The past several years have been good to Sherlock Holmes fans: two features movies (with a third on the way), new novels, and the massively-popular series Sherlock introducing a new generation of fans to the Great Detective. So when Elementary was announced, I was skeptical. Holmes in America? Watson is a woman? Alone the idea sounds terrible, and in the context of the intensely satisfying Sherlock, it seemed like an unmitigated disaster. However, in preparation for my upcoming appearance at 221b Con, I knew there would be discussion of this show, so I watched all 18 episodes released thus far.
And I was right: it’s not Sherlock. But then again, I’m not entirely sure it’s trying to be.
Sherlock, at its core, is a love letter: a modern-day adaptation written by people who are passionate fans of all forms of Sherlock Holmes. It is laden with inside references and recreated scenes. Characters are either very close to their literary or pop culture analogs, or explicitly distinct (thin Mycroft and chaotic Moriarty, for example). The brilliance in the series is that it holds up as a fantastic series without knowing the references, but the form of the series is very much there, even adapted to the modern day. It is a pastiche.
Elementary seemed, at first, to be a generic mystery show that happened to have some Sherlock Holmes references. None of the cases evoked the original canon, Joan Watson is not much like John Watson at all, Sherlock Holmes has a father (!), and so on. However, I kept in mind the fact that there are a lot of terrible Sherlock Holmes pastiches out there and did what I could to divorce my mind from Sherlock. And I discovered that Elementary is not a pastiche, but inspired by the canon.
Once I got past that, I grew to like the series. The heart of the canon, if not the form, is present: Watson and Holmes are friends, and Watson is drawn into Holmes’ world. The respect and antagonism of the police (via Greggson) and Holmes is here. The disconnected cases feel much more like the original short stories. Even the mystery of Holmes’ family and history is present. The details are wildly different, but the feel of the original stories is here.
Plus, while the writing is average and, at times, outright lazy, the acting is actually quite good. Lucy Liu is good as Watson, and Jonny Lee Miller makes for a pretty good Holmes. The characters reference and call back to old situations, making their relationship feel very real. Plus, the sheer length of American shows over Sherlock allow for more of that characterization to take place. Cumberbatch and Freeman evoke the intensity of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, but Miller and Liu demonstrate the domestic nature of it. Also, there is more sexual tension between Cumberbatch and Freeman than between Miller and Liu, which is a refreshing change — knowing that the male and female protagonist will eventually hook up is boring, but here I sincerely feel like these two characters are friends, not frustrated lovers.
If I were asked to recommend one TV show for Sherlock Holmes, I would immediately say Sherlock. If asked to recommend two, I’d probably throw in the Jeremy Brett Granada series. But Elementary is certainly entertaining, and I think it only fails to cross over into “good” because it is forced to stand next to two other amazing and iconic series. If you can approach the series on its own merits, I believe it is worth your time.Update: At 221b Con, I was on a panel about the show, and a few more things came up that reinforce and expand on my original thoughts here.