Warning: This article contains major spoilers through the end of Elementary season 1 and minor spoilers through the end of season 4.
In 2012, CBS announced they would be producing a new series called Elementary. It was going to be a modern interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes story with Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as a genderbent version of Watson named Joan. This news was not well received by many fans online, mostly because the BBC had just wrapped up the second series of its wildly popular Sherlock,starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the same roles.
Fan-created images like the one above began to circutlate before the series even started. When the first season finally began, it had some trouble finding its footing, but twelve episodes in everything clicked.
The show has since wrapped up its fourth season and, in some ways, has surpassed the BBC version of the classic character. While Elementary has always had an uphill battle, it manages to surpass expectations in many ways. While BBC’s Sherlock is more cinematic in its storytelling (and feels like an event), the long waits can hamper the storytelling. Elementary, however, has had to fight against the restrictions of procedural and network television. It’s a show many people didn’t bother to try, and while there is room for both in the world, Elementary is a show that shouldn’t be dismissed.
Long-form storytelling that leads to richer character development…
BBC’s Sherlock decided to do three 90-minute episodes instead of a 12 or 13-episode season like some shows on the BBC, or many shows in the United States. (Remember, Sherlockis technically a British-American co-production, though with definitely more creative control on the other side of the pond.) However, the show became notorious right away as several years would pass between the three seasons.
Since the three seasons were more like three movies instead of an overarching story, it has made character development much harder. Elementary, however, has the benefit of being on American television and has had four 24-episode seasons. Because of this, the character development that the show has been able to produce feels much more organic.
Elementary‘s version of Holmes and Watson are not close friends right away, and it takes the better part of the first season for the two of them to truly click. Because this version of Watson is not a doctor anymore, but a sober companion in Sherlock’s life to help him through his addiction recovery, the dynamic is much different from any other form of the Holmes/Watson story.
Joan is not there because she wants to be; initially, she is there to do her job and only becomes Sherlock’s friend later on. The moment in season 1 when Sherlock finally admits that he needs Joan and would like to take her on as a partner is much more moving because it’s given time to grow. The brief meeting between Sherlock and John in episode one of Sherlock is entertaining, but lacks that same emotional punch.
Watson is treated as Sherlock’s equal & uses her medical expertise…
For many years, whenever people would adapt Sherlock Holmes stories, they would make Watson a paper-thin straight man or a bumbling fool in order to make Holmes look smarter. The more modern adaptations of Holmes stories (the Guy Ritchie movies, House, and Sherlock) have been much better at painting Watson as a character with a personality.
However, Elementary goes a different direction with it. Instead of following Sherlock around and being constantly amazed by his brilliance, Watson is just as good of a detective as Sherlock in her own way. When Sherlock leaves after season 2, we come back in season 3 to find that Watson has been working with the New York City police on her own as a detective and has been doing a great job. She is his equal but in very different ways and Elementary does not skirt around that.
The show — and even Sherlock himself — go out of their way to point out how competent Joan is as a detective in her own right. The previous versions of Watson are either chroniclers or sidekicks, but — by making Watson a detective — it makes the two of them interact in different and much more profound ways.
Elementary also does not ignore the fact that Watson is, in fact, a doctor — or, in this case, a former surgeon. Sherlock takes advantage of Watson’s medical expertize often, whether it is asking for clarification on a certain type of anesthetic or Watson showing Holmes how to properly test if someone is in a coma. In the BBC version, Sherlock uses the fact that he has a doctor living with him to his advantage because he already knows everything.
John is also supposed to be a soldier, but does things such as carry a gun in the rim of his pants, which a real soldier would never do. Joan isn’t a soldier, but she is a doctor and it’s very easy to see her going back and doing that again if she wanted. Elementary uses its narrative time to develop Joan as a person in a way that Sherlocksimply doesn’t have the same time to do.
The character development in the BBC version of the show don’t have time to focus that much on long-form storytelling or character arcs because they only have three 90-minute episodes, while Elementary has a full CBS season. It has lead to a more polarizing and interesting dynamic between the main characters and is one of the main reasons Elementary has managed to avoid becoming “just another CBS police procedural.”
Diversity that doesn’t feel shoehorned in…
While it can be explained away as two shows being made in two different cultures, the truth of the matter is that diversity in television matters. The second episode of Sherlock delved into some nasty Asian stereotypes. In season 2, we are introduced to their version of Irene Adler, who is a dominatrix lesbian who also falls for Sherlock.
Elementary, on the other hand, decided to go in another direction. The most obvious example of diversity is the fact that they gender-bent Watson into not only a woman but a woman of color played by the amazing Lucy Liu. Joan is a woman, but the show never frames her as a sex object. While Irene Adler in Sherlock was introduced naked, Elementary seems to go out of its way not to sexualize Joan. There aren’t any “catching her in a towel” moments and, the one moment we see her get dressed on screen, she does so under a sheet.When it was announced that Elementary‘sversion of Watson would be a woman, most people assumed that meant they would eventually get together romantically. Showrunner Robert Doherty put that to bed before the show even came out, telling Digital Spy:
I don’t think that would be true to the spirit of the original relationship between the two characters, and that’s important to me. I’d like to show that a man and a woman can be friends and go to work and live together and not end up romantically entangled.
Of course there is a chance that Elementary will eventually put Sherlock and Joan together many seasons down the line, but that would be a red flag that the show has truly run out of ideas. At the present moment, the two of them clearly love each other, but romance doesn’t feel involved. It’s a refreshing thing to see on television when romance is often so forced into shows.
