Don’t Let Your Preconceived Notions Turn You Off To “Elementary”

A typical experience: You watch Sherlock.  You love Sherlock.  You think Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch are the most amazing duo of all time.  You gleefully introduce the show to your less cultured friends and find a way to tactfully call them myopic for only knowing about American television.  You suddenly feel the need to buy and wear a lot of scarves and take them off dramatically.

You hear about Elementary.  You scoff at the idea that there’s an American remake of a British show.  I mean, yes, The Office was good, but lightning doesn’t strike twice.  You roll your eyes at the idea of Lucy Liu as JOAN Watson, seeing it as a blatant, typically American attempt to take a perfectly good idea and make it all sexy-like, because we can’t really pay attention to things that don’t have boobs on them.

But you start to hear some good things about it.  Maybe you even read an article on a pop culture website penned by a devastatingly handsome yet sensitive writer.  So you give it a chance, maybe watch the first couple episodes.  And what do you find out?

It’s actually worth watching.  I’m not going to come out and say that it’s must-watch television or some amazing, unknown gem, but it’s compelling, the characters are good, and I see a lot of potential in the first few episodes.  Specific bullet points as I watch the first two episodes:

The pilot – Pretty odd start.  It moves fast, doesn’t screw around.  3 minutes in and we’ve set the terms of the show already.  It’s really hard not to compare it to Sherlock.  This version of Holmes has the frenetic energy but not that innate, penetrating charisma that Cumberbatch has.

And we’re on to the main titles.  That has got to be one of the most bland opening titles I’ve ever seen.

The first case.  Sherlock has the rapid-fire deduction routine down.  “Sometimes I hate it when I’m right,” he states to himself as they find a murdered woman in a secret room he deduced the existence of.  It makes him seem… human.  He’s not a self-proclaimed “high-functioning sociopath” like Cumberbatch,  Although, later, interviewing the surviving woman, a bit of that uncaring, “I’ll say or do anything to get at the truth,” side comes out.

Another thing I’m noticing as I watch the first episode – the humor is missing.  Both the original books and Sherlock are quite funny in their own way.  Maybe I’m expecting too much, too fast, but the first 20 minutes are pretty much devoid of good banter.  Sherlock interrupting Watson at the opera comes close, but it feels a little forced.

But a funny thing happened as the episode went on.  In the end, it’s Watson who discovers the crucial detail that ties everything together and allows Sherlock to get his man.  Instead of Sherlock crashing Watson’s car into the doctor’s car being part of some elaborate plan, as Watson assumes, it’s what it looked like: a temper tantrum.  It’s clear that this will be much more of an equal partnership than the duo in Sherlock – in that show, John Watson’s basic character trait is that he has Sherlock’s back.  He’s utterly devoted to his infuriating friend, as Sherlock is to him, in his own way.

Elementary‘s Joan Watson is more independent, more flawed.  She has a past that haunts her, and rather than a psychosomatic leg injury that becomes a joke and is discarded partway into the first episode, her past will not go away so easily.  Her relationship with Sherlock will be more uncertain, more fraught.  After the big reveal, the duo watches a baseball game in Sherlock’s apartment.  Predictably, Sherlock calls the last three outs of the game.  But Joan’s enthusiasm for the game itself, and their conversation about it, lets a little bit of that oh-so-important, missing banter shine through.

I think what made Sherlock so impressive (well one of the things; there are quite a few) was that instant, obvious chemistry that Freeman and Cumberbatch have.  Most shows take a while to get that.  Elementary might be one of them.  As I finish out the first episode, I can’t say that I’m hooked, but I’m pleasantly surprised and curious to see where it’s going.  Even though I’m not a big fan of procedurals in general, there’s enough meat here to keep me interested.

Second episode: Whoops, spoke too soon on the main title.  Turns out there actually is one; just not in the pilot.  It’s pretty decent, kind of a Rube Goldberg machine OF DEATH.  Not that inspired by the music, though.  Very generic.

The nature of the case almost lost me at a few points.  I felt it was needlessly complicated and I was really struggling to stay interested at the whole “children kill each other for their rich dad’s inheritance” issue.  One of the major downsides of procedurals is that, episode to episode, the antagonist changes.  It’s really hard to have a genuine, nuanced ‘bad guy’ capture the audience in 43 minutes or less, and as a result a lot more of the show hinges on the charisma of the leads and the relationship between them.  I’m assuming as I get into later episodes there will be a recurring villain or two (just a stab in the dark: female Moriarty?), but because it’s a procedural each episode is going to follow that kind of formula, which really doesn’t leave you much wiggle room.

And as the second episode comes to a close it gives me both hope and fear: fear that this will be too formulaic for my tastes, but hope, because the chemistry between Sherlock and Joan is a noticeable step up.  Their interaction in the second NA meeting they go to is actually funny and charming at the same time.  Their arguments about being emotionally closed off really reminded me of House – House and Wilson, who of course were based on Holmes and Watson.  Round and round the circle goes…

What say you, gentle viewers?  For those of you that have not seen the show, have I convinced you to give it a try?  For those of you who have seen the full season, am I getting my hopes up only to have them dashed, or do you think this is a legitimately good show?

