Wed
Mar 13 2013 1:00pm
Elementary is the Only Show I Love This Year

Elementary Sherlock Holmes Joan Watson CBS Jonny Lee Miller Lucy Liu

Watson: Any luck?

Holmes: Luck is an offensive, abhorrent concept. The idea that there is a force in the universe tilting events in your favor or against it is ridiculous. Idiots rely on luck.

Watson: So that’d be a no.

Elementary, 1.05, “Lesser Evils”

Let’s be honest. I never understood the Sherlock love. Jeremy Brett will always be the form and image of Holmes for me, and while the Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Watson films are thigh-slapping entertainment, I’ve never managed to watch more than half an hour of Cumberbatch’s Holmes. I’m aware that in these parts of the internet that may make me an aberration....

But Elementary? On the face of it, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill mystery television: the plots range from the somewhat strange to the bafflingly over-complicated: too much murder, not nearly enough fraud and theft and roller derby. So why do I like it? Why, in fact, is it about the only television show I’ve followed, in the latter part of 2012 and the first part of 2013?

The simple answer is character. The more complicated answer is character, sense of humour, and a respect for an ideal of the relationship between Holmes and Watson that survives their transposition to the modern world. For Holmes is almost always the smartest man in the room, but also, often, the one most frustrated by the isolation his intellect affords him: Watson is the long-suffering roommate who admires him for what he can do but also calls him on his shit when he crosses a line. In Conan Doyle’s stories the figure of Watson is also the literary filter between Holmes and the world: an interpreter as much as collaborator. If Holmes permits himself to show vulnerability in front of anyone, it’s Watson: if Holmes extends himself emotionally on behalf of anyone, it’s Watson. This set of relationship dynamics is at the core of Elementary, where both Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, do yeoman’s work—and do it excellently well—in their respective roles:

Shirtless Sherlock Holmes

Elementary CBS Sherlock Holmes Jonny Lee Miller Shirtless

Dr. Joan Watson

Elementary CBS Joan Watson Lucy Liu

Ably supported by Aidan Quinn in the role of NY police captain Gregson:

Elementary Sherlock Holmes Joan Watson CBS

And Jon Michael Hill as Detective Marcus Bell:

Elementary Sherlock Holmes Joan Watson CBS Jonny Lee Miller Lucy Liu

Dr. Joan Watson, former surgeon, is hired to be a “sober companion” to recovering addict Sherlock Holmes. Their initial (rather antagonistic) relationship gradually develops into mutual respect, as Watson finds herself reluctantly fascinated by her charge’s investigative process and Holmes finds himself appreciating Watson’s presence—to the point of inviting her to stay on as his associate, his partner. And acknowledging, in episode 1.16, “Details,” “I’m better with you, Watson. I’m sharper. More focussed.”

After inviting her to stay on as his partner, he immediately tells her that it’s a big decision. And she should talk it over with other people. We’ve come a long way from episode 1.07, “One Way To Get Off”:

Holmes: I sent you a text with my location every two hours.

Watson: I was busy.

Holmes: I left some urine in your room!

Watson: Tell me it’s in a cup....

The thing that gets me about Elementary, that keeps me coming back to it despite all its flaws, is that it gets character. It has a ridiculous amount of fun with its dialogue. Its stars turn in good performances. But most importantly, its main characters respect each other as people. This is a show in which Watson calls Holmes on his bullshit, and though Holmes doesn’t always listen, the show doesn’t frame Watson as wrong to do so.

Elementary Sherlock Holmes Joan Watson CBS Jonny Lee Miller Lucy Liu

This is a show that lets Watson use the word “misogyny” and doesn’t necessarily brush it off. This is a show that keeps passing the Bechdel test—not every episode, but a solid majority. This is a show that allows Watson to be just as competent in her own métier as Holmes is in his—her medical knowledge is frequently important. It also allows Watson to dislike dead bodies, particularly gruesomely dead ones, and doesn’t judge her as lesser for not being inured to cadavers.

Right. We have a Watson who’s a Joan, not a John. I hear some people were a little miffed over that. Well, I tell you this: it bloody well makes the show. I’m here for Lucy Liu. Liu, and Joan Watson’s entirely platonic friendship with Sherlock Holmes.

Watson: You sure this sudden interest in my safety has nothing to do with you wanting to see two women engage in foxy boxing?

Holmes: You think you’re foxy?

1.06, “Details.”

And, okay, yes, for Jonny Lee Miller. What’s interesting to me in Jonny Lee Miller’s performance of Holmes is the extent that I can see the influence of Jeremy Brett’s performance behind it—not in the shirtless scenes, naturally—

Elementary Sherlock Holmes CBS Jonny Lee Miller

—but in the influence of Brett’s manic turns as Holmes in Jonny Lee Miller’s always-on always-thinking always-moving portrayal.

