismantles Holmes's view of himself, even within the process of recovery, as somehow unique.  Instead, he's just another newcomer going through the same motions as millions before him, including the belief that his process is different to everyone else's.  Later in the season, Holmes resists receiving his one year chip, and after giving a lot of excuses for that resistance finally admits that the date of his anniversary is wrong--he actually relapsed the day after entering rehab.  When a confused Watson points out that even 364 days of sobriety are an accomplishment, an almost tearful Holmes answers that that isn't the point: "I decided to stop using drugs, yes?  I decided.  Me.  And yet twenty-four hours later..."  It's an admission of what the season has been hinting at all along, that even someone of Sherlock Holmes's caliber can't simply decide not to be an addict--that he will, as he admits to Irene in the season finale, always be one.  "I'd like to promise you that if I find a syringe of heroin tomorrow, I won't shoot it into my arm," a wiser Holmes tells Watson near the end of the season, and then admits that he can't make that promise.

Images of addiction recur throughout the first season, often in the cases that Holmes and Watson investigate, and sometimes in roundabout ways--in one episode, a figure in a case accuses Holmes of being "a fellow addict," and then clarifies that she means crossword puzzles; later Holmes is able to prove that she is the murderer through the presence of a solved crossword entry on a piece of paper used in the murder, but the solved word is the suggestive "Novocaine."  As the season draws on, however, and as Holmes's sobriety comes to seem more steady and reliable, the show begins to introduce the concept of dependence, the idea that rather than learning to live sober, he's replaced his need for drugs with a need for Watson.  "That guy is always going to need someone," Gregson tells Watson when he tries to persuade her to move on from Holmes, and Holmes himself calls Watson, and his partnership with her, the main reason for his determination to stay clean (and keep from killing Moriarty).  Even the pun in the title of the season finale, "Heroine," in which Watson is instrumental in outsmarting Moriarty, seems to point towards a transference of Holmes's dependence.  At the same time, the show isn't necessarily suggesting that that dependence is a bad thing--for one thing, it seems to run both ways.  When Watson's friends find out about her second career change, they express their concern by staging an intervention, and as noted, Gregson tries to detach her from Holmes for her own good.  By the end of the season, though there have been voices expressing concern about the healthiness of Holmes and Watson's partnership, there have also been those--like Watson's mother, who despite being branded by Holmes as "conventional" is the first to recognize that his unconventional way of life suits her daughter--who have encouraged it.  Given how often the Holmes-Watson bond is treated as a matter of course, even when it proves destructive (on House, in particular), it's nice that the show is questioning it, and at the end of the season it's still not clear whether this relationship will prove codependent or nurturing.

For all the praise that I've heaped upon it, it's important to acknowledge that the one way in which Elementary is not a great Holmes adaptation is the trait that is arguably most closely associated with the character, the mysteries.  Many of the season's early episodes are bog-standard murder investigations that wouldn't have seemed out of place on Castle or Law & Order, and for all of Holmes's alleged brilliance, his solutions are often arrived at less because of his intellect or deductive abilities, and more because he has access to advanced forensics techniques and law enforcement databases.  The show improves on this point later in the season, when Holmes and Watson begin to detach from the NYPD.  Though it would be a shame to lose Gregson and Bell (as well as Quinn and Hill's strong performances), Elementary is a stronger show when Holmes's cases come to him in something like the idiosyncratic ways that Conan Doyle imagined, and not always in the form of a murder scene[6].  Nevertheless, even that stronger show isn't a particularly strong mystery show--Moriarty, for example, makes several mistakes in the season finale, breaking lifelong habits of secrecy and anonymity, in order to allow Holmes and Watson to spring their trap.  As much as I admire Elementary's handling of Holmes's flaws and weaknesses, I can't help but wonder how worthwhile that handling is if the thing that makes Holmes worth reading about is missing, or watered down.

