Elementary: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Police Procedural

First of all, I would like to make one thing perfectly clear. If you love CBS’s new crime drama Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson—if you adore it, and have already started making plushies resembling the co-stars and are considering relocation to a dilapidated Manhattan brownstone—then I applaud you and your taste in television. With all sincerity. I think you are wonderful, and I’d like to take you out for a pint. There is room for every new Sherlock Holmes to come down the pipeline; The Great Mouse Detective can coexist in the same world Sherlock Hound occupies, be their species ever so incompatible on paper. Sherlockians like watching new Sherlock Holmes adaptations, period, and we will continue to do so until a production so wholly embodies the detective and the doctor that lo, Paget’s illustrations will have sprung to heady life before our very eyes, and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters will at last be recreated to definitive perfection.

But that day has not yet arrived, so we can move forward! (That is, if you're prepared for slightly spoiler-y comments on plot elements.)

Is Elementary the adaptation that is so without flaw that we can all hang up our deerstalkers and forever call it a day? No. So that’s good news. And there’s plenty more good news where that came from.

There has been a very great deal of Elementary-based snark floating about upon the waves of that great snark ocean, the internet, regarding how dare they copy BBC Sherlock, which is six 90-minute installments of untrammeled awesome, and incidentally how dare they costume Miller in a scarf, because Benedict Cumberbatch also wears a scarf, and he is the only character in television history whose neck gets chilly, look at the man’s neck, that’s just science. I was guilty of a raised eyebrow myself when CBS cast Cumberbatch’s erstwhile Frankenstein cohort Jonny Lee Miller, whose name is unabashedly without h, and who traded roles nightly with Cumberbatch, alternating as the Doctor and the Creature. Then Team BBC joined the fray, with Sue Vertue tweeting “Mmm interesting CBS, I’m surprised no one has thought of making a modern day version of Sherlock before, oh hang on, we have!” (which made me giggle), and making very clear that intellectual property theft would not be greeted with smiles or kittens.

Everyone can officially take a collective sigh of relief on this front: as Team BBC doubtless knows by now, Elementary is nothing whatsoever like Sherlock. In fact, in order to find two shows that are further apart on the Sherlockian spectrum, we’d probably have to screen Matt Frewer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles alongside the 1959 Peter Cushing version. As we can all agree, this is wonderful, because now there are more slices of righteous Sherlock Holmes pie to pass around. And I haven’t a doubt that the majority of Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy CBS’s contribution, even if aspects of it were problematic for me.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu
He uses a cell phone…JUST LIKE THE BBC VERSION!
Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is one rehab stint away from rock bottom, following a mysterious and dark incident involving an unnamed woman, in the classic a lady bruised my heart but I don’t want to talk about it setup that has worked so very many times before in the history of television. He is starting anew, drug-free and living in his father’s least attractive New York residence, which is a massive and glamorous property despite the peeling paint, a worthy replacement for Baker Street. It’s half Bat Cave and half residence, and, as a headquarters for a consulting detective, it’s nicely spacious and grim.

Enter Joan Watson, a disgraced medico hired by Holmes’s father to act as his son’s sober companion. Sherlock doesn’t want a sober companion, but he does want to solve crime, and after discovering that his new babysitter has a real knack for observation (in fact, Joan identifies the discrepancy that solves the case), he realizes that they could be a dynamic duo after all. And really—isn’t crime solving always better with a partner?

As a detective in a police procedural (which is what Elementary is), Miller is nicely energized, often standing slightly off balance and delivering his conclusions in an engagingly erratic fashion, the perfect follow-up to eccentric protagonists from Monk to House (which likewise both owe a debt to Holmes). As Sherlock Holmes, he is something of a puzzle to me. Sherlock Holmes was a languid, poised, aloof, cold, questionably sexual gentleman who maintained iron control over his emotions save when presented with the direst of circumstances. The character Miller is playing is a hyper, edgy, quick-tempered, fiery heterosexual who hires prostitutes when his appetites can’t be managed and reacts to a setback by stealing Joan’s car and deliberately crashing it into their suspect’s vehicle.

Momentarily satisfying? Yes. A move typical of a “reasoning machine”? I defer to your own judgment.

As for Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson, she is incredibly satisfying in a number of ways. A woman who has suffered her own bitter disappointments, she maintains her calm with frank looks and careful silences, absorbing her Sherlock’s manic energy as if it were no worse than radio waves passing through. By the end of the episode, she seems rather entranced by what their work together could look like, and she leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that she can and will stand up to Sherlock’s tantrums. Thus, as a stalwart partner in a police procedural, I quite adored her. As Dr. Watson . . . well, Dr. Watson was a warm, intelligent man of action who barely survived the Afghan War and lived to tell about it, a respected physician who was irresistibly drawn to Holmes’s adventures. The character Liu is playing is a warm, intelligent woman with no combat experience or war wounds to speak of, a shamed surgeon who killed a patient on the operating table and is forced to resort to palling around with a lunatic detective for pay.

