Ten Notes on “Elementary”; or, Why Can’t I Love It?

I

So CBS’s Elementary has been running for a while, and I keep meaning to catch up with it and give it a proper review—“this works,” “this doesn’t”—the whole nine yards. And yet, somehow, I can’t manage to keep up. I watched the pilot—sampled an episode or two—and yet, Thursday after Thursday passes and I can’t seem to make time to actually watch the thing. And yes, they’re available for download (legally)—and I’ve downloaded them. Which means they sit on my hard drive waiting for a viewing that may never come, much like my first-season collection of The Walking Dead. So this essay (or set of mini-essays) is less a review than it is a review of my own failure to review. It’s a meditation, if you will, on why some things grab us, hold us, make themselves essential, while other things (even the same sorts of things) drift by without making an impression at all.

 

II

The kneejerk reaction to the announced series was that CBS was attempting a cynical cash-grab, trying to ride the wave of Holmesmania that’s made both the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies and the excellent BBC series Sherlock so successful. And it probably is. But being cynical is no guard against being brilliant, and the proof of the pudding (as they say) is in the tasting. And my taste of the series has been…interesting. The plots are, at least, plotted—though at least two episodes make use of the same central trick of having the killer be a pawn in the grand game of some other, more murderous, villain (this idea of killers playing God is itself not new and finds one of its definitive expressions in Ellery Queen’s The Player on the Other Side—where it’s not a spoiler—and in a couple of Agatha Christie novels where it is). Atmospherically, Elementary leaves a lot to be desired; it doesn’t have the slick sexiness of Sherlock or the gritty pseudo-steampunk feel of the Ritchie movies. What’s more, it doesn’t have the flash of CBS’s other crime shows, particularly CSI (a show that is a little lame—no question there—but which has atmosphere in spades). As a result, Elementary winds up feeling a little anonymous.

 

III

Of course, atmosphere was never very prized in classic detective fiction. Indeed, some authors such as S.S. Van Dine actively argued against it, since atmosphere (they felt) necessarily detracted from plot, which is the real focus of a detective story. I don’t agree, though. Some of the best examples of the genre—think John Dickson Carr or the Grand Master Sherlock Holmes himself—are awash in atmosphere. Do we really believe The Hound of the Baskervilles would be better if it wasn’t permeated by the Gothic? And remember, detective fiction is in some sense a species of Gothic; it is no mistake that it was founded by Edgar Allan Poe himself.

 

IV

So why can’t I get into this show? It seems like the ideal sort of thing for a person of my temperament: it’s Sherlock Holmes, it’s classical-analytic style detection, it’s slick and at least a little smart. The actors are good; Lucy Liu’s casting as Watson was met with suspicion by some, but I thought it was an interesting twist on what is, after all, a set formula. As long as the producers avoided the temptation to make the whole thing a will-they-or-won’t-they, I expected the variation to yield some surprises. And Liu is good. Her (Joan) Watson is smart and capable; she’s as much Watson as Jude Law or Martin Freeman, and she shares an essential similarity with those male actors: her character is the one who keeps Holmes together. She’s his tether to the “real world.”

 

V

So what about Holmes? How does Jonny Lee Miller compare to the other portrayals, past and present? More importantly, how are we to judge this? Despite the Baker Street Irregulars, Sherlock Holmes never existed, but there’s some sense in which he exists less than other fictional detectives—Ellery Queen, for instance, or Hercule Poirot. Holmes is one of the most-portrayed characters in fiction, and each portrayal sediments, adding up to a veritable continent of a character who transcends not only the books from which he arises, but every individual portrayal. Who shall we say was the definitive Holmes? Jeremy Brett? Basil Rathbone? Peter Cushing? Christopher Lee? Benedict Cumberbatch? Robert Downey, Junior?

The truth is—and this is an idea that some Holmesians reject—that every single one of them is definitive precisely because none of them are. And so, comparing Miller to any of them is a fool’s errand, just as comparing any of them to the stories is fraught with danger. And yet—I can’t help feeling that my resistance to Elementary does have a good deal to do with Miller’s Holmes.

