When Elementary premiered, I really liked it, but worried it would get networked to death, or that they’d be “platonic” for Chris Carter values of platonic, or – worst – it would slowly forget the canon, and stray from the heart of 221b.

It didn’t. I have an article at io9.com today, about how Elementary did what many great adaptations do – interrogate, not portray, the canon – and gave us one of the most interesting takes of the last twenty years. (Without a Clue was the last Holmes adaptation to deconstruct the mythos with the sort of ambition Elementary has.)

There have been so, so many Holmes adaptations. I’ve been a fan of several. But I think one of the key aspects in adapting Holmes for a long-form work is one that goes straight back to canon: Holmes was a layered character, but largely static. With the exception of an ever-growing list of things he knew, as Conan Doyle turned him slowly superhuman, Holmes existed in an episodic medium, and had a reset button so big it could literally bring him back from the dead. Any ambitious adaptation of his work will take the Holmes given to them, and let him grow. Elementary saw that, and Elementary did.

Make no mistake, it’s not perfect. I haven’t seen a show that strained so hard to escape the bonds of episodic TV since the first season of NBC’s Life, and much of their development is of the slow-and-steady sort, without the bursts of forward motion allowed in serial dramas. They also, if we’re being honest, fell down on the job somewhat with Irene Adler, who I guess will never get to write Sherlock a scathing note and soprano off into the sunset ever again. (I understand and respect the setup involved in the relationship between Irene and Moriarty, and have zero problems with a woman Moriarty, but I find it notable that Irene Adler remains more progressive in 1891 than in the vast majority of her iterations since.)

However, those are failures of the middle scope. In the great scope (upturn everything on which Holmes relies, put an unwanted woman Watson on his doorstep, and make them go through the wringer from scratch), and in the small scope (a balance of light and dark characterization, payoffs for passing setups a dozen episodes down the line, a progression of meetings on the roof as signposts for their development), it’s done markedly well.


That’s it. That’s the show.

And much of Elementary’s strength comes from that attention to canon – not just passing quotes, but dynamics present in the text; the manic, excited Holmes is straight off the page, just as much as the cold and ruthless misanthrope ever was (and we get him, too).

Watson is still clever, attractive, and perfectly capable of living without Holmes, thanks much – but this Holmes doesn’t get away with merely pulling out the old conductor of light speech. I mean, he pulls it out, but she rolls her eyes to the ceiling and says, “An insult AND a boast,” because Watson is fond enough of Sherlock to be a roommate, but that roommate has been a dickweed since 1891 and this Watson isn’t having it.

Watson, in fact, isn’t having much of anything: while I hope that next season she gets a crisis of her own, rather than just handling Sherlock’s, in every other respect she’s been delivered in spades. I appreciate someone whose detective skills build slowly based on experience and research; I appreciate a woman of color whose relationship with her mother is an actual relationship and not just a stand-in dynamic. I appreciate that she has a relationship with Sherlock’s sponsor that is 1% references to Sherlock and 99% breaking into cars.

I appreciate that, in the big finale, Watson fucking wins.

But on top of all of this, it’s honestly refreshing to see a show that (whenever networks allow, at least) spends so much time and energy working on a dynamic with roots in canon but forward motion. While Sherlock is never in doubt that detecting with him would be the awesomest profession and says so often, when he’s finally driven to make the real offer, he takes the time to relieve her of the professional confidentiality which would have had her at a disadvantage, and encourages her to discuss it with others. That’s a Holmes who’s in motion; it’s been a pretty fine journey so far.