Another point worth making is Elementary's handling of female characters, and particularly Watson.  Given the low bar set by Sherlock, it's pretty much impossible for a Sherlock Holmes adaptation to look bad on this front, and the fact is that by making Watson a woman, and a true partner to Holmes, Elementary makes a powerful statement that it only reinforces through its introduction of other interesting, intelligent women over the course of the season[7].  I can't help but wonder, however, whether the comparison to Sherlock doesn't end up giving Elementary too much of a pass.  This is a show that, in keeping with the conventions of its genre, has few compunctions about displaying the bodies of murdered (or terrified, about to be murdered) women, and in the early stages of Holmes and Watson's relationship he is all too eager to goad her with casual references to her gender and sexuality (speculating on the last time she had sex, charting her menstrual cycle) that are not made any more tolerable by the fact that Watson explicitly comments on their misogyny.  And then there's Watson herself.  While I admire Elementary's choice not to make Watson a quintessential tough girl--that she is squeamish about the sight of murdered bodies and a bit of prude when it comes to sex doesn't undermine her strength of character or her courage--the fact remains that she enters Holmes's life as his caretaker, and that despite becoming his partner in detection she still plays a caretaking role in his life, worrying about his sobriety and even assuring Gregson that she will manage him when his pursuit of Moriarty threatens to fly out of control.  While this is not an uncommon role for Watson to play in Holmes's life (again, see House), it takes on a very different meaning when Watson is a woman.

While these concerns have marred my enjoyment of Elementary's first season, they don't undermine the fact that this show still feels like the most thoughtful, most progressive modernization of Sherlock Holmes in a decade that has seemed obsessed with him (I haven't even said anything about the impressive diversity of the show's cast--though to my mind still not diverse enough for a show set in New York City--or the fact that Mrs. Hudson is a transwoman played by Candis Cayne).  It's often seemed as if the people trying to bring Holmes into the 21st century decide to discard and keep exactly the wrong things about him.  Elementary is a show that seems to admire Holmes's intellect without accepting it as an excuse for bad, or self-destructive, behavior.  It's amazing how badly it was needed.


[1] Another Holmes modernization that falls outside this time period and is not widely remembered nowadays is Jake Kasdan's 1998 film Zero Effect, starring Bill Pullman as Holmes, Ben Stiller as Watson, and Kim Dickens as Irene Adler (though none of the characters are called by these names).  As those casting choices suggest, the film far from follows the letter of the Holmes stories, but to my mind it captures their spirit far more successfully than many more obvious homages.

[2] It's almost fascinating how thoroughly this perception has permeated the modern understanding of Holmes.  In this review of the Elementary episode "A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs" at the AV Club, for example, reviewer Phil Dyess-Nugent, who by his own admission has never read Conan Doyle's Holmes stories--in which Holmes frequently expresses moral outrage at some of the crimes he learns about or prevents--opens by parroting it as if it were the gospel truth.

[3] In searching for information about the canonical Holmes's drug use, I came across this article discussing it, which suggests that Conan Doyle's experiences as a doctor may have given him a first-hand glimpse at the horror of addiction, and thus informed Dr. Watson's anti-drug stance.

[4] Though it is interesting to note that most Holmes modernizations have taken care to switch his choice of poison.  Conan Doyle's Holmes is addicted to cocaine, a stimulant which he says helps his already nimble brain make connections and solve cases.  Sherlock is silent about its title character's drug of choice, but both House and Elementary posit a Holmes who is addicted to analgesics.  In House's case, a literal painkiller, Vicodin, which dulls the pain of his mangled leg.  Elementary's Holmes is addicted to heroin (which House also dabbles in).  As he says to Watson about another addict, "Heroin users are looking for oblivion," a point later made more strongly by Moriarty, who posits that Holmes uses heroin because he's "in almost constant pain" from the burden of seeing so much all the time.

[5] It is, however, not the first Holmes story to do so.  Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Per-Cent Solution revolves around Holmes going into rehab--presided over by Sigmund Freud, no less.  Meyer, however, seemed to take the view that recovery was a one-time event.  Once Holmes undergoes analysis and uncovers the root cause of his dysfunction, he has no further need for drugs.

