Each week, ‘Elementary’ delivers a smart, sober look at recovery

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.

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.

But portrayals of long-term, consistent recovery are rare — Sam Malone on “Cheers” 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.

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 important, 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.

‘Elementary’

Broadcast at 10 p.m. Thursdays on CBS.

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&Copy;2014 Los Angeles Times

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