Elementary Keeps Getting Sherlock Holmes Right

The second season seems likely to avoid the blockbuster drama and police-procedural formulas of other Sherlock interpretations while taking its own creative liberties.
CBS

Out of the many anxiety-inducing mysteries Elementary has presented its viewers, the biggest is this: Will it be good in its second season as it was in its first?

After premiering last fall and taking a few episodes to really establish its characters and tone, the CBS Sherlock Holmes adaptation began delivering exciting stories each week while offering some of the strongest character development and episodes-spanning narratives arcs on television. It all built to a satisfying season finale. Thankfully, with tonight's premiere, “Step Nine,” Elementary seems destined for a strong sophomore season.

“Step Nine” accomplishes two major tasks: reintroducing the show's leads and working in elements of Holmesian canon the show had avoided. Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) find themselves on a trip to London to help Holmes's Scotland Yard contact Lestrade (Sean Pertwee) on a reputation-damaging case. But for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans, the nicest touch is the introduction of Holmes's smarter, lazier (in Homes's words) brother, Mycroft. The episode could have collapsed under the weight of the case, the new characters, and the basic task of catching viewers up to the show's dynamic. But it doesn't.

“Step Nine,” as with Elementary as a whole, succeeds because it avoids the methods and tropes of both other Holmes adaptations and police procedurals. For much of the last century Sherlock Holmes has been given short adaptations—a few miniseries, one-off movies, and so on. Most of the productions have favored creating dense stories packed with references to Doyle mythology and pop-culture mystery clichés, with a distinctly un-Holmseian level of drama. Even some of the best adaptations have gone this route. Even Guy Ritchie's pair of Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr., the most true-to-the-books adaptations yet, put Holmes and Watson on high-stakes cases rather than tasking them with more minor crimes. And the BBC's Sherlock exaggerates some canon elements, making almost every one of its so-far six episodes a matter of national security with grandiose consequences. These are fun and well-done, but they aren't true to Doyle's style. Instead of slow-burn thrillers, they're more akin to fast-moving blockbusters.

The original Doyle stories were the procedurals—the Law & Orders and CSIs—of their time. They were short installments, each with their own distinct mystery or adventure. But, unlike the glut of crime procedurals of modern television, they did not rely on formula. Almost every procedural these days has a set style and structure. The cases are generic, the characters are archetypes that quickly turn into parodies of themselves, and the charm dependent largely on a gimmick. Thankfully, Elementary, like its source material, is different. The cases provide catalysts for revelations about the characters and larger themes, as with the blackmailer in the first season who revealed Holmes’s hatred of manipulation, or in “Step Nine,” when Holmes must confront the narcissistic way he treated Scotland Yard before his drug habit spiraled out of control. The cases form the backbone of each episode, but they are not separate from any real drama or character development.

At times, though, the format has flaws. The 20-plus episode nature of an American television season means storylines have to be stretched out and episodes padded. Elementary's first season faltered from that. But the long nature of the seasons allows for character interactions to be more subtly developed, and payoffs feel more rewarding.

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Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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