[6] Something that a lot of people seem to forget when decrying Holmes's alleged indifference towards the victims of the crimes he investigates is that in many of Conan Doyle's stories, there isn't a murder victim to begin with, and sometimes not at all.  People apply to Holmes because something strange is going on in their lives--they've been hired to copy out the entire Encyclopedia Britannica; weird drawings of dancing men have started appearing in their garden--but they're not always in distress about it.  Later on, some of these cases become matters of life and death, but to begin with they are merely puzzles.

[7] It's also worth noting that the show seems determined to undercut any sense of Holmes and Watson as romantic or potentially romantic partners, to the extent that Liu and Miller hardly ever touch one another, and only once--and that very fleetingly--as a show of affection: in the closing moments of "M.", when Holmes is at his lowest, Watson briefly rests the very tips of her fingers on his arm.  That, however, is something that could easily change in the future--I can't help but recall the early seasons of The X-Files, a show with which Elementary shares some traits, when the idea of a romance between Mulder and Scully seemed vaguely prurient.

19 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Just brilliant, Abigail. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the standard on your blog gets higher and higher.

This captures so many of the reasons I have, almost against my better judgments, really fallen for this show -- although, actually, a lot of those reasons are Jonny Lee Miller's performance, which is marvellous. I haven't warmed to Watson, whose character arc (doctor -- sober companion -- consulting detective of near-Holmesian brilliance) quite fails to convince me; and Liu's performance is hampered by a motionless face that -- I speculate, but hey -- botox seems to have rendered incapable of nuance. (By comparison, Miller's receding hairline, wrinkles are a joy to behold). The NYPD characters are 2D, a fact made more obvious (as in the episode when Bell's ex-con brother popped up) when the scriptwriters try toss a little back-story their way. The mysteries, you're right, are often underwhelming, the solutions several times handled in a weirdly perfunctory manner.

And yet, there's something in this show that has made it for me, as you, one of the very few things I actively look forward to, each week. What you so brilliantly say about the representation of addiction and recovery is part of it; as is the idea that Holmesian mental skills would be as much a curse as a blessing. But your paragraph about the resistance to cool made me nod enthusiastically. It's so refreshing to have a show unconcerned that. Of course, I may only say so because I'm so uncool myself.

ronakmsoni said...

Watched a couple of episodes after looking at this, and it does seem far better than the other recent ones, despite its tendency towards Holvudine psychology (though even that seems more layered than usual; but this might be a reaction to better plotting of the conversations).

Things I particularly liked:
-> Watson actually makes sense; just has worse premises than Holmes for her logic (except once or twice when she has better).
-> Both Law and Freeman played Watsons slightly disconnected from society, but she is actually visibly detached, but in the way that actually lets her retain empathy while being able to perceive the existence of a bigger picture.
-> She calls him Sherlock! I can't remember a precedent.
-> Science seems to be checking out, which for me is a massively awesome thing.
-> No suggestions of sexual tension.
-> All of the stuff you said about control (in absence of your piece, I'd have phrased it as, they let Holmes get angry, but this is better).
-> Both Holmes and Watson are compelling characters here. Even House had that but otherwise even thinking of the little earlier stuff I've watched or the original stories, the balance wasn't this good (well, even in House the balance was askew).

Thanks for pointing this out to me.

gareth-wilson said...

