Elementary is the Only Show I Love This Year

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

Shirtless competence! This is your gratuitous male objectification of the day…

—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.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.