CBS jumped on the bandwagon with their take on Sherlock Holmes in Elementary. As I wrote last June, when we first started to see previews on the series, I was openly skeptical. I was worried that the network was so busy chasing that popular idea that it might not take enough risks to make the show really unique. It took me several episodes to form an opinion on the series, and even longer to get around to writing about it. Why? Well besides real life getting in my way, the series has lacked the ability to inspire me.
One of my fears about the series was that changing traditionally male protege John Watson into a woman, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), was a cheap way to put a twist into the series. Even more, I was concerned that since Watson has usually been given the short end of the stick and turned into a weak lackey, turning Watson into a woman would perpetuate the problem if Joan was not a strong enough woman. Fortunately I feel like they have proved my concerns wrong.
While Joan has on several occasions told Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) how unique he is, how extraordinary his abilities are, and how interesting she finds his work to be, I don’t feel like she has gone too far overboard. Even better, she is far from being totally in awe of Sherlock. She criticizes him often, on everything from his lifestyle to his attitude towards victims and suspects in their cases, and she doesn’t hold back! She doesn’t have patience for his occasionally childish and petulant attitude. She has made him stop and think. She has even forced him to apologize for his behavior, even if he wasn’t really sorry. She has pushed him in ways the Victorian Watson of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and subsequent versions have not. The funny thing is that it has little to do with the fact that Joan is a woman and more to do with her role as Sherlock’s Sober Companion. In some ways she has been his jailer first and his friend second. As a jailer she has some leverage over Sherlock, so she’s not just following him around. Still, she’s far from clueless. She’s smart enough to keep up with Sherlock’s leaps in deduction and even catch things he actually overlooks.
Oh, and remember how I said that if there was a hint of romance between them I’d be finished with the series? Sherlock has teased Joan about her dating habits, how she treats her appearance, and seems to like throwing her off by asking her, “Do you believe in love at first sight? . . . Because I love my work!” Otherwise there has been no overt hints, though the potential for their friendship, if it can really be called that, to become something more is certainly there. Should it? I think it will still turn me off to the series if it went that way because I think it will hurt their current dynamic, which is pretty effective and entertaining even when the rest of the show is lacking.
If these elements of Elementary (Sorry, couldn’t help myself!) are good, why is it so lacking in inspiration? Maybe because there is still little to separate the show from the other popular crime series out there. Think about the more analytical, less action based shows like, The Mentalist, Monk, and to a lesser extent Psyche and Castle. In each case the show is based on an unusual character(s) with unique skills who works with the police to solve crime. With Psyche and Castle, the main character’s reasons for working with the authorities are perhaps selfish at the beginning, but later develop into a real desire to help people, and there is also a love interest involved and a lot of humor. The Mentalist and Monk are the better comparisons because like Sherlock, the main character has a darker past that drives them to work to solve crime in the hopes of eventually bringing their own nemesis to justice. When you break down the plot to its most basic elements (hehe sorry!), that’s what you get.
The things that could have made Elementary stand out aren’t being used to their potential. They have taken characters from the Victorian era and adapted them to the present without reference to their origins. If they had not taken the name Sherlock Holmes for their main character, what plot draw would there be for this show? They have not made any attempt to adapt the original stories, or any aspects of them, to the series until very recently. They took the name Irene Adler from Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, but rather than introduce her to the audience as the courtesan she was in the original mystery, or a modern interpretation of her unsavory career, she is described only as Sherlock’s girlfriend who was murdered. They have just recently introduced Sherlock’s traditional but overemphasized nemesis, Moriarty. As Saturday’s Chicago Tribune explained, the significance of the show being allotted the coveted time slot after the Super Bowl, it was reported that the series will delve further into Sherlock’s work in London before coming to New York, which may bring with it more chances for the series to relate to Doyle’s original tales. Only time will tell.
I have enjoyed Elementary for its analytical approach to crime solving, and the dynamic between Sherlock and Joan is definitely interesting. However, the crimes themselves lack the ability to excite me. If you compare them to cases tackled in the aforementioned shows, they are nothing special. They are not unusual enough, inventive enough, or memorable enough to be able to compare them to Doyle’s mysteries, and because the crimes aren’t up to snuff, it makes the character of Sherlock Holmes equally less impressive. What PBS’s wildly popular Sherlock has done with varying degrees of success, Elementary hasn’t even attempted.
While the show has done well and the Super Bowl slot says a lot about the faith that CBS has in the show’s future as their “#1 New Show”, of the 14 million viewers, only 59% are watching it live. I applaud CBS for understanding that media is evolving and shows should not be penalized because there are a half dozen different ways for viewers to watch it. I only hope that some day more networks will adapt to the media evolution in the same way.
I plan to keep watching Elementary. As the story of Moriarty is fleshed out I am hopeful that the show will find a way to stand out, but I’m concerned that Moriarty will become nothing more to Elementary than Red John is to The Mentalist. If that’s the case and Elementary doesn’t step up and embrace the stories that inspired it, it will remain just another crime show.