The Adventures of Clive and Joanie
A Review of CBS's Elementary

As a passionate Sherlock fan, I approached Elementary with more than a little trepidation, especially because I believed (and still do) that the main reason the creators made Dr. Watson a woman is so that she and Holmes can eventually have a sexual relationship on American network television.

Elementary is great in its own very-different-from-Sherlock way. The characters are complex, interesting, and consistent. The plots are intriguing, unexpected, and (with occasional exceptions) acceptably accurate. It's a fun ride, even for those of us with brains that don't turn off.

It is not, however, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, the way Sherlock is. It is more of a Sherlock Holmes tribute. The characters, wonderful in their own right, are so different from those in Conan Doyle's works that I was not enjoying the show until I stopped thinking of them as new interpretations of those characters, ignored the labels their writers had given them, and started thinking of them as utterly different people.

For they are utterly different people. Dr. Watson is an able investigator, in anyone's estimation, let alone Holmes's? Holmes wants to spare Watson's (or anyone's) feelings about anything on their first meeting? My sister and I started making a list of major, character-defining deviations from the Conan Doyle standard, and almost every trait that the characters showed or attitude they seemed to seriously claim had me sputtering with indignation until I accepted that the creators of Elementary have only a cosmetic interest in authenticity as described in the Customs. It is a viable artistic choice, and there is nothing wrong with their having gone a different direction than the Sherlock team. From the "A Holmes of Their Own" on the first season DVD set, the creators and cast seem unaware they've made this choice (rather a frightening fact, when one thinks about it), which might explain why they didn't do the better thing and make it an honest tribute rather than trying to hide behind Conan Doyle labels. While I do hold and will continue to hold that authenticity is a desirable trait in Sherlock characters because the creators have not only stated that they are trying to make it so but are clearly trying to do so, it just doesn't have the same place in the Elementary universe, regardless of what its creators say in documentaries. Elementary is an affectionate tip of the hat to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and his universe, much the way Lawrence Block's Chip Harrison works are a tribute to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories, but it is not an adaptation.

I think a better premise for the series would've gone like this:

An extremely brilliant and observant British boy—let's say that his name is Clive Hastings—falls in love with the Sherlock Holmes stories, sees them as a blueprint for his future, and works from that blueprint in his career, culminating in working as a consultant for Scotland Yard. Maybe the people around him recognize his inspiration and start calling him "Sherlock" as a nickname (if so, he loves it and asks everyone he meets to call him so). He tries to be like Sherlock Holmes in every way, not realizing that he is doomed to failure.

For you see, Sherlock Holmes (like his namesake in Sherlock) is not emotionally wired the same way as most humans, but Clive Hastings is. Holmes is not pretending to be cold and logical, nor did he teach himself to be that way. He comes that way, and it takes unusual circumstances and people to engage him emotionally. Clive, poor lad, although sharing Holmes's brilliance and skills, feels all too much. He hates it, though, and tries to convince himself that he is the nearly pure instrument of logic that his idol is. It is of course inevitable that he suffers a severe emotional blow that is more than his facade of unemotionality can take, and having spent his whole life trying to shut down feelings rather than deal with them, he does not know how to process the massive pain. Not surprisingly (except perhaps to Clive himself), he turns to narcotics.

When Clive's father (who is loathed in a way inconsistent with the original Holmes) insists that Clive have a sober companion, Clive childishly insists on one whose family name is Watson. He is all the more unprepared for the intelligent, observant, out-of-the-box-thinking woman who shows up on his doorstep, for Joanie is only named Watson. She is not the military man following his adored leader, as the original Watson was. She may not be Clive's equal at his craft, but she sees inconsistencies in the police conclusions on the cases from the beginning. Clive not only must struggle to maintain his sobriety, but he must do it in the company of someone who, if she can be persuaded to flex her intellectual muscles, can eventually be an equal partner in his craft. Worst of all, this person it is impossible for Clive not to respect tells him that he must engage his emotions and deal with them if he hopes to stay sober and continue to pursue that craft.

The rest of Elementary follows pretty well from that. It's still Elementary but a good deal more honest, thereby creating an authenticity of its own. I wish the creators had gone for it. I would have enjoyed my first viewing of the first two episodes a great deal more because I would not have had to figure out and constantly remind myself that this was Clive and Joanie and their friends and enemies, not Holmes and Watson and their friends and enemies. The Elementary creators' deliberate Conan Doyle facade disrupted my ability to appreciate what they had actually created.

So by all means watch and enjoy Elementary! But go in knowing that Clive and Joanie are your new friends, and not your old familiar buddies, Holmes and Watson. You'll like them and appreciate them all the more for knowing that.

Back to the Garret