When CBS announced its plan to produce a modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, the casting of Lucy Liu as a female Watson and the shift to a New York setting weren’t (despite the deluge of online negativity) particularly big problems for me. As details about the upcoming series emerged, the question uppermost in my mind was simply, why bother? Why bother to create an updated version of Holmes when the BBC had already succeeded so elegantly with Sherlock, and when there were already half a dozen shows on American television that either explicitly (House) or implicitly (The Mentalist, Lie To Me) featured clones of Holmes transplanted to a modern setting? However well-plotted, well-acted and generally entertaining Elementary proves to be, I thought, it can’t overcome its sheer redundancy as yet another contemporary adaptation of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
But now three episodes of Elementary have been shown on UK television, it’s beginning to look like I might have misjudged the series. The scripts are good but not brilliant; Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes is solid if a little too ‘humanised’; Lucy Liu’s performances remain barely credible at best, and the show’s general aesthetic hasn’t yet been distanced sufficiently from the raft of recent Holmes-clone police procedurals. All these things I’d been expecting, more or less, but where I (and others) may have been mistaken is in assuming that Elementary would simply be a retread of Holmes’ classic cases in a modern setting, in the vein of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock. Clues are already starting to appear that suggest the programme makers may be more ambitious than I initially gave them credit for, because it looks like Elementary may actually be a sequel to the original Holmes stories, rather than simply an adaptation of them.
Let me explain. I am not suggesting that Miller’s Holmes, instead of retiring to Sussex to keep bees (as in Conan Doyle’s His Last Bow), has somehow time-travelled to modern-day New York – becoming forty years younger in the process – to continue his detective work in a new setting (aside from being rather silly, such a concept would be eerily similar to the plot of Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century). Rather, the story of Elementary is in fact an alternative take on Holmes’ retirement, only set in New York and featuring a considerably younger Holmes. There are two pieces of evidence that support this interpretation: First, characters in the series repeatedly mention Holmes’ previous career in London, one that ended with his having a drug-related breakdown and ending up in a rehab centre on the other side of the Atlantic. This implies that, narratively speaking, Elementary in fact follows on from an updated version of the original Holmes stories, albeit one that we don’t actually see onscreen. Second, in the very first episode it is revealed that Holmes keeps bee hives on the roof of his New York apartment. As mentioned above, Conan Doyle had Holmes become a beekeeper when he retired, and so the inclusion of this element of the character by the makers of Elementary carries considerable symbolic significance, and suggests that what we’re seeing is in fact a speculative, contemporary take on what Holmes did next, after the final page of His Last Bow.
Elementary would not, of course, be the first work of fiction to speculate on the post-retirement career of Sherlock Holmes. Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, to name just two, have both featured storylines involving an elderly Holmes unable to quite give up his sleuthing ways. But irrespective of its originality, the approach adopted by Elementary suggests that it’s a more ambitious show than I (and many others) have given it credit for. Why bother creating a modern adaptation of the Holmes stories when the BBC’s Sherlock already exists? Because Elementary is not an adaptation of those stories. It’s the story that happened next, the one that never existed, where Holmes leaves London and instead of settling in Sussex heads across the ocean, looking for a fresh start. Ignore the contemporary setting and Jonny Lee Miller’s youthful looks, and Elementary reveals itself to be an intriguing and alternative approach to adapting Sherlock Holmes.
Of course, this is only a theory, and there’s still plenty of time for the series to veer away from such an interesting course. The temptation to feature Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty, for instance, will surely prove too great for the programme makers, although if they frame his appearance as a return from the dead akin to Holmes’ own, such a move could work within the confines of the ‘retirement’ concept. It’s early days yet, and maybe I’m giving the show a little too much credit, but a take on Sherlock Holmes which is inspired by Conan Doyle’s original stories whilst being unencumbered by their constraints could prove to be a very interesting watch indeed.
‘Elementary’ is currently airing on Sky Living, Tuesdays at 9pm.