I gave up on Elementary quickly, it just seemed like another procedural with a quirky investigator. But I do appreciate that this Sherlock is more human - when he makes a clever deduction and finds a body in the pilot, he's saddened by the dead body in front of him, not pleased at his own cleverness.
As for the quality of the mysteries, I agree, and that's mostly what turned me off it. But very few TV series manage to tell a fair and satisfying mystery story in 42 minutes. The closest I can think of is some of Steven Moffet's work on Doctor Who. His season-long mysteries never work, but some of the single-episode puzzles are pretty good.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam: Thank you :-)

On Watson: a lot of the reviews I've read have praised her arc over the series, noting in particular the fact that while Holmes's arc is internal - he has to accept the fact that he will always be an addict - hers is an external, action-oriented story. But like you, I think that story is hollow, mainly because, as you say, the transition from surgeon to sober companion to detective isn't very believable - it feels as if she exists solely to come into Holmes's life at a point where he needs a partner, and isn't a person in her own right. I do have some hope that, having put a pin in Holmes's Irene/Moriarty/addiction arc at the end of the first season, the show will have more time to develop Watson in its second (and unlike you, I think Liu's reserve is more an acting choice, though I agree that her performance isn't as compelling as Miller's).

Gareth: in fairness, I don't think any modern Holmes adaptation has done a very good job with the mystery aspect. What the other modernizations have over Elementary is their style: the Ritchie films' steampunk aesthetic, House's medical twist, typical Moffat pizzazz on Sherlock. Elementary's stories aren't significantly worse, but they're not dressed up, which makes their flaws easier to notice.

gareth-wilson said...

Come to think of it, House did have some interesting medical mysteries. But they weren't totally fair, because you needed medical knowledge to interpret the clues, and they took some liberties with the medical details for the sake of drama.

Tamara said...

House also benefited, imo, at least in the early seasons from having something of an ensemble around him. It was always almost all about him, but he did have more people to bounce off of, and we could see a spectrum of reactions to his behaviour. Or maybe I just usually find only having two characters a touch claustrophobic.

Glauke said...

I'm skipping down two-thirds into reading to say Yes! I like Elementary for its characters rather than for the mystery solving. It what threw me off at first, it's what keeps me watching still.

But you're so much better at explaining WHY I feel that way. so thank you.

baeraad said...

Am I the only one who actually liked season 6 / the first half of season 7 of House? I was bored out of my skull at that point by the way the writers kept scrambling for ways to make House sink lower and lower in order for his behaviour to still register as "outrageous" to an increasingly jaded audience. There was no rhyme or reason to it anymore, no sense that I was watching a real, flawed human being - House's behaviour didn't seem based on any underlying logic, only on what would make him the most despicable.

I liked seeing him try to turn his life around. I liked seeing him run into situations where his usual response would have been to act like an ass, and have to deal with the question of "assuming I didn't want to act like an ass here... What would I do? What am I capable of doing, aside from acting like an ass?" It made things unpredictable again, and believable.

And then of course the writers decided that that was all too boring and that it was time to go back to having House be all trainwreck, all the time. Feh.

Anyway, Elementary. It sounds interesting? :) You're not the first person to tell me that it's better than Sherlock, either. I'll watch it if I ever get the opportunity.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

baeraad: I was never a regular House watcher - I tended to check in on the season finales, when the show pulled out all the stops, and then let the momentum of that carry me into the next season until I got bored again. I did enjoy some of the episodes immediately following House's release from rehab (the one where he concludes that he can't go back to medicine and stay sober was intriguing, though marred by the fact that clearly that decision wasn't going to stick), but the actual two-hour premiere about House's experiences in a mental hospital was terrible. It's not just that it was predictable and trite (the subplot about the woman who hasn't spoken in years, whom House cures by returning her music box to her?), but that, as I say, it doesn't feel like a story about House. All of a sudden, his problem is some garden variety issues of trust - not the fact that he can dissect people at a glance, not his issues with truth and lies, not his messed up relationship with his parents, and certainly not the clusterfuck that led to his maiming and chronic pain. It's not that I liked the way the show made House's intelligence a problem for him, but having done so, there should have been more to House in analysis than a few heartwarming cliches about making friends with the mentally handicapped. I can easily believe that the stories that followed on this were better, but where Elementary outdoes House, to my mind, is that it tries to imagine how someone like House/Holmes would experience recovery, in their own idiosyncratic way.

baeraad said...