A portrayal which takes an absolutely chilling turn in episode 1.12, “M.”

Holmes: As to why I’m withholding information from the NYPD, it’s quite simple. I have no intention of capturing M. I have every intention of torturing, and murdering him.

Holmes: He presumed to know me. He needed to be shown that he did not.

Bit of an awkward moment there. A moment in which the curtain draws back on a colder, entirely ruthless Sherlock Holmes: a man prepared to go to any lengths for revenge, and perfectly willing to pay any necessary price. Not a man who’ll say, “We must have an amnesty in that direction.”

I haven’t enjoyed a Holmes adaptation so much since the ITV series. It does sufficient things right for me that I, quite simply, don’t give a flying monkey’s arse for its flaws: things other people see as flaws, I barely even see. The logically consistent contradictions in its characters, snappy dialogue, and the strength of its performances just carry me on through.

Now let’s have another series regular who’s a woman (who’s laying odds on whether Irene’s really dead or not? When will we get our first glimpse of Moriarty? Does Holmes have a brother in this continuity?) and I might faint from delight.

Holmes: Yes, well I meant very little of what I said.

Watson: There’s the blowing off part.

1.10, “The Leviathan.”


Liz Bourke spent far too long on writing about Elementary when she should have been asleep.

28 comments
James Whitehead
1. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Might have to check this out now. I haven't watched any of the episodes; nor the Sherlock ones with Cumberbatch. Like you my favourite has to be Brett's version of Holmes although I do have a fondness for Rathbone's version if only for the fact that I saw them all as a boy (never liked his Watson however).

Glad the dialogue is good as that always makes an average story more enjoyable. I would have, however, been disappointed in Dr. Jane Watson were not as sharp as the original one. Watson was never to be as smart as Holmes is; he/she is us in the story. Watson was, however, always important to Holmes, calling him out on his BS, & offering his medical & military expertise.

I wasn't a fan of making Watson a woman only for the concern that the writers would partner them off at some point. Glad that the relationship is as it should be; or at least to my way of thinking.

Thanks for the review.

Kato
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
I'm a big fan of this show too; sure it isn't as "serious" as Sherlock, but then...good? Sometimes I want to watch Johnny Lee Miller & Lucy Liu engage in some good clean psychodrama crime mystery fun.
James Davis Nicoll
3. James Davis Nicoll
I wonder if this will be the modern Holmes that manages to resist reducing Irene Adler to a mere cats-paw (or worse) of a male master-mind.
James Davis Nicoll
4. lainey
I agree, the characters, especially Joan, are the reason I watch Elementary too. Joan brings her own smarts to the table and Holmes doesn't patronize her. I also like that they stayed away from making this Watson Holmes' biographer (Freeman's Watson blogs about Holmes' cases), she finds his work highly interesting but it's not her only interest. Detective Bell is also interesting to add to the mix. One of my favorite episodes is 1.16 which is largely about Bell but actually says a lot about Holmes and Joan and even Gregson.

One of my gripes though about the recent Holmes adaptations (including this one) is the handling of Irene Adler. She's a significant character because in the ACD stories she was the woman who outsmarted Holmes and he admired her for that. What I don't like is how the recent adaptations all want to push this romantic relationship between Holmes and Adler. Why? Why is it so necessary that this woman who is smart enough to have beaten Holmes have a romantic interest in him? Or he have a romantic interest in her?
James Davis Nicoll
5. Rancho Unicorno
Everything you like about Elementary seems to be fulfilled by Psych, including snappy writing, acting, and direction. Other than one being an adolescent and the other an addict, I fail to see a significant difference between the characters.

Speaking of the Bechdel Test, why all of the partially disrobed scenes of Miller? Does he have difficulty keeping his clothes on?
Jenny Kristine
6. jennygadget
"Everything you like about Elementary seems to be fulfilled by Psych, including snappy writing, acting, and direction."

O.o Since when does Psych A) pass the Bechdel test ever and B) have anyone at all call Spencer on his shit?*

*Dule Hill being comedically outraged, and then going along with what Spencer wants as he always does, does not constitute calling Spencer out on his shit. Same with Spencer Sr. being all fatherly and lecturing Shawn about his antics. Both exist so that Shawn Spencer may prove them wrong, not for the text to suggest that Shawn is an asshole.
James Davis Nicoll
7. Rancho Unicorno
A) Some conversations between Vick and Juliet, without being an avid enough watcher to provide citations or percentages, do revolve around the cases that they are working on without eventually getting back to "Spencer is an idiot." Although, beyond Shawn and Gus, I don't think anybody really gets to discuss anything without eventually coming back to one of them.