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  1. I enjoyed the whole season, then again I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan to begin with.

    Holmes and Watson’s relationship gets better as the show goes along, and the supporting cast is solid.

  2. I loved the whole season, and I too am a big Sherlock fan. It is a bit formulaic, but the characters develop well, which keeps the interest. A couple of episodes absolutely blew my mind, which, given the amount of TV I watch, is a big deal. I highly recommend sticking out for the whole season.

  3. I love Sherlock. I did, however, hate their version of Moriarty. He was so annoyingly cartoony, I was surpised he didn’t tie Watson to some train tracks. Irene Adler ended up as your standard femme fatale who needs to be rescued. Steve Moffat worked on Sherlock and Doctor Who. He has a tendency to go for broke with crazy plots twist and ideas… which are full of plot holes and ‘wait what?’ moments. The final episode of Series 2, the reveal of Moriarty’s long to plan was ridiculous and relied so heavily on blind luck. Elementary did have a better back story why Moriarty would want to fuck with Sherlock.

    Elementary doesn’t always have the strongest episodes. But, overall it’s a good show.

    Definitely watch the last season finale. Their take on Moriarty is so brilliant, I immediately wondered why no one ever through to take the character down that particular path. Elementary had one of my favorite season finals of the year.

    Even if you don’t watch the entire season, skip to the last two episodes.

  4. I’m tempted, Ingrid, but I have that kind of personality that won’t let me do that. I’m the type of person who will obsessively collect every single sidequest item in a videogame in the name of ‘completeness.’ The idea of actually skipping ahead in a TV show fills me with dread – what if I missed something? It’s the same reason I could never get into Doctor Who. People say, “oh, just start [seven different places]. Nope, it’s the beginning for me. And there will be no skipping. Seeing that I don’t actually have the free time to watch 56 seasons of television, I’ll have to miss out.

  5. On the whole, having watched both shows, Elementary is the better show, for several reasons. Please note I watched Sherlock first, and like many who had initially dismissed Elementary as “gawd the yanks are ripping off the Brits again”.

    1) The LACK of instant chemistry makes it more believable, more relatable. And the banter develops over time as in real life. It’s very rare ANYONE, even when they DO have instant chemistry, is instantly firing off witty one-liners at each other. Elementary takes the realistic approach rather than Sherlock’s “We only have 3 episodes a season, let’s just get the hello my name is out of the way so we can move the story along” approach, and it works.

    2) They get Holmes right. Moffat made his Holmes a Captain Ersatz for The Doctor without the charm. “Sherlock” has a Sherlock who’s basically The bastard lovechild of Data and the Doctor; Brilliant, computer-like, arrogant, and mostly flawless, who in the end only gets tripped up by a living breathing Ralph Bakshi cartoon. “Elementary” shows a Holmes far closer to the original; Brilliant and arrogant yes, but not infallibal, and most assuredly flawed. Where Sherlock ignores Holmes’ history of addiction entirely, Elementary builds the weight of the character around his constant struggle, (like most addicts), to leave that behind.

    3) The Holmes/Watson dynamic in Sherlock is very much “Master/Puppydog”. John Watson pretty much instantly finds Holmes obsessively fascinating and latches onto him like a puppy, almost blindly following him anywhere just to escape the mundanity of his post-war life. He’s like a careless adrenaline junkie leaping onto train tracks because the interesting man says to. And you never get the feeling Holmes actually respects or even particularly LIKES Watson, just that he finds him more tolerable than most folks. Their relationship is very Moffaty; A 2 dimensional relationship wherein the spunky sidekick is mostly there to alternate between being awed by the brilliant hero or randomly question his sanity.

    The relationship between JOAN Watson and Holmes is more organic, and grows FAR more naturally. Like most actual people, she doesn’t start blindly following Holmes around because she’s bored and he’s interesting. She follows him because it’s her job as a Sober Companion to not let the recovering addict run off alone acting like a lunatic. Their respect and comfort around each other grows logically; She slowly begins to realize the depths of his genius and how his work is really the only thing keeping him drug-free, and gradually begins to care for him not as a client but as a friend. Conversely he slowly catches on that she’s not the middling clueless plebeian he expects most people to be, that she has a keen mind and has potential, and he grows to respect her not as a chain he’s cuffed to, or an amusing sidekick, but as a friend and equal.

    4) Expanding on that, Joan isn’t the stock sidekick character John is. On Sherlock John is clearly there for one purpose; To be Sherlock’s sounding board, to be awed by him, to do the grunt work, and to be a butt-monkey when Sherlock needs a guinea pig, like in Baskerville.