Hmm, I see what you mean, but... Well, I guess the thing is that at that point, I felt that House was basically a shallow caricature (not even a caricature of any particular viewpoint or mindset, either - just a sort of random collection of opinions and behaviours calculated to offend as many people as possible as much as possible). The actual character that I saw in seasons one through three, the one who was unpleasant because he just couldn't bring himself to go along with all the polite, fuzzy bullshit that lets most people get through the day without too much pain - that character was, I felt, officially dead and buried at that point.

Instead, in seasons four and five, we had a character who was unpleasant simply and solely for the sake of being unpleasant. And season six and half-of-seven felt like a much-needed examination and development of that character - and I didn't mind that the solutions to his problems were kind of simplistic, because the character he had become by then really didn't have any problems that couldn't be solved by him just pulling his head out of his ass.

(I also felt that if you accepted the premise - which was, I admit, in complete disregard of earlier seasons - that there were no theoretical reasons why House couldn't change, then the show did do a very good job at portraying how very difficult it nevertheless is to change a lifetime of habit, especially after having tried and failed to do so several times before)

Adam Roberts said...

I've now seen the series finale. Exciting until about three-quarters through, then it hurried into a most lame and impotent conclusion. Feel disproportionately let down.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's interesting, I thought this post would have a lot more to say about the finale, but though I liked it more than you - I thought the final twist with Moriarty was a good idea and a good way of addressing some of the problems with the season's handling of Irene Adler, and despite, as I say above, the fact that Moriarty is defeated too easily, I appreciated the fact that it was Watson's input that did the trick - in the end it just doesn't feel as important to what the show is and what it's accomplished over the course of its first season. Though I suspect Moriarty will return, I'm glad the show has put a pin in that story and will hopefully be able to put this requisite part of the canon behind it and move on to bigger and better things.

ibmiller said...

I'm so pleased that you've articulated a lot of the things my fellow Holmesian/literature friend and I have discussed throughout the season. It's a show that I've had to keep defending to irrational Sherlock fans (I enjoy Sherlock myself, but resent the crowd that sees it as the second coming of Canon or what have you) that it is a show that you can almost see progressing and growing. The pilot, as we discussed back when it aired, was quite poor, with the benefit of Miller and Liu's performances. The very second episode picked it up and shot it towards the midseason "M," when I realized that this show not only was decent, but was making a mark on my person vision of Holmes (or, perhaps, I was merely drawing the natural comparison between the Holmes of my childhood, the Paget drawings of the balding, thin man with the sharp chin, narrow face, and aquiline nose - and Miller's uncanny resemblance).

I would also note that I am thrilled the show recognizes its strength is the character journey's and relationships, and not their (admittedly a bit poor) mystery plotting abilities. I think the finale is great evidence of that fact - the ending is not a cliffhanger, trying to get us to tune in because the plot is so exciting and unexpected - but it's a quiet character moment that makes us want to see these people again because we've grown to care about them over 24 episodes.

And I fully expect Moriarty to show up in the middle of next season, with all new problems for Sherlock and Watson. :)

Thanks so much for writing!

sushipyjamas said...

I am so incredibly glad I found your blog--reading this and clicking back to read your review of Sherlock, was some of the best reading I've done in a while--thank you!

I love your analysis of Elementary. At first, it bothered me that we were getting a Holmes who wasn't in control of everything around him--especially himself. It seemed so profoundly un-Holmesian to me. But coming to see it as a true update of the character--finally, a way of placing him in the 21st century that doesn't simply make him a patriarchal, domineering arsehole that we are nonetheless supposed to admire--made me appreciate the show so much more. I think the finale really goes a long way toward reinforcing this very aspect of Holmes, his humility and his loss of control. I have never, ever seen a Holmes step back from a case. In fact, Conan Doyles Holmes explicitly comments in Sign of Four that he shall never marry (love) because it would cloud his reasoning; and Elementary's Holmes falls exactly into the emotional abyss that ACD's Holmes felt he needed to avoid. His love for Irene knocks him off-line; his reason is clouded; he cannot function. I felt it significant that the two things ACD's Holmes felt he had completely under control--his emotional life and his drug-taking--are both precisely what Elementary's Holmes is undone by.