 

VI

This is where I start sounding like an old fogey. There was a time when Great Detectives were gigantic figures—think Gideon Fell with his colossal bulk and twinned crutch-headed canes. Or think Nero Wolfe with his orchids, Poirot with his moustache, even early Queen with his pince-nez and walking stick. Think, above all, of Sherlock Holmes—not even as he appears in the Conanical works, but as he towers in the collective imagination. He’s got a costume, he’s got a catchphrase—in many ways, he is the world’s first superhero. And he is, above all, theatrical.  Observe his actions at the climax to the early short story “The Naval Treaty”:

“Mrs. Hudson has risen to the occasion,” said Holmes, uncovering a dish of curried chicken. “Her cuisine is a little limited, but she has as good an idea of breakfast as a Scotch-woman. What have you here, Watson?”

“Ham and eggs,” I answered.

“Good! What are you going to take, Mr. Phelps–curried fowl or eggs, or will you help yourself?”

“Thank you. I can eat nothing,” said Phelps.

“Oh, come! Try the dish before you.”

“Thank you, I would really rather not.”

“Well, then,” said Holmes, with a mischievous twinkle, “I suppose that you have no objection to helping me?”

Phelps raised the cover, and as he did so he uttered a scream, and sat there staring with a face as white as the plate upon which he looked. Across the centre of it was lying a little cylinder of blue-grey paper. He caught it up, devoured it with his eyes, and then danced madly about the room, passing it to his bosom and shrieking out in his delight. Then he fell back into an arm-chair so limp and exhausted with his own emotions that we had to pour brandy down his throat to keep him from fainting.

“There! there!” said Holmes, soothing, patting him upon the shoulder. “It was too bad to spring it on you like this, but Watson here will tell you that I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.”

Elsewhere in the series, Holmes observes that “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” Just so. For Holmes—as for his innumerable offspring—detection is a form of living art. It is no accident that the second Holmes novel arose from an encounter with Oscar Wilde.

 

VII

For the past few decades, however, we have been entertained by a certain species of artless detectives—detectives who are not wild, theatrical creatures. Instead, they are deeply broken—think Monk, House, later Goren in Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Now, I don’t mean to say that these are bad shows; indeed, I enjoy all of them to a greater or lesser extent. But, for them, analytical brilliance is not a high form of art. It’s an obsession. It’s torturous. Perhaps the purest example of this idea is the character of Adrian Monk—a man who sees everything, not because he is acutely aware, but because he is cripplingly aware. The idea seems to be that anyone who is so very adept at sensing his environment must have something wrong with him.

 

VIII

The same thing has happened with Holmes over the years. Rathbone and Cushing were all business; Rathbone may have disliked Holmes, may have considered him cold and unkind, but when he plays him there is little doubt that his brilliance transcends any sort of emotional turmoil. As the years passed—and Rathbone became definitive—various attempts were made to break Holmes out of this mold, most of them by “humanizing” him to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, The Seven Per Cent Solution gave him a mental breakdown and sent him to heal at the hands of Sigmund Freud; Murder by Decree allowed Holmes to cry. Jeremy Brett, in the other definitive Holmes, concentrated on the drug addiction and emotional stuntedness that he saw in the character. Still more recently, Benedict Cumberbatch has played Holmes as borderline sociopathic, and Robert Downey, Junior has played him as somewhere on the bipolar spectrum.

And now we can add Jonny Lee Miller, whose Holmes is—empathetic, quirky, an addict (again). And nice; it’s hard to get over how nice Miller is as Holmes. Of course, the Holmes of the stories is considerate, so we can’t say that he’s making a break from Canon (even if Canon existed, which it doesn’t). But one thing Miller isn’t: theatrical. His Holmes is eager and intense, but there’s no flair.

 

IX

“No flair” is not a critical comment, so let me back up and try again. Most literature—and most movies—depend on a sort of verisimilitude, a making-things-real. We have to believe that Middle Earth could exist or that Raskolnikov could really commit the murders he does in fact commit. We must be lured into willing suspension of disbelief, to borrow a hoary old phrase. But that is not the case in the Sherlock Holmes stories—nor yet in detective fiction more broadly. Quite the opposite, in fact: the key detail in The Hound of the Baskervilles is not that a hound could (in the world of the book) roam the moors, but that it’s quite impossible. In fact, the whole plot of Hound is nonsense: both the mystery and the explanation. When we engage with the story, we do not have to be convinced to suspend disbelief; we hog-tie disbelief and lock it away in a closet because what’s more interesting to us is the fun of pretending to believe. And the more outrageous the things we are expected to believe, the more enjoyable the experience; how else could John Dickson Carr get away with his innumerable locked rooms and impossible crimes? The solutions are no more plausible than the set-up.

