Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Elementary Season 1 Review

When it was announced that the US were going to do a take on Sherlock Holmes so close to the release and success of the BBC's new English Sherlock series I was highly sceptical. I really love the BBC's Sherlock and Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freedman had done such a great job creating modernised versions of Sherlock and Watson that I was sure that the US version would be recreating something that was already being done. My fears were not alleviated when I heard that the writers/producers of this new show had approached Steven Moffat (of the UK series) and asked to copy the first few episodes. Moffat said no and the project left a bad taste in my mouth.

Then the casting for Elementary was revealed; Jonny Lee Miller would be playing Sherlock and in a gender bend Lucy Liu would take on Watson. I had recently seen the encore of Frankenstein live at the National Theatre in which Lee Millar and Cumberbatch were swapping the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein. This seemed like a ploy; why were they casting the actor who had so recently shared a lead role with the very man who was playing the same character in the BBC version? Then there was the gender bend. Was this going to be played for novelty value or was this going to be a well-developed character that wouldn't simply swoon and pander to Sherlock's every wish providing a love interest rather than a friend, investigative mind and confidant? Lucy Liu is a formidable actress so while I thought she would be an amazing female lead, an actor is only as good as the writing and script are.

I decided to wait until people told me whether or not it was any good before potentially investing. I was told in the beginning that it was like Castle, which again served to put me off. Castle is good and everything, but I didn't want another simple buddy cop show with Lucy Liu playing a love interest the way that Beckett and Castle's relationship has dragged out for seasons. It's what put me off Castle.

After season one I was assured that not only was that not the case for Watson and Sherlock's relationship, but both Liu and Lee Miller were nailing the roles and recreating them as their own. I decided to give it a go and I have to say it is fantastic!

Follow me under the cut for a look at the first season of Elementary.

It's impossible for me to talk about Elementary's strengths without making reference to the BBC's Sherlock. For me, the two are inextricably tied together. Many people have continued to emphasise that they are different shows but that doesn't serve to convince those of us who are scared that Elementary will make a mockery of our beloved characters. It also doesn’t help those viewers who think that they are better off sticking with the UK version; after all, Sherlock came first. The characters in the two shows exist in completely different settings and their story is now unfolding concurrently.

So let's begin with this; Elementary's introduction of Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson in no way reflects that of the BBC's Sherlock and Watson. Refreshingly, Joan is an ex-surgeon and current sober companion who gets paired up with the difficult and recently out of rehab Sherlock. This gives them a reason to stay together that goes much further to believability than the notion that Watson just wants to be in Sherlock's presence. While that bond and friendship might grow over time, her reason for remaining with Sherlock initially is that she is being paid to do a job. This also means that she doesn't need to be around him when he's being difficult and doesn't immediately become integral to his investigations. She is learning from him as he is learning from her. The BBC version does this differently and perhaps equally successfully, but in this case because of the gender bend, it's particularly important that Elementary got the set up right.

Joan Watson's role is to ensure that Sherlock doesn't fall off the wagon and in doing her job she is dragged into his world. He is a consultant to the police and she is his companion. Although part of her resists the desire to investigate gruesome crimes or even sympathise with someone as difficult as Sherlock, there is a big and often hidden part of her that finds his work invigorating. This struggle is her central focus for the season. Sherlock's arc is about letting his guard down and trusting someone again; letting himself become friends with Joan is not easy.

As the season continues the relationship that grows between Sherlock and Watson becomes the hook to keep watching the show as they navigate complex emotional situations and develop a more realistic friendship. Rather than any romantic connection, Joan Watson seems like a best friend in the truest sense for Sherlock. The characterisation is actually very much like The Doctor and Companion relationship in Doctor Who although here it is allowed to grow organically into something with depth and complexity. Joan is as integral to Sherlock's success in life as he is to hers, even though both could initially function without the other. They make each other better people.