    Joan on the other hand is NEVER a sidekick. She begins the series in fact as someone who, whether Sherlock likes it or not, has an element of authority over him. One phone call to Sherlock’s father could have Holmes committed again. It’s over time that they come to know each other that they become partners, and Joan is never just there to say “Brilliant Holmes, how did you solve it?”. Where John just blissfully goes along for the ride, Joan gets openly frustrated with him when he talks down to her or treats her like an idiot and calls him on it, forcing him to rethink his behavior. Such as during the snowstorm heist episode when he looks at tracks in the snow and determines exactly what vehicle left them and how long ago it left, Joan replies with an equally authoritative sounding deduction about what the drivers were wearing and had for breakfast. When Sherlock is confused by her sarcasm, she reminds him he’s supposed to be teaching her his tricks, not just showing off so she can say wow, and Sherlock, hiding his feeling of being scolded rightly, explains HOW he deduced the vehicle, so Joan knows how to do so too.

    There’s also the episode where he completely leaves her to fend for herself with his drycleaning. No matter how much you love Sherlock, you KNOW if this plot appeared on THAT show it would have ended with John still not understanding why Sherlock insists on going to such a badly managed drycleaners and Sherlock exasperatedly telling him the big secret. Elementary’s Sherlock trusted Joan’s intellect and sharpness, and knew she was more than capable of figuring it out on her own, and more importantly left her to DO so knowing it would be a greater accomplishment for her if she had no help, not even a hint.

    In the end it’s unfair to call Elementary a remake or clone of Sherlock, because it has never been either one. The ONLY thing the two shows have in common is being set in the present, and that’s exactly where the similarities stop. Elementary is a different animal, a sharper more realistic one.

    Besides, I especially love that in Elementary it was Watson who figured Moriarty out, because Holmes was just too close to it.

  6. I am gonna say it. I fidn Elementary to be better then Sherlock. I am sorry I get the fascination of Sherlock of first view but if you try to dig deeper it’s just so badly written. Sherlock makes Sheldon Cooper seem like nice company. He barely has any redeeming qualities as far as personality goes and very few people would actually tolerate him no mayyer how talented he is. Watson is just spineless and has basically no personality except to adore Sherlock and blindly support him in everything. Irene Adler is just imagination and zero intellignece(seriously she was trying to blackmail the British goverment with the SOLE copy of the information? What exactly did she think was going to happen to her when she handed over her only leverage? Did she just rely that Mycroft is the kind of man who keeps his word? Especially to a woman who just commited treason and helped terrorists?)

    And Moriarty? I am still baffled that anyone actually likes him. He is pathetic. The magical computer code plan was one of the worst things I have ever seen on TV and the random shouting doesn’t impress. The entire Moriarty storyline looked like it was rippef from teh fanfic of a 12 year old girl

  7. I enjoyed the first season of Sherlock and the first episode of the second season, but I felt like it really dropped off after that. The Baskerville episode and the Reichenbach Fall episode were almost unwatchable to me. They tried so hard to make Sherlock the focal point of everything that goes on that it really turns into a character study about a guy who’s a less-likeable Sheldon Cooper, and any real “mystery” as an afterthought. And if there was an actual “mystery” in the last episode to solve, I don’t remember it.

    When they name-dropped “Moriarty” in the first episode, I had an inkling that this was going to be one of *those* adaptations where Moriarty is behind everything like Harry Potter’s Voldemort. This version isn’t even a well-written character, only unjustifiably smug, and unbelievable as an arch-nemesis. He looks and acts like that crony an actual evil mastermind would keep around for entertainment value, and off in the second act when he does something really annoying.

    Now it might be me, but I really don’t think the writers actually fully understand Sherlock Holmes, just enough to adapt it to the 21st century and add some quirks and changes to it. For the third season, stop making “Sherlock” into 90-minute character studies–it’s boring and nobody cares. Get back to interesting mysteries. It’s what we’re here for.

  8. Plenty of people are rallying up behind elementary. I was actually giving it a chance because I love whenever Lee Miller shows up in anything, I am such a Hackers fan, for some reason is one of those movies I always end up watching whenever its on the telly, and I was perfectly ok to have a female Watson, but I was not on the train because of Lucy Liu, I just find her to be one of those actresses who dont add anything but prettyness to any movie or show she is in, she is bland and flavourless. I would be more than happy to see her cavorting in little panties in a pink room, but I honestly cant think of any movie she was in which I thought she did a good job, like Lucky Number Slevin would have worked much better if there was someone else in the role.

    But now that a lot of sites are recommending it, and after spending a weeked netflixing Sherlock entirely, I think I may give it a shot. I have only seen brief scenes of Miller’s Sherlock but I have liked what I see, I liked he looks a bit psychotic and disheveled, unlike Cumberbatch’s stoic dark colours and scarf and seriously diamond cut cheekbones (is it like totally cool to be gay about Cumberbatch in Sherlock? Is it one of those things thats even if its gay is still manly because any normal human male would feel like that or should?).

    So I think that I am actually going to watch it now.

  9. The assumption that I’d skipped it out of some prudish, elitist “no remakes/American remakes” stance is insulting–I was actually somewhat curious when I’d heard that Elementary was a remake of Sherlock, as I thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock. Your article pointing out how forced the few moments of chemistry between the cast or humor in the show are, and otherwise consisting entirely of faint praise snuffed that spark of enthusiasm. So, no… your article, for me, actually convinced me I’m not missing anything but a weak attempt to latch onto the property while it’s “hot.”

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