The diversity in Elementary does not just apply to Watson. The show seems to go out of its way to make sure its supporting cast and background characters are just as varied as they are in the real world. The race or sex of even the most iconic characters is not important because people are not defined by their sex or gender, but by their actions.
For example, Elementary‘s version of Ms. Hudson is a trans woman played by trans actress Candis Cayne, but it is never really brought up because that isn’t who she is. Joan is an Asian American woman but she is never totally defined by those things. They are more used as part of who she is as a human being. A previous article spoke about the concept of “forced diversity,” a common argument in this era of “social justice warriors,” but, in Elementary, it feels like a diverse world is on screen as a reflection of the diverse world we really live in
One of the primary supporting characters is Jon Michael Hill as Detective Marcus Bell. Bell is a great character in his own right and the show does a wonderful job of side-stepping making him the bumbling fool to Sherlock’s brilliance. Bell is often shown to be competent, caring and perfectly capable of solving crimes in his own right. The police in Elementary don’t feel as worthless as the detectives in Sherlock do. It feels like they could solve some of these crimes on their own and Sherlock and Joan help do it faster.
The Moriarty twist…
This is where the big spoilers for season 1 come into play…
Throughout the first season, we learn that the reason why Sherlock fell so deeply into addiction is because his girlfriend, Irene Adler, was murdered. At first this was not looked at in a positive light since fridging (killing a woman character for the benefit of the male protagonist) is lazy storytelling, but by the end fans got the twist of a lifetime. The final two episodes show us that not only is Irene still alive (and played by Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer), but that her name wasn’t Irene at all — her name was Jamie Moriarty.
This twist changed the entire dynamic of the first season and has had amazing ripple effects throughout the rest of the series. This is a twist that Sherlock Holmes fans have been waiting for someone to do for years because it just makes sense. Adler only turned up in the original stories once, and fans are obsessed with her despite that she doesn’t have much to do. This twist gave us a cunning version of Moriarty that is much closer to the book version: “Who says men have a monopoly on murder?” she asks the first time she reveals herself to Sherlock.
Andrew Scott’s Moriarty is legendary with his “go for broke” performance and his overall scheme. The two versions of the character are equally great, but the concept of making Irene and Moriarty the same person gives the betrayal another layer. It makes the back and forth between Sherlock and Moriarty that much better by making it all the more personal for both characters.
This version also gives Irene agency and a life outside of the men in her life. The BBC version of Irene was there for titillation and making her a dominatrix is lazy way to attempt to make her empowered. The empowerment of a character should come from actions and the Irene/Moriarty of Elementary is the smartest person in the room and she knows it.
A realistic depiction of addiction and recovery…
The first real on-screen Holmes adaptation that seemed to tackle the drug problem head on was House, but it always felt like the show was holding back a little too much. The drug problem was a drug problem but it wasn’t ever really a problem.
In Sherlock, the main character’s addiction is brushed aside in the first episode and (as of the time of writing) hasn’t really been touched on again, other than in amusing references to cigarettes and the almost casual drug use in the recent special. However, as anyone who has struggled with addiction can attest, being an addict isn’t something that goes away. If you’re an addict you’re an addict for life and that is something Elementary has never shied away from. The show goes through the process of meetings, establishing a sponsor, what it feels like to make it to a year and even how it can be to continue.
The above scene is heartbreaking because it is true. Whenever an addict relapses in television or movies, it is during some huge dramatic moment, but the reality of addiction is often much different.
Elementary shows its audience that being an addict is a lifelong struggle and, sometimes, that struggle is simply being able to continue through. Sherlock has never dedicated the time to truly dig into Sherlock’s addiction and how it affects a person. This has a lot to do with the format, but — while it is merely brushed off or even laughed a in the Sherlock version — Elementary uses it to distinguish itself. There are entire episodes dedicated to Sherlock’s recovery and the event that kicks off the season-long plot in season four is a relapse.
Holmes suffers real consequences for his actions…
Holmes, as depicted in the novels, is a smug, substance-abusing intellectual snob who only interacts with the outside when it provides him the opportunity to show off how much smarter he is than everyone else.
The BBC’s Sherlock decides to take this to the next level and, instead, just makes Sherlock insufferable. He calls himself a sociopath in the first episode, and the way he treats people is beyond someone looking down on everyone else. He is, for lack of a better word, a jerk — to the point that no one would ever want to be around him. While Martin Freeman’s Watson does call Sherlock out on his actions, he doesn’t seem to suffer any consequences as a result of his actions. If he acts horribly to someone, he might be chastised for it, but everyone seems to forgive him when he solves the mystery.
Sherlock in Elementary is also a jerk. However, Watson is on hand to call him on it and she does so within the confines of the very first episode. Sherlock has lost the trust of many members of the police force including Aidan Quinn’s Captain Gregson. Throughout the run of the show, Sherlock has had to work to win back the trust of those around him when he does something wrong. In the third season, he is directly responsible for Detective Bell being shot and he has to work to win back that trust back.
Elementary is not a perfect show. The first season is hit-or-miss until the twelfth episode, and the second season drags a little, but — overall — the show is very, very good. The most important part of a Holmes adaptation — the dynamic between the two leads — is absolutely there.
Elementary was dismissed by many either right away or halfway through the first season, but it has every right to join Sherlock, House, and the Guy Ritchie movies as a Sherlock Holmes adaptation with its own legs to stand on. The attention to detail when it comes to addiction and recovery is compelling on its own, but a great lead cast has made Elementary so much more than the CBS procedural everyone thought it was going to be.
Elementary Season 5 Premieres on CBS on October 2.