A Plea for Leniency for Elementary: In Defence of Dual Enjoyment

Sherlock Elementary

Let me get one thing straight: I love Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are excellent as the eponymous detective and his brilliant partner, and I am eagerly awaiting the release of the next three movie-length episodes. I also love the smaller things about the series, like Watson’s cuddly jumpers and the absolute perfect wardrobe of Jim Moriarty… not to mention a certain someone’s cheekbones. Oh, the cheekbones.


Was this really necessary? I thought you were above this, Sherlockians!
Was this really necessary? I thought you were above this.

One aspect of Sherlock that I do not like is the fan base. More specifically, it is the reaction to the American program Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. The show was an underdog from the start. Not only did it have to compete with the near-universally praised critical success of the BBC produced Sherlock, it also had competition in the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law blockbuster film series- though, the less said about that the better. The backlash and outrage over the show was, and still is, immense. Why make a new Sherlock when we have a perfectly good version? Why is Joan a girl? Why does it have to be in the U.S? Comment thread upon comment thread was devoted to these questions, with none of the answers positive. Now, I’m a fan of the nerd-rage as much as the next person (sometimes I ask Star Wars forums who shot first, then sit back and watch the magic happen), but this is a bit much.

I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t join in with the naysayers. North American adaptations of British cultural icons rarely go well. While not strictly the same, you would think that the cataclysmic failure of the Americanised versions of The IT Crowd and Skins would make the producers think twice before giving this project the green light. It’s worse when American producers take British history or literature and give it the blockbuster Hollywood treatment. (Looking at you, Prince of Thieves! Not even Alan Rickman’s sneer-face could save you.) This is why I was apprehensive. I was afraid that Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic texts were going to be turned into a cookie-cutter police procedural where the only authenticity lay in the names. I was half right.

I love Martin Freeman, but his hair can't do that.
I love Martin Freeman, but his hair can’t do that.

Elementary is, in my opinion, an excellent police-procedural-mystery-thriller hybrid. Miller captures an acidic, untouchable and yet vulnerable aesthetic that makes him riveting to watch. However, the standout performance is Liu as the now-female Joan (John) Watson. One issue I have with Sherlock is that women tend to be watered down incarnations of the Triple Goddess- child, mother, seductress. While this is in line with the source text, it would have looked out of place if there were suddenly very few women in modern day New York. This might create a Hobbit situation. (In all seriousness, where ARE the dwarf ladies in that film?) Liu straddles the line perfectly between being the exposition pawn and the moral compass of the show, while being a strong female character that I can appreciate without becoming a feminist caricature. The mysteries are engaging, the balance between serial plots and cases-of-the-week is perfect, and the character development across the board is realistic and appealing. It just has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes.

Yes, the character named Holmes is a genius. He is a loner. He has an amazing eidetic memory. The Watson expy is (was) a doctor, there for exposition and to be the heart and humanity of the program. They work together for a struggling police force solving crimes, especially those perpetrated by a character called Moriarty. That’s where the similarities stop. The source-based nuances evident in the BBC version just aren’t there in Elementary, and the intricacies of the book mysteries and characters are lost in a 24 episode series. It appears that the person responsible for describing Sherlock Holmes was doing so via Etch-a-Sketch. However, this does not mean it is a terrible show- it is just not a close adaptation.

This is why I don’t understand the outrage. The series’ are as different as apples and oranges; this isn’t a Trek vs. Wars situation, it’s more like Doctor Who vs. Law and Order SVU. One beloved British institution against a well-written American procedural. The existence of one does not preclude your enjoyment of the other, nor does it mean that either one is diminished. I like both. Sure, Sherlock makes me more excited, more emotional, more geeky. It doesn’t mean I can’t get an enjoyable 45 minutes out of Elementary. I’m not telling you to like the show; if you aren’t a fan of SVU or perhaps The Mentalist, then you probably aren’t going to be into this sort of series. However, for the rest of you, why not give Elementary a go? Just pretend it’s a regular, original show that just happens to have a character called Sherlock.

As a side-note though, for any American producers who may be reading: If any of you dare to try and adapt the BBC Sherlock for U.S audiences, I will feed you to my dragons.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Elementary is a lot better than I had expected, but I’m not that big of a fan. I wasn’t a big fan of Jonny Lee Miller until I finally watched Trainspotting a few months back. He and Liu, are both great actors. His Holmes is pretty good, a lot better than Downey.

    I really wish there were fewer episodes, though. I fear that they’ll burn out quick.

    • One definite positive of Elementary is that is is miles ahead of the Downey Jr. movies in terms of believability, suspense….acting…..!

      I agree that it would have been better off going American Horror Story style, 12-13 episodes. It will soon burn out, just like you said. SVU can handle it because it isn’t meant to be based on anything except perhaps ‘ripped from the headlines’ stories.

