Very few shows could pull off a homage to the death of
Two years ago, when CBS premiered the crime-procedural
And amid the frantic Holmesian renaissance (the "Sherlock Holmes" movie franchise, the
It's certainly not television's first exploration of the road to recovery. Ever since Jason Robards announced "I am an alcoholic" as part of a 1984 ad campaign by the National Council of Alcoholism, TV has played a part in our growing awareness of addiction.
Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) on "
But long-term, consistent recovery is rare — "
Even when dealing with recovery, writers go more for the big pivotal moments: The addict passing on sobriety's Splendid Life Lesson, the recovering alcoholic staring down a brimming shot glass.
"Elementary" has its share of pivotal moments, but they are invariably underplayed, woven into crime-solving story lines that allow the larger narrative to emerge with surprising power. It may be the best portrait of recovery on television.
Indeed, so sure-footed has the show become that it recently side-stepped its way into an acknowledgment of Hoffman's death by overdose with some of the most succinct and moving commentary offered on the subject. Early in an episode that spends most of its time unraveling what seemed like a domestic-terrorist plot, Watson learns that a friend of Holmes has died unexpectedly. Eventually it is revealed that Alistair (
So while following the anthrax trail, Holmes also searches for some "answer" to Alistair's death before conceding that he is driven by fear for his own sobriety and, more importantly, an addict's self-absorption.
Both moments, in which he reveals the fear — "I have two years; he had three decades" — and then acknowledges what really drives it, are delivered with Miller's steadfast refusal to adopt the hollowed-eye heartbreak so popular among broken heroes today. When stating the obvious, this Holmes sticks with simply stating it: "I took the passing of a dear friend and twisted it into an indulgence in narcissism," he says matter-of-factly. "It's left me in a mood."
Meeting him cadence for unsentimental cadence is Liu's Watson, who at one point sums up not just the truth of recovery, but also why it is so difficult to depict on television. "I'm sorry he's gone but his relapsing doesn't change a thing for you," she says. "You woke up today, you didn't use drugs, just like yesterday. You know what you have to do tomorrow? Wake up and not use drugs. That is just the way it is. That is just the way it's going to be."
And then the plot moves on, to all that missing anthrax. No mournful horns, no soaring strings, just a weekly reminder that the drama of recovery is its lack of drama.
Which may be the reason "Elementary" is able to land such substantial thematic punches without seeming sardonic or sanctimonious. Sobriety is not the point of "Elementary"; the deductive powers and social ineptitude of its famous lead and his relationship with Watson are what drive the show.
But the addiction, at first obvious then oblique in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, has always been what made Sherlock Holmes a man rather than a machine; it's what drew "Elementary" creator Rob Doherty to the character in the first place.
Hoffman's death, Doherty said in an interview, seemed impossible to ignore because it allowed the writers to put Sherlock "in the position to ask some of the questions many people were asking ... to make the point that addiction does not discriminate."
And to take down a beloved myth of recovery. Many of us find strength in the days and months and years we have stacked between ourselves and self-destruction, as if they form a wall that, if tall enough or thick enough, cannot be breached. We look to others whose stacks are higher and seem stronger to assure us that this is so.
But there is no wall, no number that will magically hold true any more than there's a "cure." Recovery is a strong but slender thread spun daily. There is only this day without a drink, without a drug, and then, with work and luck, there is the next.
Meanwhile, we should probably try to get a handle on that missing anthrax.