B) Vick is really the only character that can call him out without Shawn inevitably trying to prove them wrong. I'd argue that Juliet pulls it off as well, with the result being a sincere effort by Shawn to make a personal improvement. This happens both before and during their relationship - suggesting that it isn't just a woman making her man better scenario. Lassiter calls him out, but that falls into the same category as Gus and Spencer Sr (although there have been some episodes where Shawn Learns a Special Lesson, That Father Knows Best).

I'm a Netflixer, so I can't attest to recent episodes/seasons, but what are your thoughts on the Mentalist? There, it feels like all the scenes that don't pass Bechdel are the ones where the lead (or his Watson) is being called out for being a tool (or failing to keep him from being one.

That being said, I think the Bechdel test is somewhat limiting in any Holmesian show where the Holmes character is male - the character tends to be written so centrally to the focus and the plot that conversations where the character isn't present will generally revolve around that character, be the conversationalists male or female. Before House became a soap opera, it would have failed the Bechdel test as applied to men or women, but didn't suffer because of it. If anything, I think the effort to broaden the focus is what made it painful.

Wow, that was longwinded.
James Davis Nicoll
8. David G
I like this show a lot but I credit Person of Interest for finding it for me.POI is the best show on television right now bar none.
James Davis Nicoll
9. AliasNameGoesHere
In this continuity...

Holmes should have a sister, not a brother.

And Moriarity should turn out to be the mere cats-paw (or worse, definitely worse) of the true mastermind, Irene Adler.
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
3. James Davis Nicoll

If they can pull off Adler, I'll be truly impressed; currently she's refridgeratored in Holmes backstory.

9. AliasNameGoesHere

What is the feminine form of "Mycroft" anyhow?
Jenny Kristine
11. jennygadget
"That being said, I think the Bechdel test is somewhat limiting in any Holmesian show where the Holmes character is male -"

* facepalm * Actually, that's rather the point of the Bechdel test to begin with. Not that it's an abolute measure of the worth of a show, but that it points to how uncommon it is for shows to pass it, and how common it is for shows to pass the reverse.

I'm sure there are a few random episodes that pass the Bechdel test - the one where Juliet goes undercover in a sorority comes to mind. But for a show as long running as Psych, it's a depressingly low percentage for such a low bar.

"Vick is really the only character that can call him out without Shawn inevitably trying to prove them wrong."

That is because Captain Vick is not an equal, she is the authority that Shawn must get around in order to be his bad boy self. Thus, why she is never proven right and he is never proven wrong, because their relationship is not about that. It's about her being an obstacle. She is also incapable of calling Shawn out on the most important point - that he's not actually a psychic - because the show would fall apart if she was observant enough to figure out that very obvious fact.

As for Juliet, all the times that she has had to apologize to Shawn for not believeing what we, the audience, know to be a lie completely negates the few times she calls him on his shit. Also, as I have already said, the point of the narrative is for him to turn around and prove her wrong.
Kevin Marks
12. KevinMarks
mordicai in 10: The feminine form of Mycroft is Mychelle - haven't you read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress? If not, you're one of today's lucky 10,000
Don Barkauskas
13. bad_platypus
What is the feminine form of "Mycroft" anyhow?
Mychelle?
James Davis Nicoll
14. Thaxll
I'm really enjoying this show too, for the same reasons. The dynamics between Holmes and Watson brought to life by the great performances of their actors lift this show out of mediocraty. The police procedural aspect of the show is really just an afterthought.
L M
15. srEDIT
It's been wa-a-a-AY too long (at least 45 years) since I read TMIaHM . . . a little help here?
James Davis Nicoll
16. Nik_the_Heratik
What worries me about this show, though I haven't had time to tune in yet, is the same thing that worries me every time American TV goes shopping across the pond for an idea: a complete failure to execute and most of the time to even understand what made the show work.

