It’s an irrefutable truth, our obsession with the BBC’s modern adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock, starring the badass Benedict Cumberbatch and perfect Martin Freeman, is basically one of the best shows on television, and one hell of a contemporary interpretation (and I usually dislike those). But what about Elementary, that American version (not of Sherlock, of course, but of original Doyle) with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu? Since it’s come out I’ve been in a lot of arguments over it with Sherlock and Sherlock purists, and I maintain my stance that it’s a good show, and actually a necessary evolution of the classic story.
For those unacquainted, here’s a quick overview. Sherlock Holmes (Miller) is a recovering drug addict living in a brownstone in New York City. He digs on prostitutes and police scanners. Joan Watson (yeah, that’s right, Liu’s a lady) is an ex-surgeon and sober companion who is assigned to Holmes. She accompanies him on some crime adventures and then gets really into the chase herself. Along the way we learn Sherlock plummeted into drug use after his lover Irene Adler was hardcore murdered in London, where he consulted with Scotland Yard. At the end of the season, we learn Irene was actually Moriarty (another gender change, thanks America) and that Watson is a good detective for uncovering her secret love for Sherlock (love’s a bitch). So, it’s a buddy cop version of the classic stories, with a mix of American TV intrigue, and some human tragedy for the normally robotic Holmes.
A lot of folks have railed about the series not being true to form. Moriarty, said one dude, should never have been seen doing crime (he/she’s always in the shadows), and another was mad that Sherlock himself had a bunch of flaws in historically perfect logic. Watson, who generally admired Holmes but remained the logical doctor throughout, was a lady with more spunk than Watson originally had.
I’d conjecture that after years of Doyle adaptations, this particular one did something none had done before. Sherlock became a tragic character, a self-alienating ex-addict. I love Cumberbatch’s elegant, skilled, mechanical Holmes, but Miller gives us a guy struggling with his big brain. And Watson takes a step further as well, not in her female casting but in her interest and application of Sherlock’s work. She leaves her profession to finally become a detective and also acts as an inspiration to Holmes, getting through his robot exterior to find the insecurities not often seen in the stories. And no, they never fall for each other – that’d be stupid. The American version doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do; they truthfully modernize it.
Cumberbatch and Martin are technically a better pair than Miller and Liu, and Sherlock’s Moriarty is leagues better than the lady in Elementary, but the American adaptation is respectable in its effort to bring Holmes and Watson to narrative and emotional territory that challenges the conventions in a way I would deem most recommendable.