CBS’ Elementary is coming to an end after seven seasons – and it’s going out as the best adaptation of Sherlock Holmes to date.
Coming to an end after seven successful seasons, CBS’ Elementary should rightly be regarded as the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation. The Sherlock Holmes myth is bigger than ever before, with a plethora of various adaptations aided by some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories entering the public domain in 2014. Any Sherlock Holmes adaptation has to start with a couple of key decisions. Do you set the show in Victorian England, or in the present day? And do you attempt to hew close to the source material, Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories, or do you take loose inspiration and do your own thing?
Being bold, Elementary recreated Sherlock Holmes against a modern backdrop, and went one step further by relocating him to New York. Jonny Lee Miller was chosen as the show’s Sherlock Holmes, with Lucy Liu as a gender-swapped Doctor Watson, who served as Holmes’ live-in “sober companion,” hired to stop him returning to his drug addiction. It was a unique approach, immediately confirming that Elementary would be true to the spirit of Sherlock Holmes as the character he’d become rather than the letter of Conan Doyle’s stories. At the same time, though, it demonstrated a deep knowledge of Sherlock Holmes canon; opium was both legal and socially acceptable when Conan Doyle created Holmes, meaning the Great Detective even frequented opium dens. As society changed, the writer actually had Watson quietly wean Sherlock off the drugs.
Although ratings have been dropping of late, the fact remains that Elementary has proven to be a huge success. The showrunners initially expected Elementary to finish at the end of season 6, but to their delight they were given one more abbreviated seventh season to wrap the story up in a satisfying manner. Now that story is coming to a close, and it’s time to celebrate Elementary as the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation to date.
Elementary Didn’t Take Sherlock Holmes Seriously
Key to Elementary is the fact that the show doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes too seriously – something Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself would have approved of. There’s a temptation to treat Sherlock Holmes as something of a force of nature, as though he’s the world’s first superhero, with his intellect as his superpower. Indeed, other interpretations like Steven Moffat’s Sherlock do their level best to dazzle viewers with Holmes’ genius, going to ever-greater lengths to visualize just how his phenomenal mind works. There’s a sense in which this is inevitable; Sherlock Holmes epitomizes the Victorian ideal that logic can tame the world, and Sherlockians are serious people. But that’s certainly not how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended it. In fact, he found the reverential way people treated Holmes to be a constant source of irritation.
In truth, Conan Doyle was never particularly enamored by Sherlock Holmes and, as a result, there’s almost an element of satire in the original stories. This is a man who bends down on the ground and licks the pavement, who declares he can tell a person’s profession due to the shape of their thumb, and who sometimes demonstrates a profound lack of social awareness. Sherlock Holmes is an absurd showman, who loves the dramatic reveal as much as he does the thrill of the chase, and who can never quite resist an opportunity to show off or drop a cryptic remark. There’s a strong argument that Doctor Watson is the real hero of the Holmes stories, simply for putting up with Sherlock.
Elementary embraced that from the start. Its version of Sherlock Holmes is a difficult man to live with, liable to play music loudly at any time of day or night, given to sometimes-embarrassing sexual experimentation, and with absolutely no understanding of personal space. The show frequently has poor Joan Watson woken up in the most bizarre ways, just because Holmes has made a deduction and wants to share it in the most spectacular fashion possible. There’s something quite surreal about Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes, something larger than life and sometimes quite comedic, yet on occasion he also manages to summon an intensity that even escapes Robert Downey Jr. This is the very same approach Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took in his stories, and as such it demonstrates a real fondness for the original works.
Elementary Developed Holmes and Watson As Characters
Following on from that, Elementary treated both Holmes and Watson as characters in their own right, giving them strong narrative arcs that ran over the course of seven seasons. That’s actually an improvement on Conan Doyle’s own stories; unlike Elementary, the Sherlock Holmes books and short stories aren’t in chronological order, and as a result there’s no narrative flow nor any consistent character development. Doctor Watson has his own little arcs on close reading, but Sherlock Holmes himself is essentially static. That’s followed through to even some of the best Holmes adaptations; as excellent as the late Jeremy Brett may have been, you never get the sense that Holmes grows and develops as a character.
Elementary is different. By season 7, viewers feel as though Holmes and Watson are well-rounded people they’ve gotten to know over the years. Sherlock Holmes’ drug addiction has been a recurring plot-point, with the Great Detective always portrayed as a recovering addict rather than as a man who has no need to fear the needle. In a fascinating twist, that recovery became a problem in season 6 when he unwittingly inspired a member of his support group to become a serial killer. Meanwhile, Sherlock has learned what it is to have friends, and has had to deal with the emotions he had repressed for so many years. Season 7 has featured one of Miller’s best moments, when Sherlock learns that his father is dead, and is so clearly incapable of dealing with the depth of emotion he suddenly felt.
The same is true of Doctor Watson; unlike all other versions prior, Jane has an actual reason for being with Sherlock Holmes. She’s initially hired to stay at Holmes’ side at all times in order to ensure he doesn’t relapse into his addiction, but comes to love his work enough to become a consulting detective in her own right. By the end of the show, Holmes and Watson are equals, and Holmes can trust Watson to make just as many intuitive leaps as he can. This doesn’t diminish Holmes as a character, either; it simply reinforces the idea that it is Holmes’ deductive method that makes him so successful, rather than some superhuman ability. It allows viewers to see Holmes as a person, and to engage with his chain of thought rather than just watch it.
Elementary Presented The Cost Of Doing The Right Thing
Finally, Elementary demonstrates the cost of the profession Holmes and Watson have chosen. Sometimes it’s played for comedic effect; Holmes and Watson work with the hacker collective Everyone, who insist on their performing absurd acts of humiliation in exchange for information. Other times there’s deep sense of emotion to it, with season 6 seeing Holmes struggle with post-concussion syndrome, which he feared could rob him of his prodigious intellect and deductive skills. Ultimately, it’s gradually become clear that Holmes and Watson can never have a normal life; they will forever be stood on the outside of society, watching and observing rather than participating. They have each other, and they have the community of friends they’ve built in the NYPD, but over the last seven seasons all other ties have been cut away. Holmes will never even consider opening up at another support group again, given his openness inspired a serial killer.
This is a very distinctive theme, entirely unique to Elementary and never truly captured in any other Sherlock Holmes adaptation. That’s largely because no other Sherlock Holmes adaptation has really embraced its stars as characters in quite this way, exploring what makes them tick as people rather than as phenomenons. This shows Holmes and Watson have hopes and dreams outside of mere detective work, and those desires are what give their decisions such a painful edge. When Holmes fakes his death in season 7, viewers can see the pain he feels at leaving those he’s come to love behind.
There are some TV series that linger too long, their quality diminishing until they are just a shadow of their former self. Elementary is not one of those; the show has gone from strength to strength, and the last two seasons were its most compelling. By now, viewers are deeply invested in the characters of Holmes and Watson, which means it will be sad to see Elementary come to an end. But the show is finishing on a high note, as the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation to date.