Sherlock Holmes's Disappointing New Update

Elementary, CBS's take on the character, is frustratingly predictable.


The Sherlock Holmes introduced in the new show Elementary is a more damaged, vulnerable version of the legendary sleuth than we've seen before. At one point, when asked to explain how he reached a conclusion, he admits ruefully: "Google. Not everything is deducible."

Fans of Sherlock Holmes are certainly spoiled for choice these days. But a modern, smartphone-using Englishman in New York who solves murders with a female Watson by his side is a lot of change to absorb, especially considering the show had a bit of a hill to climb before it even premiered. Steven Moffat, co-creator and writer of the BBC series Sherlock (which airs in the US on PBS), reportedly turned down CBS's offer to adapt his acclaimed show, subsequently expressing some annoyance that the network went ahead with its plan anyway.

I don't begrudge CBS for launching its own re-imagined version of the character—even if the pilot does play more like a slick, standard-issue crime procedural than a true Holmesian experience. After all, the legendary detective has been resurrected regularly since he first appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet in 1887. You could argue that the character of Gregory House M.D. is actually the first contemporary Holmes, only swathed in hospital scrubs instead of a frock coat. The film franchise starring Robert Downey Jr. remade the super sleuth into a kind of steampunk action hero. It's hard to make the case that any living person can lay claim to Holmes, regardless of the century in which the character is dropped.

History also shows that interpreting a British show for an American audience is a tricky business (a sticky wicket?). MTV recently poached two popular Brit shows—Skins and The Inbetweeners—bringing on the original creators to helm the adaptations. Skins was cancelled after one season, and from what I've seen of the American The Inbetweeners (an admittedly small sample size) it's a limp facsimile of the original comedy about a group of deeply awkward teens. The most successful adaptation, and the one most commonly invoked, is of course the American version of The Office, now kicking off its ninth and final season. But that show diverged early in its run from simply aping its British predecessor. It may be for the best that CBS went its own way—at least we now get two distinctive takes on Holmes, rather than an entirely superfluous copy.

Still, purists and lovers of the Brit series can't be blamed for regarding Sherlock as the new definitive incarnation, and Elementary asan upstart pretender. It's impossible to imagine a cleverer take on a postmodern Holmes than Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch (who is blessed with a set of incandescent cheekbones and the most gloriously British name of all time) plays him as a mercurial, snarkily anti-social genius who gains notoriety from a blog written by his roommate, Dr. John Watson. (In one particularly clever scene in the second season, Sherlock dons a familiar-looking deerstalker cap to hide from a media horde.) Rather than playing the good doctor as a bemused acolyte, Martin Freeman's Watson is Sherlock's partner and conduit to the outside world. And because the show is set in the now, Sherlock and Watson are continually trying to convince the skeptics that they really are just roommates.

The British reboot succeeds in being both thoroughly modern and true to the original source material. It zips through 21st -century London and the rapidly firing synapses of Sherlock's brain with equal alacrity, while also invoking the romance of Victorian London. Sherlock still lives at 221 B Baker Street; still tracks his arch-nemesis Moriarty through foggy, cobblestoned alleyways; still employs an underground band of street urchins to serve as his eyes and ears. The series' six episodes have all been closely based on the original Doyle stories.

Elementary, at least in its first outing, is lot less invested in hewing to the Sherlock Holmes mythology. And that's OK—if Holmes can be a cranky physician or a martial artist, why not a recovering addict (Doyle's Sherlock Holmes actually was a cocaine addict), who is covered with tattoos, has a troubled relationship with his father and rides the New York City subway? The strongest element in the pilot is the relationship between Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Watson (Lucy Liu), who lives with him as his sobriety companion. Because of Holmes's psychic hangups, their interactions have more of the push-pull of equals, rather than the traditional dynamic of hero and sidekick.

Still, when compared to the endlessly inventive Sherlock, Elementary falls a little flat. The show's first case, the murder of a wealthy New York woman, could have been solved by any reasonablly competent TV detective. (Spoiler alert: the husband did it.) What makes Holmes such a riveting character is his baffling deductive brilliance—his ability to uncover the key to locked-door mysteries and determine everything he needs to know about a murder victim from the state of her fingernails or a smudge on her clothes.

I'd like to see this new entrant evolve into a worthy addition to the Sherlock Holmes pantheon. The only truly necessary element is that the protagonist always be one step ahead of his enemies, and at least a few steps ahead of the viewers. A Sherlock Holmes whose deductions you can see coming is no Holmes at all. That's elementary.