  2. Spencer

    Both are good in their own game but the Elementary series provides quite a raw plot. Sherlock Holmes creates his deductions based on his observations however it lacks the appeal of Sherlock. It does not provide the same interaction with the viewer as much as I have wanted, like what Mark Gattis did in Sherlock…

    • Yes, as a viewer I want to be in on the deductions, you want to be Sherlock, not the cops. Sometimes Elementary lets us see the deductions at work, but when it doesn’t, I feel like I am missing chunks of story.

  3. Taylor Ramsey

    I have enjoyed Elementary so far, I have only watched a few though, and my biggest fear is that they will do what all US TV does; try to create a love interest between the leads. That would be awful. Holmes and Watson was possibly the very first Bromance, and changing the friendship dynamic would be wrong. It is not in any way BBC version and nothing like as good, but it is enjoyable for what it is.
    Love the Doctor Who vs. Law and Order SVU comparison BTW.
    Great article.

    • Yes, I think it relates to the whole “quality television” argument- Sherlock is clearly quality, but since Elementary doesn’t quite measure up, does it mean we need to exchange one or the other? Interesting thoughts.

  4. Andrew Couzens

    Hey Kat! I think the real issue was that when CBS announced a modern-day TV version of Sherlock Holmes, they timed it to take advantage of enthusiasm drummed up by Sherlock. Not the fault of the show’s producers (actually… it might be) but the unfortunate fact is they made the show with Sherlock’s audience in mind, and therefore comparisons are fair game, despite the fact that the two shows share neither format nor genre.

    • Fair enough- it was the rise in Sherlock related programming that springboarded the creation of Elementary. However, does capitalising on a trend mean that they were gunning for Sherlock’s audience? I think they wanted to expand the audience to generalised American viewers (i.e…CBS). I would question whether the producers were so narrow-minded as to think that Sherlock viewers would gravitate to anything Sherlockian.

  5. Katherine Kingsle

    I was pretty skeptical about Elementary to begin with, just because of all the Sherlock remakes. But now that I’ve actually seen it, I like it a lot better than Sherlock. Elementary is brimming with a diversity I think a lot of shows miss, not to mention it’s female characters are incredibly well written (I’m side-eyeing Moffat). I really like that you approached this evenhandedly though, a lot of people tend to take sides.

    • Wow, I haven’t actually met someone who prefers Elementary to Sherlock! I can see why, there are certain elements to Moffat’s work that i’m sure eagle-eyed viewers will pick up on in a few years once the shine has worn off. I’ll still love the show, but somehow I think I will love it more when there are less rabid fans telling me IT IS PERFECT. EVERYTHING IS PERFECT. It’s like how even the most die-hard LOTR fans can see the flaws, it just doesn’t stop them from enjoying the work!

  6. Was really expecting to hate Elementary considering they turned something BBC has been doing so well into a crime of the week drama but its been pretty amusing and Sherlock is an amusing enough character to get meto watch every week. I know this comes with the once a week episodes but they’re really not going anything I haven’t seen before on The Mentalist or House (both are kind of rip offs of Sherlock Holmes but still they’ve used tricks or deductions that I’m just seeing again watching Elementary).

    • Yes, I am a huge fan of Psych, which (in case you haven’t seen it) is sort of like the comedy version of Mentalist. I do see similarities between those programs and Elementary, to the point when I can sort of guess what is coming. I have to think though, is that the fault of Elementary? I just happen to like deductive reasoning, so of course things will look repetitive. Asking the writers to come up with entirely new Sherlock Holmes plotlines without any repetition would be a huge ask!

      • swanpride

        Just for the record: Psych was there first. If anything, the Mentalist is a serious version of Psych.
        What bothers me personally about Elementary are two things: One, that the characters are named Holmes and Watson, but I don’t see enough of Holmes and Watson in them that they should be named that way. Under any other name it would be a very good take on the Sherlock Holmes concept, like House, Monk, Psych, The Mentalist, Bones aso have been, but the moment the slapped the real name on it, they promised that they would adapt the actual character. Perhaps the writers simply tried to be so different from Sherlock that they ended up to be too different from Canon, too, or they simply didn’t care.
        And two, I think this show went on the air at least five years too late. Back then, this would have been a somewhat fresh take on a crime-show. But as it is, it reminds me of the same stuff I have seen the last year so often that I’ve gotten tired of it. It reminds me the most of Castle, and I stopped watching Castle a season ago. The Mentalist, I’m not bothered when I miss out an episode or two at this point. And it was nearly a chore to watch the last season of Psych, I mostly did it because I want to see it through.
        Thus said, I can see Crime show fans enjoying it…but I’m not exactly a crime show fan, I don’t even watch CSI, and it’s really, really rare that I see a Crime show through until the very end. Sherlock naturally has the advantage of fewer episodes and it’s not exactly a crime show, more a character study of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s mostly interesting because it has so much to offer visually. In this sense – no, I don’t think that Sherlock’s shine will ever really wear off. I don’t like LotR, but it will always be the movie series which changed the way Fantasy stories are told. And Sherlock will always be the first TV series which plastered the text messages on screen instead of showing a close up of the mobile, or the first one which raised a bed for a stunning effect. Independent from what one likes better, there are TV shows which are revolutionary in one way or another (the same was a not emphatic doctor was something different when House started, or CSI established the idea of showing science in a Crime show, and Buffy will always be the show which defined a whole Genre new, and Mary Tyler Moore offered a new kind of Comedy), and those TV shows will always be remembered more for the good than the bad in them.

