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), 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. 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. 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. 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. "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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.