Do I like her? I do, very much. I like her enormously. Do I want to see more of her? Yes, I’ll be watching her with interest. Could she have been named Diana Lucretzia Von BananaPants for all her resemblance to Watson? I leave it to your discretion.

I think it’s important to point out that every adaptation will inevitably be dissatisfying in some aspects, and there are many roads that lead to Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. is neither tall nor meticulously clean. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock attains heights of cruelty and misogyny unheard of in the canon. Basil is a mouse. I don’t need every aspect of the books to be incorporated, but I wonder just how far you can walk away from a character’s backstory and retain any sense of the original. After enough cutting and pasting, where are you?

Elementary doesn’t look like a show based on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It looks like a show based on Monk, CSI, Cold Case, Psych, and Bones, none of which would exist without Sherlock Holmes, which is beginning to seem a bit like photocopying a pencil copy of a sketch drawn on tracing paper laid over the original. I was honored to see the pilot at the UCLA conference “Sherlock Holmes: Behind the Canonical Screen,” followed by a Q&A with producer Robert Doherty, who was extremely affable and explained that they wrote their Watson from the ground up, started absolutely fresh, so that she could be the perfect foil for their reimagined Holmes. It worked. But it doesn’t make either of them particularly recognizable.

Aidan Quinn and Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary
Aidan Quinn as a perfectly respectable cop.
As for the mystery itself, there is a gruesome murder, and there are very competent police officers I liked tremendously investigating it (Aidan Quinn as Tobias Gregson is phenomenal), and I often wondered just what the devil Sherlock Holmes was doing there. It’s all well and good to deduce that the murderer was known to the victim because there are enough broken shards for two glasses of water, but forensics would have worked that out within ten minutes at most, and other feats of finding small blood stains and discovering safe rooms likewise don’t take a genius to figure out. What made Sherlock Holmes necessary in the Victorian Era was the fact that forensics as we know them didn’t exist, period. Modern adaptations like Sherlock and Elementary have a very tough row to hoe on that front, and there was nothing about this Sherlock I found indispensible or even particularly necessary—all the more so when Joan, who has a razor mind of her own, ultimately carries the field by taking note of a suspect’s allergy.

(For the record, I love that Joan saves the day with her lightning wits. I just wish Sherlock had more to do than rapid-fire monologues about what crime scenes look like and standing around being very tattooed.)

Easter eggs for the hardcore fans are few and far between, though—to my immense satisfaction—Sherlock keeps bees on the roof of his townhouse and is actively working on the Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. There are several splendid moments of warmth and humor, including Sherlock deducing whether or not the Mets will lose (take a wild guess) and explaining to Joan of a particularly amazing deduction, “I Googled you.” Their chemistry is charming, their patter quick, and it would be a hard push to find two better looking people to slap on the telly, which led Doherty to swear up and down to us that there would be no kissing. Ever.

My biggest issue is that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are adventures, an aspect of tremendous importance to me that seems to have been entirely missed by Elementary. Sherlock and Joan’s lives are threatened exactly zero times in the pilot episode, and there are precisely zero fight scenes, which is an average that will doubtless change soon, but meanwhile I found frankly baffling. There are no secret criminal societies thus far, nor suspected vampires, nor glowing hounds, nor snakes trained to kill people, nor mongoose accomplices, nor poisoned blowdarts, nor exotic roots that when burned and inhaled will drive you mad. There was a murderer. (Spoiler alert: they caught the murderer.) It made for good television. As adventures go, my cats lead lives of greater visceral thrill.

It will be intriguing to see where the series goes from week to week, as Sherlock and Joan run amok in the Big Apple, free now and forever of the taint suggesting they too closely resemble Sherlock. Meanwhile, my advice to Joan: invest in a gun, my dear Watson. Because I dearly, dearly hope that you will be needing it. If not now, then all too soon.


All images copyright ©2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

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Lyndsay Faye is the author of Dust and Shadow and The Gods of Gotham. She tweets @LyndsayFaye.

Read all Lyndsay Faye’s posts on Criminal Element.


  1. Clare 2e

    I am a fan of procedurals, and you’ve inspired me to keep me eyes open for those elements so I can evaluate it among its peers procedural, especially ones with a single idiosyncratic focus character like The Mentalist or the new Perception. Glad at least to hear Watson’s useful!

  2. vschrein

    Interesting review. It made me think, but also much of what you mention still caters to my initial low expectations. As you said, Holmes canon is, if not anything, adventures. If there is no sense of adventure in the first episode then it is Sherlock Holmes placed in the all-to-familiar US police procedure setting. I still watch Bones for that (and get the straight-science, practical-minded Bones partnered with a more emotional, ex-military agent Booth). Gender change and role reversal on that one.

    A Study in Pink had Sherlock and John running all around London after taxi cabs and coming home to an impromptu “drugs bust”; there’s some adventure. The Fall had more running around and in handcuffs and a run-in with the Napoleon of Crime himself. Fun times. And, John always manages to have a gun when needed. Then you have the greatest bromance in literary history. I love the love between Holmes and Watson (Sherlock and John, House and Wilson, RDJ’s Holmes and Law’s Watson). You simply can’t have that when you change one gender (changing both to females would be a different story entirely). Elementary, I fear, will lack it despite an apparent chemistry and friendship between the two characters.