  7. Dennis Corsi

    I appreciate your willingness to allow Elementary to be its own show. I think people too often expect one thing to be exactly like another and critique it accordingly. I see this particularly when a novel is adapted into a film (or a television show in this case). Something should be able to be inspired by another work without having to be a perfect replica of the work. Where would be the fun in that?!

    • Absolutely. As long as the adaptation makes plain that it is just going to the ‘feel’ or the ‘idea’ of a source work, I have no problem with it.

      I think you hit on gold with the term ‘willingness’. A lot of people weren’t willing to see Elementary as anything other that competition for Sherlock- a real shame.

  8. Rudi Azank

    Nice article! To consider Elememtary as a loose adaptation of Holmes does basically eliminate my bias to it — i find Sherlock one of the greatest adaptations of a literary work to a modem tv show keeping the details and nuances of Conan Doyle’s stories. You’ve convinced me that Elementary’s showrunner’s are making a good procedural based on holmes, and to not see it in competition with Sherlock for the better adaptation of Doyle’s brilliant works — though, bear in mind, CBS did first try to hire Steve Moffat to just remake Sherlock for America, and he flat out refused – so though the show’s creative minds are doing good work, the network behind it has less noble motives.

    • Yes, I don’t suppose networks are in it for the authenticity! Go Moffat for refusing- he knew exactly what would happen and he stopped it before it could begin! I’m glad that I was able to convince you about how Elementary is a good procedural- that doesn’t mean people have to like it, but it does show how it is not in direct competition in any way with Sherlock. There are 24 hours in a day- I have room for both. Well, maybe on alternate days. I have to work!

  9. Amy Wood

    I love your article! I love both shows, and completely agree with your point 🙂 Elementary should definitely be seen as a show of its own, and I think it is crucial to its success that it strays from the original.

  10. Jessica Koroll

    This was a very refreshing article to read. I agree wholeheartedly! While I was sceptical about Elementary when it first began to air, I’ve heard that it’s recently had a lot of new and innovative twists that have helped it to stand out. I’ve actually been thinking of giving it another look, recently. I always found it a little ridiculous how defensive some BBC Sherlock fans would get over their show whenever Elementary was brought up. As it’s already been said, Sherlock Holmes has been adapted so many times and into so many different genres that there’s no reason why the two can’t co-exist. Plus, I like your points about what Elementary is doing right in the gender bending department. I really love what Lucy Liu brings to the role of Watson, as well as her chemistry with Johnny Lee Miller. That’s one thing the writers certainly seem to be getting right.

  11. Elementary is decent on the whole, but as an American show, it ultimately ends up moralizing where it shouldn’t – namely the Season Finale. Sherlock’s portrayal of what happens to Irene plays out so much better for a 3-d characterization for Sherlock. Elementary’s portrayal of what happens to Irene just reaffirms that that Sherlock is a 2-D moralizing, American character.

  12. swanpride

    Just for fun: google Sherlock vs Elementary and restrict the result to the last month – and you’ll find countless posts why Elementary is supposedly better. I got the impression that the outrage more or less died down after it became clear that Elementary isn’t a rip-off (just a show which jumped on the gravy train), and that the Sherlock Fans are by now mostly annoyed that there are actually people out there who say that Elementary is “better” despite the fact that both shows are totally different and Elementary can be barely called an adaptation because it changed so much.
    Same with the female Watson – while there were doubts from the start I got the impression that Joan not being an army doctor who was invalided home is a bigger issue than her being female.

    • Yes, reversing the binary hardly solves the issue. It’s like saying “Schindler’s List is BETTER than When Harry Met Sally”. Well. yeah, in a lot of ways. Why are you comparing these two things again?

  13. Yoga Punguin

    I love “Elementary.” Liu and Miller are just fantastic together.

    Can’t we enjoy BOTH Sherlock shows???

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