In ‘Elementary,’ Foregrounding Sherlock Holmes’ Addiction

It’s going to be very, very hard for Elementary, CBS’s Sherlock Holmes adaptation, to convince Sherlock diehards that it’s superior in any way to the miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in any way except in that there will be more of it. But every modern interpretation tends to pick one facet of the great detective’s personality and hone in, and so I think Elementary’s decision to focus on Sherlock as an addict will be a nice complement to Sherlock’s focus on Sherlock as someone with potential Asperger syndrome:

In the stories, Watson regularly discusses Holmes’ use of cocaine and morphine, but the stories tend to track away from these conversations rather quickly, as in The Sign of Four where Holmes admits he uses because “I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.” Watson warns him to “Count the cost! Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process which involves increased tissue-change and may at least leave a permanent weakness. You know, too, what a black reaction comes upon you. Surely the game is hardly worth the candle. Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed?”

But his warning is diverted by the arrival of a mental exercise that puts Holmes off his second hit of coke. Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing stories on the assumption that we were more interested in the cases Holmes could solve than in Holmes and Watson themselves. In so much as the mysteries illuminated anything, they illuminated London and British society, and to a much lesser extent, the flexibilities that let said society tolerate a man as singular as Sherlock Holmes, and the limitations that led him, at the end of that case, to declare that “For me, there still remains the cocaine-bottle.”

Today, psychology is the point, and we learn about society and its attitudes through a microscope not a sprawling city map. And with Dr. House finally gone from Fox’s airwaves, there may be room for another cranky, brilliant addict on our airwaves. CBS may favor broad entertainments. But when it comes to gaging the market and looking beyond the PBC and BBC sets, it knows us all too well. Whether Elementary succeeds or fails may determine on how interestingly the show manages to update the narrative of the brilliant addict who turns to drugs to entertain himself in a society that moves too slowly for him to match our contemporary understandings of the science of addiction and the acceptable narrative paths to recovery.