The best Sherlock Holmes adaptation is on network TV

After about the tenth time a host on the Writing Excuses podcast plugged the show Elementary to illustrate a point about plot or characterization I decided to give it a shot. I needed a new show to watch on the exercise bike or to have in on the background while baking, anyway. What I discovered is, by far, my favorite adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character.

I mentioned this on Twitter recently and received a lot of pushback, so I’ll put my cards out on the table. No one defended the Will Farrell or the Robert Downey Jr. versions (I have seen the latter, but not the former), and I have not seen the Ian McKellen Holmes, where he plays an aging detective struggling with dementia. There are other adaptations, some of which I have seen (e.g. House), but many that I have not.

The main pushback came from fans of the Benedict Cumberbatch modern take on the character that leaned into Holmes’ sociopathy and Moriarty’s manic energy. This version is fine––the acting is top notch, the production great, but the series ultimately left me flat because it doesn’t really develop the characters beyond a particular interpretation of the Doyle text.

Character development is not a problem in Elementary. I was ready to declare this my favorite adaptation after one season, but, nearly three seasons into the show, I continue to be surprised by smart developments that continue to add depth to the archetypal character.

Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective who once worked for Scotland Yard, but now lives in New York City consulting for the NYPD. Holmes is also a recovering drug addict, and we are introduced to Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson, a former surgeon, who Holmes’ wealthy father contracted to be a live-in companion to monitor his sobriety. Other recurring characters include a mix of competently drawn crime-a-week stock type characters like Captain Gregson of the NYPD (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) and characters pulled from Doyles’ stories such as Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans) and Jamie Moriarty (Natalie Dormer) that capture the essence of the text while offering creative spins on it.

The case-a-week drama is a perfect vehicle to showcase Sherlock Holmes. In this iteration, Holmes comes from a wealthy family and so can work for free, selectively choosing cases that pique his interest, and each week offers an opportunity to demonstrate his deductive process in solving the crimes. Once Watson transitions from sober companion to consulting detective in her own right over the course of season two, their ongoing partnership offers her as a counterpoint: complementary in terms of methods, but different in their needs and relationship to the work.

In addition to being an astute choice of medium, the writers have clearly taken care to lay the groundwork for the sort of esoterica that Holmes would know, from the cigarette ash of different brands to having a source for moose cheese as a barter chip. At the same time, they don’t fall into a common trap of shows trying to show their characters are smart by having them banter in factoids that sound erudite, but fail to pass muster. I am sure there are slips and fanciful exaggerations because it is a television show, but based on summary review of the bits I either knew or cared to look up, including the moose cheese, Holmes is sufficiently right to establish his bona fides.

But these two points are necessary prerequisites. The choices the show makes in character development are what sets this version apart.

When we meet Sherlock Holmes in Elementary he is effectively insufferable. A recovering addict who doesn’t want help and is absolutely convinced that he is smarter than everyone around him. Like the Cumberbatch version, this Holmes struggles to understand emotions, turning to sex for physical release rather than for intimacy, but here his incapacity results in an underlying desire and overcompensation.

From that single character decision comes a series of further choices.

Elementary establishes early on that Sherlock is smarter than everyone else around him, but with that intelligence he then overestimates them. He knows that other people can provide services and relies on his own consultants, but always on his own terms, never just in the run of daily life. The show uses this weakness in a number of ways. In one, Holmes believes that he has hidden his addiction from everyone, but is forced to realize that the police know his secret and work with him anyway. In another, Holmes learns that Watson is also intelligent, turning their companionship into a genuine partnership and believable friendship rather than a superior-inferior relationship. Then, in season three, Holmes comes up against the possibility that he killed someone during the period of his addiction.

But the smartest choices that the show makes might be in the direction of their relationships. It would have been all-too easy for a male Holmes and a female Watson to hook up, but their relationship is one of friendship. Much more interesting is to offer a twist on Irene Adler-Jamie Moriarty character. Other receptions of Sherlock Holmes have done something similar with Adler, pushing a romantic angle on the proper Victorian admiration of Doyles’ text. Without going into details for the sake of spoilers, Elementary doesn’t stop there, twisting Holmes’ emotions and using Adler/Moriarty as an opportunity to reflect on his relationship to society, a choice that gains power as the show layers additional depth on the character.

Sherlock Holmes in Elementary is in few respects a Victorian detective, but that is not the nature of reception. Instead, the show interprets and develops the characters in ways that are both eminently watchable and imbue it with more depth than it has any right to.

4 thoughts on “The best Sherlock Holmes adaptation is on network TV

  1. A few years ago, I was on a “Sherlock vs. Elementary” panel at a sci-fi convention (Philcon, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey). One of the panelists brought up something Steven Moffat had said, that “Sherlock is what Doyle would write today.” I disagreed with him strongly. “The Sherlock Holmes stories, no disrespect to them, are short, formulaic, structured pieces. They are more akin to Elementary‘s structure, a teaser and five acts, than Sherlock which doesn’t hew to any structure at all.”

    I think that Jonny Lee Miller will be recognized as one of the great Sherlock Holmes actors, up there with Rathbone and Brett. The great thing about his portrayal of Sherlock is how the character changes over the years; I’ve been rewatching season 1 recently, and I’d forgotten how manic Miller’s Sherlock was at the beginning. (There are times where I feel like he was borrowing from Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor.) Elementary shows us a Sherlock who learns how to be human, who doesn’t have to “fake” it like he did early on, who forges actual human connections.

    I’m going to miss this show a lot when it’s gone.

    Ian McKellen’s Mr. Holmes is a fascinating and moving piece of work. It’s not a mystery in the sense that Sherlock Holmes stories usually are. It’s a portrait of a man, with an incredible mind, grappling with the reality that he is losing his mental gifts. As someone who witnessed the deterioration of my grandmother’s mind over the period of about a decade, I saw a great deal that I recognized. The relationship between Holmes and Roger, the young son of his housekeeper, is extraordinary. There are things I liked more in the novel (published as A Simple Trick of the Mind) and there are things I liked more in the movie. Both made me cry, though in different places. It’s very well done.


    1. Thank you so much for this comment. I agree with the manic-ness of that first season where it felt like Miller was feeling out the character. After a while he takes on a lived-in quality such the central tightness (posture, clipped way of speaking and texting) remains, but he is less off the wall. That idea of Sherlock learning to be human (as you put it) is both spot on and a great conceit for the show.

      As for Mr. Holmes, I put it on my to-watch list, as you are now the second person to recommend it to me.


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