I was recently lamenting Hollywood’s apparent need to force all platonic, opposite-gender characters into romantic relationships, and received a recommendation (thanks, Beedrill!) to check out Elementary as a contrast. Happily, my library had Season One on DVD, and I had an opening in my “mystery show” viewing slot.
Elementary is a Sherlock Holmes-reimagining, set in modern-day New York (though Holmes is still British), following the adventure of recovering-addict and consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and his sober companion/eventual friend Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). Consulting with the NYPD, it follows the usual mystery show format of a murder-a-week, with a later in the season arc involving archenemy Moriarty.
I was reluctant to watch this show back when it first appeared because the gender flip of Watson was weirding me out. I think gender flips in general are interesting, but I had assumed Hollywood would do what Hollywood does and wind up with an eventual Holmes/Watson romance which just feels deeply, deeply wrong on some level, no matter who is what gender or orientation. So it was good to hear that wasn’t the direction the show went, and I can verify that at least in Season One there isn’t even a hint of romantic interest between the show’s principal characters—which I find all to the good, because their friendship is more intriguing.
This show makes much of Holmes’ cocaine addiction (which was such a tiny part of Doyle’s stories, but never mind…) to give Watson’s presence a reason and to give the brilliant detective a flaw. Along with general asocial tendencies. It’s not my favorite aspect of Holmes and I think Elementary veers a little far into Holmes-the-madman territory—but it’s a difficult line and it didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the show.
Watson was even more engaging. I think in some ways the gender-flipping really served her character because in some ways she was treated more as male characters are (more) typically treated than female ones. She has her own complex backstory and interesting arc to explore, and her physical appearance (despite being played by Lucy Liu) is pretty much a nil point in the story.
The dynamic between the two characters is a lot of fun, and I will acknowledge that crippling Holmes in some ways gives Watson more power in the dynamic, making them closer to equals than hero and sidekick. Watson does not hold back on her irritation with Holmes’ more out there or inconsiderate actions, but they also have a nicely growing friendship and mutual caring.
The murders are never too horrific for relatively squeamish me, and there are some nice touches of humor here and there. The Moriarty plotline comes in towards the latter part of the season, and I think marked an elevation in the show’s quality. Up until then it was a fairly standard crime-a-week procedural show, but that brought some more unusual (and more Doyle-connected) elements in, with a legitimately brilliant twist in the last couple episodes.
The comparison to the BBC’s Sherlock is inescapable, two modern-day Holmes TV shows that even premiered around the same time. Well…Elementary is no Sherlock, but Sherlock ranks easily in the top five best TV shows I’ve ever seen, so it’s hardly a fair bar to set, is it? Elementary is a very enjoyable mystery show with engaging lead characters—and at least it comes out more consistently than Sherlock! I already have Season Two on reserve at the library.