I was originally skeptical when I first heard about the CBS show Elementary. I had just started watching Sherlock on BBC and thought, “Oh, great. An American studio wants to cash in on the Holmes revival and make yet another crime drama.” My opinion wasn’t helped when I learned that Dr. Watson was going to be gender-flipped and played by Lucy Liu. I couldn’t fathom why they’d change the character except for the sake of making her into Sherlock’s love interest.
I watched the first two episodes and wasn’t hooked right away. Then I watched another one. And another. And then the next one after that.
It wasn’t long before I realized I’d been too quick to dismiss this show. It’s actually quite good.
Elementary takes place in modern-day New York City. Dr. Joan Watson is an addiction counselor who’s just been assigned to work with Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller). Holmes is a consulting detective for the NYPD, working alongside Captain Toby Gregson (Aidan Quinn) to solve the most baffling crimes. Despite a clash of personalities, both Holmes and Watson manage to bond over their shared interest in solving problems and helping people in a crisis. And through a long haul, Watson wants to see what makes Holmes tick and just what happened to him during his drug addiction in London.
Much like Benedict Cumberbatch holds the spotlight in Sherlock, Jonny Lee Miller is the energetic soul of Elementary. To his credit, his Holmes is a lot more considerate than the BBC Holmes and has far more concern for the welfare of innocent people struggling to get by. It’s also nice to see one of Holmes’s central tensions being played out–his need for cases to solve versus his need for mind-altering drugs when he can’t apply his intellect. That tension and pain is always present and wonderfully brought out by Miller.
I also have to say that I do like Lucy Liu as Watson, considering the direction her character takes. While Sherlock focuses on Watson as a war veteran coming home from Afghanistan, Elementary focuses more on Watson as a doctor, swapping out the trauma of war for a failed medical operation that caused Joan Watson to find work as a sober companion. It took me a few episodes to appreciate it, but this Watson isn’t just another sidekick. She gets to apply a few deductions of her own and is the go-to medical expert, which keeps her character relevant in the show’s investigations. And the more she works with Holmes, the more he tries (reluctantly) to open up about his past. She isn’t there to be his love interest (thank God), but his friend, of which he has few. And more recently, she’s become his apprentice in the consultant detective business, which is a lot more than most Watsons are given.
As to the style of the show, it feels less like a Sherlock Holmes series and more like one of the many police procedurals and forensic dramas available on primetime. That said, it’s by no means bad. The mysteries themselves are well-constructed and executed in a Holmesian fashion. And there are quite a few brilliant allusions to the Conan Doyle stories; my favorite ones so far are Sebastian Moran (spoilers!) and Holmes discussing “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” at a group counseling session without ever naming it as such.
It’s strange to call this show an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories because, technically, it isn’t. It’s very modern and knows how to use digital media to its advantage. But the stories aren’t exactly updated versions of the Conan Doyle series like they are in Sherlock. It’s safer to say Elementary is an adaptation of the characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Whereas Sherlock is a modern reinterpretation of the original stories with Holmes recast as a high-functioning sociopath, Elementary is a modern-day story about drug addiction and problem-solving, as told through the iconic friendship of Holmes and Watson.
Elementary is available on CBS. New episodes air on Thursdays.
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Bibliography: Elementary (TV series). Created by Robert Doherty. Produced by Robert Doherty, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, John Coles, and Alysse Bezahler. Edited by Joe Hoebeck. Perf. Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Jon Michael Hill, and Aidan Quinn. CBS Television Studios. CBS (channel). September 27, 2012 – present.