Both fans and honest-to-goodness Holmes scholars agree that the canonical Sherlock Holmes doesn’t just solve mysteries, he has adventures. And depending on which versions you have of the classic stories, chances are most of the titles are proceeded with the words “The Adventure of..” (This gets a little ridiculous when you consider that “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” is a real Sherlock Holmes story, but I digress.) The point is; Holmes stories are not limited to whodunits. They’re complex, adventurous stories containing not only mysteries, but illuminations of aspects of society, class, or the fantastical corners of human nature.
CBS’s new crime drama Elementary contains characters named Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but these people and their story are neither adventurous, nor illuminating.
To be completely fair, Elementary was not terrible. I was ready to say it was TERRIBLE with a capital T if only because I was pounding my fingers into my keyboard in a rage last year when I found out CBS was essentially “ripping off” the BBC’s beloved 21st century take on Holmes: Sherlock. (Did anyone notice CBS put the hashtag #Sherlock on the screen at the beginning of the show, but switched it to #Elementary later? Just me?) And the giant pipe-smoking, fiddle-playing elephant in the room with Elementary is this: just how much does it borrow from Sherlock? Honestly, probably not enough to make it good.
Structurally, this first episode is similar to Sherlock’s “A Study in Pink,” but then again, any initial meeting of Holmes and Watson will probably echo A Study in Scarlet a little bit. In this version, a 21st century Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) is going through a drug rehabilitation program in New York City by orders of his father. Something “happened” to him in London, and now he’s in America, where Dr. Watson (Lucy Liu) is his sober companion. She’s also a former surgeon, who we later learned lost a patient due to malpractice. This Watson doesn’t seem to show an ambition for being a writer, or chronicling the adventures of Holmes. She’s just kind of doing her job.
The first instance of Holmes showing off his intellectual “prowess” comes in an early scene where Watson comes to his apartment. A hooker, or something, is leaving the apartment (very un-Holmes) and a shirtless hunk is standing in the middle of a bunch of TVs. He recites a moving passage to Watson about being in love and then un-pauses a TV, and the exact same speech plays from a soap opera. I guess we’re supposed to be impressed by his ability to memorize TV shows? Hell, I can do that!
With very little explanation, Holmes whisks Watson to a crime scene, where the cops are totally cool with him checking out the details of a murder. This is explained away expediently by an NYC cop saying he used to work with Holmes when he was stationed in London in a counter-terrorism unit. Here we’re also told Holmes mostly worked on “homicides.” Wrong! Again, Sherlock Holmes did all kinds of stuff in the stories! Why must it only be murders? Yes, BBC’s Sherlock also relied on a murder plot in its first episode, but at least those had a weird twist of being “serial suicides.” The improbable and interesting is where Sherlock Holmes adventures should exist. Not stock crime drama stuff.
Again, to be fair, the plot of Holmes’ investigation in this first episode of Elementary does have a few unexpected twists and turns. Briefly: a well-to-do woman was murdered in her home and then her body was stuffed in a hidden safe-room that her husband claims to not know was there. At no point does the body language of the actor playing the husband, or the way the show is written, dissuade you from thinking the husband didn’t do it. He obviously did it. The tension (I imagine) ought to be derived from Holmes figuring out how and why this went down. Is it the man who was stalking her? Or was it the other man who was stalking her? Is it a serial killer? More importantly though: how come Sherlock Holmes wears a plaid scarf and a coat he clearly stole from Benedict Cumberbatch? Does the plaid blouse Watson wears indicate she intentionally coordinates her wardrobe with him? Are they like a superhero plaid team now?
Though fairly convoluted, Holmes does prove that the husband did it! But the fiend used a crazy person who he drugged up to do the deed! There are all kinds of weird flaws in the way Holmes slowly deduces this, mostly too numerous and annoying to detail individually. One that stuck out for me towards the beginning of his investigation was when Holmes looks through the dead woman’s phone. He points out that some of the pictures are five years old. Really? Wouldn’t she have had a totally different phone five years ago? My phone was like a little flip phone five years ago, and any of those pictures are totally gone. (Probably a good thing, too.) Again, to prove I’m not too I’m biased, this is similar to Irene Adler calling her phone a “camera phone” in Sherlock’s “A Scandal in Belgravia.” On some level these contemporary Holmes adaptations are just inconsistent or regressive about technology. But then again, when does technology function in a realistic way in any crime-drama?
As a big Holmes fan, I admit there were a few times I actually felt like Elementary was trying to remind me of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle source material. Cutely, this Sherlock Holmes has a bee colony on the roof of his apartment, referencing the canonical Sherlock’s eventual retirement as a beekeeper in the English countryside. Further, in terms of Sherlock Holmes’ famous powers of deduction, I have to say they were best represented by the scene where he explains to Watson how he knew she lost a patient to malpractice. He gets it all from a parking ticket! It’s a shame this kind of writing wasn’t attributed to a scene that had more to do with the mystery plot.
But honestly, I don’t think that’s what this show was going for. Or to put it another way, it split the difference. Is this a buddy-cop romance show? Or a murder of the week with an eccentric genius show? Because the characterizations of Watson and Holmes are so flat (He’s an asshole. She’s the straight man.) that you don’t feel like they should be buddies/partners. And because the mystery was so obvious (and not adventurous) you’re not concerned with seeing if this smarty-pants jerk and seemingly nice person figure it all out.
The final scene ends with Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson watching a baseball game on television. Holmes predicts the subsequent plays and the score to the letter. My prediction for the future of Elementary? It if continues to bunt, it won’t even make it through its first season.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He’s written about Sherlock Holmes for Tor.com quite a bit and also for Clarkesworld Magazine. Despite his love of Cumberbatch, his onscreen Holmes will always be Jeremy Brett.