On the downside, however, aside from the aspect of the less-than-inspiring mysteries that you mention, I'm not sure how happy I am about the 'Master-Apprentice' dynamic of the Holmes-Watson relationship in this version. Partly because of Watson's development arc, which was already mentioned, but mostly in terms of the dynamics of their relationship; I've always liked the fact that Watson is never really trying to be a detective, and that sets it apart from all the other 'dynamic duo' tv shows in which both partners are detectives of one sort or another (Castle, Law and Order, Mentalist, X Files, the list goes on and on). I love how Holmes is often dragging Watson away from doing something else, and that for Watson the adventures with Holmes are never anything more than a very time-consuming hobby. I think it mirrors the viewer, who also watches Holmes as (often) a very time-consuming hobby! Especially seeing as we're in the first season, I was very much hoping that after the 6 weeks were up, Watson would go back to doing something else, but would decide to accompany Holmes on investigations because it was fun and exciting, rather than her day job.

But nothing's perfect! Thanks for the excellent insights, and I'll be going back through your archive now... :)

Unknown said...

This was an absolutely brilliant analysis and I particularly love the exploration of the themes of dependence and need. This is my new favorite show and I'm glad it's somewhat quietly getting the attention it deserves.

Unknown said...

This was an absolutely brilliant analysis and I particularly love the exploration of the themes of dependence and need. This is my new favorite show and I'm glad it's somewhat quietly getting the attention it deserves.

Dolores Tran said...

I've read most of the Conan Doyle stories and it's true that Holmes doesn't exhibit any perceived moral failing at all, but because of that he was never interesting and I never cared for him. Apparently people clamored for the books' return, but for the character or for the mysteries I'm not so sure being not at all familiar with the body of works on the character and the books. Personally I always liked Agatha more...

That was all to say the mystery aspect is both very important to me and to Holmes adaptations, though I would rather like to see one without any guessing game as well. And Elementary as some have made the case is a procedural before it is a reimagining of a classic, so there. From what I saw of Elementary--some four or five first episodes--not only are the mysteries unimpressive, the general element of surprise is also missing. All enjoyment derives from having canon expectations defied and imports recognized. (On the other hand, Sherlock is fun and manic and inventive, very much like how the books are, and I think this is the part I appreciate Moffat and Gatiss bringing over.)

A disconnect, then, between Holmes-ians and procedural fans, because Elementary takes on that much more meaning in the light of other interpretations. Savvy fans are often well versed in both, and well, it's hard to reconcile the feelings Elementary invokes.

And! From your post the character arcs sound solid, so maybe Elementary shouldn't have bothered with mysteries after all. The idea of stripping away what Holmes is most memorable for is deliciously irreverent to me.

As for Miller and Liu's characters' relationship, I look forward to seeing them independent and Watson move out, actually, and dropping in on spot checks or something and then just go off on a case. That's kind of how it was in the books but the movie and House and the lot have been portraying them as unhealthily attached, and in the new tradition of progressive portrayal Elementary should consider a Watson not defined by Sherlock Holmes.

Tl;dr I adore this post and will be catching up on Elementary soon.

Martin Sommerfeld said...

I am always looking forward to your TV-Reviews and once more you did not disapoint: Wonderful article, you have truely outdone yourself. I agree with nearly everything you write and a lot of things that I somehow felt only became apparent to me by reading how you put it into words. Thanks.

T Ahmed said...

This was a really wonderful dissection of a show that absolutely blew me away without my expecting anything more than a pleasantly mindless distraction. Although I appear to enjoy Joan a lot more than you do (I love how steely, intelligent and warm she manages to be, without being some sort of overly sentimental *or* cold super-woman), I absolutely love everything about this version of Sherlock that you noted. His warmth, his compassion, and his human weaknesses make him a far more believable character than so many other Holmes-clones.

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