This is one of the best films of 2015.
The new wave of stand-alone episodic TV disproves the notion that long-arc, cable-style storytelling equals excellence. Stand-alones are, in their resemblance to short stories, more nimble, more likely to rip to the gristle quicker—and the retooling of stand-alone-driven series demonstrates that programs made in this vein needn't depend on eternal stasis, or hitting the reset button each week. There's the oft-brilliant, mythos-heavy "Person of Interest" and new wave of globe-trotting, green screen TV, represented by the politically explosive comic book that is "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." And there's "The Blacklist"'s excuse to show James Spader be deliciously almost bad to the bone. Ana Faris and Allison Janney take five-camera comedy more darkly Oedipal as than most indie joints in "Mom." These shows all have ongoing stories, but those stories are mostly buried. The real action is week-to-week and in the moment.
Shooting most effectively on so many cylinders is Robert Doherty's "Elementary." It's the smartest, most intimately passionate iteration of Sherlock Homes around, and that's saying a lot, considering that we're in the midst of a bull market for all things Holmes.
The secret to the Holmes craze is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's crime buster is little more than an assemblage of data points in search of a human to hang them on: the pipe, disguise skills, the love of a seven-percent-solution of cocaine, the seething contempt of women, the superhuman deductive reasoning. He's so under-written that revisers can't resist him. And so Guy Ritchie rendered him an action hero his Sherlock Holmes films. Steven Moffat's "Sherlock" gave us a short-run take on a tech-hip, maybe asexual, couture rock star-style version of the detective. Putin only knows what the Russians are doing in their own remake, but with American cable TV's import craze being what it is, we may find out soon.
"Elementary" has proven that trad TV is by far the best fit for our strange detective. Like basic TV narrative, Doyle's stories, in form, style, narrative and resolution, offer the guaranteed pleasures of absolute, unchanging familiarity. There's some surprise in who did it, and even more in how and why, but what you're here for is old friends doing the same old things the usual way. (One wonders how much pleasure Doyle took at hiding the utterly queer relationship between these gentlemen in plain sight. Whatever the case, read today, the stories often come off as pre-emptive 'shippers.)
"Elementary" makes big changes in its source: London becomes New York. The queer element becomes the basis of endless future gender studies papers as John Watson becomes Joan (played with born-New Yorker charm by Lucy Liu). Doyle's cross-dressing, weird cowboys, Mormon freak-outs, forced wig-wearing and other bits of kink are dumped in favor of sundry despicable 47-per-centers and Ayn Rand fans. Most radically, Doyle's stick figure of a detective is made a fully fleshed human, in stories free of the ultra-violent problem-solving and standard-brand cynicism that soils the likes of "The Blacklist." Not many shows—cable or network—have the courage and heart to end an episode as "Elementary" did, leaving quandaries unresolved as its characters notice, together, wordlessly, the healing beauty of the East River at sunset.
The show's triumph starts with the casting of Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes. Frail, tattooed and muscularly stringy from anxiety-control calisthenics, Miller's the most physical iteration of the detective, an ex-addict whose deduction obsessions are most valuable for keeping him focused on the straight and narrow. He shares an un-renovated Brooklyn brownstone with Dr. Watson, at first merely his 'sober companion', but quickly an intellectual peer whose insights he quickly comes to respect and utilize.
But the most radical rewrite in "Elementary" is the way the wrapper says "Sherlock Homes" while the actual item is a twofer. At its core, "Elementary," is the story of two people who met just after hitting bottom, and what happens after that. For Holmes, it's an end to unbearable loneliness. For Watson, it's surviving the purgatory years of self-recrimination after a botched surgery killed a patient.
As the first season came and went, something unique was in the process of developing, something I've come to call 'additive stand-alone' storytelling. It's a form that remembers the long story but isn't about it, a form that instead deep- focuses on current details, textures, emotional peaks and valleys, and themes that grow in emotional value over time and in memory, motivating character action as the show progresses.
Looking at Doherty's resume, I couldn't help but notice his work as a writer on "Star Trek: Voyager," which for seven seasons used the same additive technique to tell the very slow but steady growth of the human-turned-Borg, Seven of Nine, from heartless semi-automaton to full-fledged human—without explicitly telling that story, but via the steady accumulation of incident and growth. It was a story told via the narrative of memory: Seven's and ours.
It's a mode that assumes viewer attention, a respectful mode. A perfect example of additive stand-alone storytelling is this show's means of showing hog Holmes is coming to respect Watson, without any obvious signals or landmark moments. At a certain point, for instance, Sherlock chooses to not greet Watson's arrival with the sexually charged provocation of his sweaty, post-workout, half-nude body. He instead answers the door in a button-up shirt and offers tea.
This Watson is not the shrinking violet of Doyle's male version. She has a network—a world—of friends, old colleagues, a shrink, a separate reality principle against which she tests her increasing fascination with detective work. There's sexual attraction galore, but these are adults with more important things to do than paw each other.
Of course, purists will loudly call foul. But not to worry—that's just what purists do. Doherty, on the other hand, is a lover of the original texts who's nonetheless willing to try to fix its most glaring flaws. So it's to women-hate and Irene Adler we must go.
Doyle's Sherlock pretty much despised women. The one exception was Irene Adler, first glimpsed in "A Scandal in Bohemia." An early modern fatale and a doozy at that, Doyle's Adler is a former opera contralto from New Jersey committing blackmail. But what matters is that she accomplishes the inconceivable: she outwits Holmes, several times, and then disappears.
An 'Irene Adler' shows up on "Sherlock" as a standard issue dominatrix (Lara Pulver), and in Ritchie's action movie as a fatale played by mystifyingly miscast Rachel McAdams who has sex with Holmes because he's played by Robert Downey, Jr.
"Elementary" refuses to let Adler strangle on old tropes. It boldly remixes bits of Holmes mythology to help us understand the wounds behind this hetero Holmes' pained aversion to most women. We learn that the reason for Holmes' recent near-self-obliteration with opiates was tied to his inability to stop Adler—whom he loved utterly—from being killed by a serial killer named 'M.' (Nice shout-out to Fritz Lang). In a series of fizzy Doyles-ian flip-flops, 'M' turns out to not only be Irene Adler, but an Adler who's a sociopathic criminal (Natalie Dormer) who's also his arch nemesis, Moriarty.
And so Holmes is stripped of everything in his life that he thought he loved and hated. It's Watson's work that brings Adler down. After, Sherlock must learn to find meaning, as he puts it, "post-love."
Doherty, however, reasons that man does not get by on Adler alone, and so in the recent and devastating "Poison Pen" episode, Holmes is hurled back to deal with the girl he's spent his life trying to forget because it reminds him of the shockingly violent wreckage of his upbringing. This episode's murder case has our recently devastated hero meeting again with a murder suspect named Abigail Spencer (Laura Benanti), a women who in her teens was also accused and exonerated for the killing of her monstrously abusive father. It was a case that caught a young teenage Holmes' attention, so much that he became pen pals with Spencer: she because of the invasive crush of tabloid fascination, Sherlock to escape the terror and physical pain of daily bullying.
We also learn how the guilt born of Sherlock's eventual teen betrayal of Spencer has misshapen the character we've been watching all this time. In every way, Holmes needs Spencer to be innocent but does Abigail want to be forgiven?
To just speak of the Sherlock Holmes component, "Poison Pen" ends in the finest "Elementary" way—with an act of surprise kindness that has nothing with the idea of closure. Grown-ups know that no such thing exists, but time spent with a friend watching the East River flow does.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
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