For examples, see: The office (which took years to hit its stride and was lousy before that), Coupling (DOA), The IT Crowd (didn't even make it out of pilot), and pretty much every game show that was milked to death by ABC. And I'm sure there are more examples. Maybe Elementary will be the exception, but if so, they'll probably cancel it then.
James Davis Nicoll
17. C Oppenheimer
I have enjoyed Elementary and Sherlock. The leads in both shows are good actors and their interactions are what make the shows interesting. I would argue Lucy Liu's Watson is smarter than Martin Freeman's while Cumberbatch's Holmes has the edge over Miller's but of course that is largely up to the writers. Obviously both shows have had to go outside the Conan Doyle canon but I believe the events of "The Reichenbach Fall" in Sherlock (avoiding spoilers) stray farther from that canon than a female Watson. And we have already seen more episodes of Elementary than we will likely ever see of Sherlock.
James Davis Nicoll
18. Abigail@StoryFactory
I would thoroughly recommend Elementary. I've never read a Sherlock Holmes book and, to be honest, they've never appeared to me. But after seeing Sherlock and enjoying it I decided to give Elementary a try as well. I was not disappointed!
Steven Halter
19. stevenhalter
@Liz:I agree completely. I'm really enjoying the show.
treebee72 _
20. treebee72
One of the things I really like about this show is that the writers didn't go the lazy route in showing how Holmes is SO much smarter by making everyone else completely brain dead. Not only is Watson written as intelligent and competent, but so are Gregson and Bell. Yes, they may need Holmes' help on some cases, but they are written as actually being good at their jobs!

And I think it is very important that we see that Holmes not only cares about Watson, Gregson & Bell, but he respects them.
James Davis Nicoll
21. D A conDrake
Dear Ms Bourke,

I too like Elementary very much.

It struck me that all the sneers early (or Tor.com among others) were from people comparing the show to Sherlock on Sherlock's own terms.

I think the correct comparison would have been with Monk, a much lighter show and also well done and entertaining. (Whereas comparing Sherlock with Cracker would be valid.)

Best wishes,
Dave Drake
James Davis Nicoll
22. blatanville
#16: It never occured to me to see Elementary as an importation of an existing British show.
They're coming from very different perspectives while using the same germ of an idea from ACD.
In Sherlock, Sherlock is a brilliant bastard.
In Elementary, Sherlock is (to me) an autistic spectrum, emotionally damaged man.
In Sherlock, Watson is still a soldier-surgeon/biographer returned from Afghanistan.
In Elementary, Watson is a broken surgeon, startng life over. And a woman.

Bonus trivia: Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch (as if that name doesn't sound made-up!) both played in Frankenstein on stage in London, with Danny Boyle directing. They took turns each night swapping character: Miller as the Monster, with Cumberbatch as Victor, then Miller as Victor and Cumberbatch as the Monster. Very cool!
Jim Adcock
23. dlairman
No one has mentioned the one thing I have noticed most prominently about Elementary.

I love the show, I think the characterizations are great, and the mysteries are well done.

But

Every one, it is the third suspect that did it, the third solution that turns out to be the explanation. Every time.

Could have named the series "Third Time's The Charm".
James Davis Nicoll
24. Ian B. Miller
Love that you start out with "Jeremy Brett will be my Holmes." For me as well, since I was 13.

However, when I was 10, my Holmes was Sidney Paget's illustrations for the Strand. Except for the stubble, I think Jonny Lee Miller is the closest we've seen to Paget's Holmes since Basil Rathbone (who also modernized Holmes, lest we forget that Sherlock is actually inspired by other adaptations as well).
James Davis Nicoll
25. lainey
I agree with #22's assessment, these adaptations are based on ACD's Sherlock but not ACD's Sherlock and I'm okay with that which is why it irritated me when there was a lot of negative backlash about Elementary when it was announced last year, with a British columnist calling it "disrespectful". Disrespectful to whom exactly?
Mordicai Knode
26. mordicai
12. KevinMarks

So noted; the xkcd lends gravitas to your recommendation; consider it on the list.

13. bad_platypus

SCOOPED!
James Davis Nicoll
27. oliveramy
I think Elementary could stand on its own as a decent crime/muder drama but if you add in the names 'Holmes' and 'Watson' as the main characters everyone who knows anything about the story of Holmes come in with certain expectations. I would prefer the names be changed, than again, as other's have stated, it would become more of a show like The Mentalist or Physc.

Dr. Watson has and always will be my favorite character, from ACD's stories, all the shows, and movies. (I've even named my dog after him.) To change his background story completely from a strong military doctor to this damaged, broken woman (who, what? Lost a patient? Come on, that's just ridiculously pathetic of a doctor!) is, frankly, a insult to all that is Watson.

Its quite possible I idolize Watson too much.
I adore BBC's Sherlock and Freeman as Watson is just adorable. There are still quirks to his character that rub me wrong however-one being the fact that most of the time he's made out to be a complete idiot.
I think the best modern personification of Watson has to be Jude Law (and the fact that Robert Downey Jr as Holmes doesn't belittle him or take him for granted constantly.)

That said, I still wouldn't like Elementary even if they change the characters' names due to the fact that I just can't stand Lucy Liu. (I know, all my friends hate me for that too.)
James Davis Nicoll
29. MICHELEG
I know, very late comment, but I love Elementary, too!

What did you think of the Moriarty turn, and Mycroft/Rhys?

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