And who mediates this? The detective, a figure who (as Žižek observes) exists “to demonstrate how ‘the impossible is possible’ (Ellery Queen).” But if the detective is to do this adequately, he must become part of the nonsense around him; he must in some sense incarnate the ludicrousness of his very premise, put it on like a mask. Talented amateurs do not solve crimes; such a proposition is madness. Very well, then, let the talented amateur who takes it upon him- or herself to solve the crime be him- or herself mad. I mean this in a theatrical sense, not in a psychological one. It is impossible to believe in the world of the detective story; the best detectives are equally impossible.

 

X

So, then—do we come to any conclusion here? I’m not sure that we do. It is certainly true that Miller’s Holmes is not theatrical, and it could be that this lack of theatricality puts me off him. He is a detective who is all too possible–broken, without the compensating show-offy quality that makes Downey and Cumberbatch so much fun to watch. Will my resistance to Miller hold? Who knows? I have nearly the entire season at my fingertips ready to be watched. I may get up the energy to go back to them and re-watch from the beginning. And it could be that I’ll find in them more to like than first meets the eye. For now, though, I’m left with an overwhelming of dissatisfaction whenever I contemplate Elementary. I want to like it; I even want to love it. But it lacks something that–for all that I’ve composed a little more than ten paragraphs on the theme–I can’t quite put my finger on.

  • TheGirlintheAfternoon

    I like Elementary a lot, though I admit a good deal of it is for reasons that aren’t necessarily particular to the Holmes backstory. The plots are standard-issue and do need work, but I’m also not insulted by them, so it’s a wash. I think Lucy Liu is doing a fantastic job at projecting competence and strength without coldness, which is a tricky combination to pull off (and quite frankly, I’m ecstatic just to see a woman of color as a major player in a hit show, especially playing a fairly iconic role). I actually really like Miller’s take on Holmes; as you note, there’s an empathy to his take on the character, a bone-deep kindness, that really works for me. As for the lack of flair, I’m not sure I agree. I think there’s something almost manic lurking behind his readings of the character, but a tamped-down mania – a personality trait I’ve noticed in more than one addict with whom I’ve interacted, a sense of self-conscious stifling. If he really did go into a behavioral spiral because of Irene’s “death” (yeah, not buying that one), then it makes sense to me that he’d control his wilder impulses post-rehab.

    Really enjoyed this essay!

  • James

    I would disagree that Miller’s Holmes isn’t theatrical. It is there in some of his gestures and vocal inflections. It is subtle, not in the over-the-top style of Jeremy Brett; more suited to 21st century sensibilities as apposed to the 19th, which Brett seemed to be going for. The pilot episode is not a good one to judge the show by, as being a good representation of the series is far down the list of what a pilot is trying to accomplish. Note VII is well taken. Backstory drives many of the police procedurals on TV today. Without some flaw or damage or quirk, heroes on television today would be seen as too vanilla or as cartoon saints. Notes II and III also point out that the New York “Elementary” inhabits is a generic one. The brownstone that Miller and Liu reside in hasn’t even been giving an address. Why not make it 221B Baker Street, New York City? After all 221B didn’t exist in London in Holmes’ day either.

  • M Baddorf

    Enjoyed your comments, Mr. Booth.

  • http://ibmiller.livejournal.com/ Ian Miller

    Nicely done! While I find that Elementary hits closer to the place in my heart where Holmes has taken up residence than either Downey or Cumberbatch (though I do have affection for all three), I like reading thoughtful critiques of the series. I’ve not heard this one before, so it’s nice to add some other perspectives to the way Elementary interacts with canon.

    And I am completely with you on Liu as Watson – she’s perhaps my favorite thing that’s been added to Holmes as a cultural object. Though for me, Miller’s Holmes really does bring important aspects to the fore – his contradictory impulses towards compassion and selfishness, his attitude towards the rich and powerful (Elementary really seems to love the Thor Bridge story and qualities, since it’s not only adapted or referenced the story three times already, but it runs with Holmes’s attitude toward Neil Gibson fairly frequently in a way that most other Holmes’s don’t), and above all, the way he deals with addiction.