CBS’ ‘Elementary’ deduces the painful truth at the heart of sobriety

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Very few shows could pull off a homage to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman without seeming exploitative, sensational or culturally carnivorous. Only one could do it in the middle of an episode dealing with a bunch of missing anthrax and Garret Dillahunt as a dairy farmer.

Two years ago, when CBS premiered the crime-procedural “Elementary,” the decision to make Sherlock Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) a modern-day recovering addict seemed equally canny and risky. Holmes is indeed literature’s most famous and enduring druggie — in Nicholas Meyer’s “Seven-Percent Solution” none other than Sigmund Freud helped him kick the coke habit.

And amid the frantic Holmesian renaissance (the “Sherlock Holmes” movie franchise, the BBC’s “Sherlock,” Fox’s loosely based “House), putting the detective into recovery with a female Watson (Lucy Liu) as sober companion offered the show a quick and easy distinguishing characteristic.


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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 “NYPD Blue,” Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on “The Wire” and Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) on “Rescue Me” all struggled with alcoholism while the central character of “The John Larroquette Show” coped with early sobriety. “The West Wing” had its own AA meeting. More recently, reality shows including “Celebrity Rehab” attempt to mirror the process in real time, while dramas like “House” and “Nurse Jackie” slip and slide around the possibility of addiction as life choice.

But long-term, consistent recovery is rare — “Cheers’” Sam Malone is one of the few “success” stories — because TV prefers the high drama of the addicted life. Sobriety, though personally challenging, is a cinematic bore. It’s tough to win an Emmy by embodying serenity for an entire season.

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 (Roger Rees), a stage actor introduced last season, overdosed on heroin. After 30 years of sobriety, he was found dead with a needle in his arm.

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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.