This is probably also an advantage of Elementary’s longer seasons, that allow the characters to grow more slowly and authentically than in Sherlock, which requires the plot to dominate due to three episode seasons. In this context Benedict Cumberbatch has done an incredible job of being so distinctly and identifiably Sherlock Holmes. However, given more breathing room, Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock rewards the viewer with nuances that are very different to Cumberbatch's portrayal but are still distinctly Sherlock Holmes. Lee Miller's Sherlock gives the impression he is on the autistic spectrum where, although Cumberbatch's might share similar traits, he seems to be bordering on sociopath. While Lee Miller's Sherlock seems to bottle up emotion and cut off his access to it, he does experience intense love, compassion and other connections. Cumberbatch's version seems bored with the world and devoid of interest or sympathy with other human beings. Indeed, he will put his own life in danger to solve a puzzle, not for revenge as Lee Miller's might. It's particularly confusing when Cumberbatch's Sherlock encounters Irene Adler and seems like he might strike up a romantic interest. I chose to interpret this more as a fascination with her mind and techniques rather than a genuine care for the person herself. From Lee Miller's performance it is very clear that his Sherlock cared so deeply for Irene Adler that it was her alleged death that caused him to try to cut off those emotions with substance abuse.

Watson is also different. Freedman's version has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and therefore likes the danger that Sherlock's company brings. He has a lot of characteristics in common with Sherlock as well. Watson admires Sherlock in some ways but also sees the friendship as a means for him getting the release he needs for his own condition. The two skirt around becoming friends but seem more to be dependant on each other to feed their addictions to risk and danger. Joan genuinely cares for Sherlock but also has her own issues to sort out. She believes that helping Sherlock has opened a door to addressing her own problems. As the two interact a real connection begins to develop that goes beyond both need and admiration.

Elementary includes all the traditional problem solving crimes that are expected but interweaves these with interesting character development, observation and strong performances by all of the actors. The cases have a sense of realism to them that shows like Castle simply do not have. If you want to invest your time in a detective show; I'd recommend this one. It's fun and equal measures light hearted and deep. The humour play is gentle and the plot isn't as intricate and problem solving oriented as might alienate some viewers. Instead, there is a focus on the nuance of human interactions that is both interesting and fulfilling.

And wait until you meet Moriarty. Just wait.


  1. Nice review, I think it helps to be able to read about this show from the perspective of someone who is genuinely a fan not just of Elementary but the other interpretations of Sherlock as well.
    So far I'm only a few episodes in, Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are great but I feel the cases are a bit lacking in complexity, they don't challenge me and I figure them out pretty quickly. I'll keep watching though.

    1. That's what I meant by it deliberately not being so complex so as to alienate casual viewers - I think it's done that on purpose to ensure more accessibility.

      I think for me, this show is 100% about the characters and their relationship so as you get more attached you may find the ease of the plot bothering you less. There are also some harder ones as it goes on.

  2. This is your best review yet, Ness!

    And Courtney: I agree that the puzzles aren't typically quite as mind-boggling in Elementary as Sherlock, but the episodes are 10-20 minutes shorter. There's only so much you can do - and they're at least far more complex than that other deduction detective show, Psych!

  3. Hannibal does weekly murder mysteries really well in roughly the same run time plus what's really engaging there is that each episode follows on from the last. Elementary is all one-shots, not that those are a bad thing, but it's hard to make me want to come back each week if nothing really changes.

    1. I was having this conversation a couple of weeks ago actually. I too am a fan of long arcs that reward you for coming back so I am sure Hannibal will do that for me. Most shows with all one-shots I get sick of very quickly. The character stuff in Elementary is what keeps me coming back. The couple I was talking to though were saying they hate anything but one-shots. They prefer all the one-shots. I think a mix is preferable but it made me realise that the majority of people engaged in main stream television like the drop-in drop-out philosophy.

  4. Thanks for the review, was sceptical about this one being a rip-off, but I think I'll give it a go.