Sherlock Holmes is impossible to kill.
Just ask Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who tried to ax the detective way back in 1893. He sent the guy, along with nemesis Professor Moriarty, off the Reichenbach Falls, presuming they'd never return. But Holmes himself could've warned Doyle of hasty presumptions: The public wouldn't stand for their hero's demise, and Doyle was forced to resurrect the pipe-smoking sleuth.
Doyle's now been dead for 80 years. But his 19th-century creation? He's doing just fine, thanks very much—boasting more incarnations than Doctor Who. Indeed, with an acclaimed BBC show (Sherlock) and a pair of big-budget movies to his name just in the past few years, Sherlock Holmes is arguably as popular as ever. Now he's been given yet more new life on CBS' Elementary—a reimagining of the classic detective in 21st-century New York.
In both substance and spirit, the early results are much less inscrutable than the clues Holmes so often has to face. Elementary's Holmes shucks the CGI-action vibe of Robert Downey Jr.'s ludicrously successful movies (Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), getting back to what the detective was always best known for: detecting. He's the original Mr. Monk, you might say, since nothing's too small to escape his notice—even a stray thread or an off-kilter picture frame. He's a mostly fitting heir to the original Holmes' legacy, embracing the character's tenacity, exasperating brilliance … and unfortunate flaws.
This Holmes, like Doyle's creation, is a drug addict. It's the reason why he's Stateside, in fact. To kick his habit, Holmes punts his career at Scotland Yard, flies across the pond and checks into a New York City rehabilitation center where he's subsequently paired with an in-house sobriety partner, Dr. Joan Watson—who herself unceremoniously stepped away from a medical career after a patient died under her care. And even after Holmes kicks his drug habit, Watson decides to stick around.
Why, you ask? Well, it's not because of Holmes' wit and charm, that's certain. He's not exactly the life of a party—unless you like parties where people blurt out inappropriate remarks and sometimes accuse the guests of murder. No, it's the work. See, while Holmes was conquering his addiction, he also served as helpmate to the city's police force, solving cases by the boatload through force of intellect, determination and clever banter. Now that Holmes is well again, the work goes on. And for Watson, it's interesting work indeed.
CBS is known for its envelope-pushing, gore-ridden crime dramas. But Elementary feels a bit kinder, a bit gentler, a bit—dare we say—old-fashioned, as if digging more deeply into its Victorian-era roots. Granted, the quantity of violence and blood can be expected to vary wildly from episode to episode. And the criminally minded subjects broached can range from merely icky to devastating. This is a crime drama predicated on someone getting offed every week, after all. We see killings and dead bodies. Sexual allusions are sometimes made as well, and sexual situations can intrude on the plot. Such is the nature of televised crime dramas. But Elementary feels more like a quirky USA show (recalling the aforementioned Monk) than CSI with an English accent.
The game that's afoot here, though, may still require a bit of careful deduction.
The crimes Holmes and Watson solve may have "elementary" solutions, but the ethics behind them sometimes need deeper consideration than the series lets on. Sure, we know the guy killed the girl … but should he have? What if she was in pain? What if she seems to have deserved it? And is it ever OK for Holmes to skirt the law to lambast the lawless?
These ethical conundrums are sometimes given the barest of mentions in the show itself, leaving viewers to trigger their own—unaided—investigations. Furthermore, Holmes is a cantankerous guy, prone to be prideful of his intellect and impatient with anyone who can't keep up. It fits his character, but he's hardly a template fit for unreasoning emulation. He's also a classic empiricist: If he cannot see or hear or otherwise observe something, he's skeptical of its existence and rationality.
At least this show allows for further thought, though, unlike so many of its peers. In a genre consumed with blood spatter and gratuitous content, Elementary, so far, sticks more to the facts than the flourish.
Holmes receives a call from a shadowy figure who calls himself Moriarty (sound familiar?) who wants his "help" solve a murder. Holmes agrees—mostly to learn more about Moriarty. (Holmes believes the nefarious figure may have been responsible for the death of Irene Alder, the only woman Holmes ever loved.)
Holmes describes Irene to Watson as a wonderful optimist—something he typically sees as a sign of imbecility. "And the sex!" he exclaims, saying he learned a great many things from her (leaving the insinuation open).
In flashback, we see a pair of murders—one where a man is hit on the head and stabbed twice in the chest, another where a woman is strangled on a kitchen floor. Pictures of a murder victim show bloodless stab wounds. Someone, we're told, avenged his sister's death by killing her apparent murderer, and has absolutely no regrets.
People lie. Suspects admit that they had an affair. Suicide comes up as a topic of conversation. Holmes has a crude exchange with Watson about defecation. There's a restrained reference to sexual anatomy. We hear someone say "d‑‑n."
Holmes wrestles comically with corpses (whose bodies were donated to scientific research). But while he's practicing choke holds on them, he spots a mysterious mark on one of the bodies that suggests, to him, that the man was murdered. By way of that lead, he and Watson uncover an "angel of death," a former doctor who kills terminally ill patients to, ostensibly, put them out of their misery. "When a patient is in pain, dying is not a tragedy," he says. "It is a release." Holmes puts the man away, along with another doctor who knew about the "angel" and actually used him to kill one of his patients.
When Watson meets an old cohort, Holmes notices their mutual discomfort and wonders aloud whether it could be the product of a "failed Sapphic [lesbian] dalliance." (It's not.) A hospital resident is caught stealing and using morphine. Somebody says "h‑‑‑" (once).