We’re awash with Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but CBS’s under-seen Elementary is the one worth your time.
Sherlock Holmes has gone through many incarnations over the years, including a mouse and a cantankerous, pill-popping doctor (a la Greg House), and so new twists shouldn’t be particularly shocking at this point. However, when CBS announced Elementary would be following a modern day Sherlock Holmes, portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller, as he solved crimes in New York City, something felt wrong about the whole premise. CBS went a step further, inciting outrage by announcing Sherlock’s faithful companion, Watson, would be played by Lucy Liu (as Dr Joan Watson). BBC’s Sherlock had concluded its second season, and its fans were still cursing Steven Moffat’s name, making this new take on Sherlock Holmes feel all the more insulting.
What sets Elementary apart from other modern variations on the Holmes universe is how it isn’t entirely Sherlock-centric
The first season of Elementary started strong, established a supporting cast, and eventually shocked viewers with its big reveal of Moriarty as the major player behind many of season one’s events. There was, of course, always the possibility that season one was a lucky fluke, and that any subsequent seasons would fall flat compared to BBC’s Sherlock or other modern portrayals, such as Robert Downey Jr’s in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock movies. It’s safe to say, now Elementary’s second season has concluded, that it has proved itself as a strong show.
What sets Elementary apart from other modern variations on the Sherlock Holmes universe, other than its primary location being New York City, is how it is not entirely Sherlock-centric. The supporting characters are just as instrumental to Elementary’s plot as Sherlock Holmes himself. More importantly, both for the sake of the viewer as well as the survival of the show, Elementary does not create some vacuum in which Sherlock can behave however he pleases without any repercussions. If he betrays another character’s trust or breaks the law, there are reactions. In setting up Joan and Sherlock’s relationship, Joan reacts to Sherlock’s deductions about her status as a former, now-disgraced surgeon, by snapping angrily at him instead of marvelling at his deductive prowess.
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The cast of supporting characters started with Joan Watson, Captain Thomas Gregson of the New York Police Department, and Detective Marcus Bell. Additional regulars trickled in as the first and second season moved forward, and, without giving spoilers, it is safe to say certain big-name characters such as Irene Adler, Mycroft Holmes, Gareth Lestrade and Moriarty all had their screen time. Elementary’s treatment of Moriarty, without going into details, is brilliant, and the end result is an opportunity to see Sherlock at his most tormented and desperate.
Where Elementary’s approach to Sherlock really shines is in Sherlock’s growth as a character. Yes, Sherlock Holmes is synonymous with deduction, but what about how his interactions with people affect him? In season one, Sherlock is fresh out of rehab for his various addictions. He’s working with the NYPD to get his fix solving crimes. However, in working with the NYPD, viewers are afforded a chance to see how he interacts with Detective Marcus Bell and how Bell becomes one of the few people Sherlock respects for his skills as a detective. The same is applied to Captain Gregson and his interactions with Holmes. There is a mutual respect, yes, but Captain Gregson is quick to put Holmes in his place when his methods diverge too far from what Gregson’s own morals will permit.
Elementary’s Holmes-Watson dynamic is enough of a reason to skip whatever other shows are on in that time slot
Joan and Sherlock began their relationship of sober companion and former drug addict at odds, with Sherlock resorting to such tactics as disabling the alarm on Joan’s cell phone. He makes excuses to avoid going to the sober companion program-mandated meetings, distracts himself when Joan successfully drags him to such meetings, and generally resists her efforts to impart the importance of her time as his sober companion. Joan, however, manages to go toe-to-toe with Sherlock in terms of verbal jabs, childish pranks (at one point knocking down a collection of locks Sherlock had recently organised) and clever deductions. By the end of season two, Sherlock views Joan not as a necessary evil to his sobriety so much as a valuable companion in his solving of crimes.
By the end of season two, the Holmes-Watson dynamic portrayed by Miller and Liu is enough of a reason to skip whatever other shows are on in that time slot in favour of watching Elementary. There is something to be said about a modern take on Sherlock Holmes that displaces him from 221B Baker Street, gender-swaps his faithful Watson, and creates a cast of characters who both support Holmes while also balancing out his behaviours, as opposed to placing him on a pedestal and admiring his unrivalled genius. Sherlock fan or not, Elementary is a show that merits at least one chance. Odds are one chance is all it will need to pull new viewers in.
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All images: CBS