Why Sherlock Holmes Superfans Are Wrong About ‘Elementary’

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Flavorwire is celebrating Memorial Day with The Year in TV, a series of features on the 2012-13 TV season, which ends this month.

Confession: my best friend is a Sherlock Holmes superfan. She has merch. She’s read all the books. She’s written a cycle of (really great) poems based on his legend. I, meanwhile, have read a few of the adventures, seen a few of the Granada episodes, and find Sherlock in all his incarnations — as Robert Downey Jr., as Benedict Cumberbatch, as Johnny Lee Miller — mightily cute. Earlier this year, I was the Watson to my friend’s Holmes at a Sherlock Holmes charity ball, where I met several other superfans. No one had very nice things to say about Elementary.

In fact, most of the people we met at the ball, though able to spout off trivia about everything from the strictly canonical stories to films new and old to the BBC series, hadn’t even bothered to watch very much of CBS’s modern-day adaptation. “It’s not that it’s a bad show,” one girl told me. “It’s just not Holmes.” Any Holmesian purist could be forgiven for such a feeling: Holmes is a junkie! Watson is a girl! When I forced my friend to watch the first episode, she wasn’t convinced to change her mind. She found Elementary‘s Holmes to be too broken, too embittered, too emotional on all fronts to be any Holmes she recognized.

And, he is. But perhaps that is a more faithful adaptation of Holmes’s psyche than it seems. In the other new modern adaptation, BBC’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the famous detective as almost cruelly cold, playing up the hint of Asperger’s that has long been identified in Arthur Conan Doyle’s characterization. But in Elementary, Holmes has suffered from his unique mind, and that, at least to this viewer, makes perfect sense.

In the season one finale, when Moriarty (this is a whole other essay, but I actually don’t hate this majorly anti-canon plot twist as much as I thought I did; at least it gives Irene some actual, serious agency, and turns the finale into a war between two genius women, with Sherlock rolling around in pain. Not canon, but good television) leans over Holmes’ hospital bed, she tells him that she understands why he’s an addict: because his mental sensitivities, the qualities that make him such a great detective, also leave him in near-constant pain. She may be the villain, but she’s right. What kind of space is there, in a modern world, for someone like Sherlock Holmes? It’s easy to see how someone whose mind is constantly spinning, constantly noticing, constantly drawing connections might feel overloaded by the world and turn to drugs, might be twitchy and tortured and desirous of quelling his many needs in untoward fashions. I think the modern Holmes of Elementary is much more realistic than the modern Holmes of Sherlock; being alive is messy and awkward and difficult, especially if you’re different from everyone else. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a fantasy — a great one, like Doyle’s. Miller’s Holmes might live down the street.

So while Elementary doesn’t feel any need to stick to the canonical stories (though there are some sweet Easter Eggs for those superfans, mostly bee-related) it’s a smart police procedural with good female characters and a believable adaptation of one of the most singular characters of all time. If you love Holmes enough to go to a costume ball in his honor, you should think about giving it another chance.