    Using the names Holmes and Watson mean certain things to me. Ultimately, despite my personal vow to give the first episode a chance, I think I have too much of a criteria of who these characters should be. BBC’s Sherlock manages to adhere to it fine for me–and the lead performances are top-notch–(although some in my BSI scion will surely not agree with me). After seeing clips and reading several reviews, my expectations are still, unfortunately, low. I likely won’t add another procedural to my must-see list. For me, that’s elementary.

  3. Lowenstein of Prague

    Great review, well written, thoughtful, witty, observant, and spot on. Worthy contribution from a new generation of BSI. Thanks.

  4. Nicholas Winter

    Out of sheer curiosity, where in the Canon dors it say Watson barely survived Afghanistan? I’ve read the stories several times and there’s scant material on his time there beyond being wounded there.

  5. kete

    I thought it wasn’t bad for a pilot, but it was a totally generic US crime show with totally generic lead characters and I just couldn’t see any reason for calling the leads Holmes and Watson other than to cash in on the BBC!Sherlock hype. They could have been called Jones and Smith and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. And do I want to support cashing in on other people’s efforts and originality? No, I certainly don’t. And as a procedural there are several I do enjoy more.

  6. Lyndsay

    The depiction of Watson nearly dying in the canon occurs in A Study in Scarlet–after being shot, his orderly Murray saved his life by throwing him over a pack horse, and while convalescing, he developed a severe case of enteric fever that nearly finished him. By the time he comes back to London, he has “nervous” issues that cause him to avoid “rows,” probably shades of PTSD.

  7. Violet de McK

    Lyndsay, you did a lovely job, as always. I read parts aloud to my spouse in appreciation of Nice Turns of Phrase. I agree with your observations and echo Kete (above) in wondering why the characters are called “Holmes & Watson.” That said, I do find Liu and Miller to be eminently watchable, even compelling, actors — I consider the tattoos to be a bit of sugar on the man-candy that is Jonny Lee and will watch for that reason alone (but only On Demand, not waiting for the first showing of the episode like I do for Sherlock). I can only hope that Liu might reprise her role in “Kill Bill” with some serious swordplay (damn, what a Sherlock she could have made), but I’ve resigned myself to yet another Eames to Jonny’s Goren…with the added enjoyment of Aidan Quinn.

  8. Carmen Pinzon

    What @Violet said.

  9. Marjorie of Connecticut

    Thanks for this, Lyndsay. What a well-reasoned and thoughtful review.

    You caught even more of what’s missing than I did and you summed up quite a bit of what I was feeling. I will surely watch the show again and I will hope that there is more development of the characters all around.

    Aidan Quinn, a talented actor, was wasted. (For those who want to see him play a cop with a really good storyline, seek out the movie “Blink”.)

    My own major problem is that this Holmes just wasn’t all that smart. I never saw anything impressive or extraordinalry going on in his eyes (like Downey, Brett, Cumberbatch and Rathbon, for instance). And, worst of all, ,the nost interesting character, so far, is Holmes’ powerful, weathly, and apparently caring, father. Now there’s a complicated man that I want to meet. Thanks.

  10. Tatiana deCarillion

    I watched this, also with low expectations, and I have mixed feelings. As a Holmes/Watson reimagining–just…no. No. There is as much relationship between Doyle’s work and this as there is between Mirren’s Prime Suspect and Bello’s.

    As another crime program, to add to the list that I watch–maybe. I agree that there are too many comedic elements (deliberate and unintended) for it to escape comparison to Monk, et al. but I was left feeling meh, when it was over. I will give it another episode or so, to find its feet, but I’m not going to continue any comparison to my beloved Holmes and Watson. This is another show, entirely.

    The only thing the same are the names.

  11. not Bridget

    Sue Vertue’s comment is based on CBS’s request of the Sherlock team to develop a show for the US market. Their shows keep them rather busy & they probably remember what happened to Coupling over here; they refused.

    So CBS went ahead, anyway–Sherlock Holmes is mostly in public domain. From what I’ve read, they have been so eager to avoid any resemblance to Sherlock that they’ve ignored a good bit of ACD’s canon. Well, the showrunners are probably not Sherlock Holmes fanboys like Moffat & Gatiss…

    No problem. Miller & Liu are capable of good work and I hate seeing ragged folks sitting at intersections holding “Will Act For Food” signs. Let’s hope the writing improves.

    Years ago, cable, the ‘net & my own library freed me from dependance on the network schedules. Therefore, I’ll catch Elementary as I do most procedurals–when it pops up on TNT or begins streaming on Netflix.

  12. Dean

    >with Sue Vertue tweeting “Mmm interesting CBS, I’m surprised no one has thought of making a modern day version of Sherlock before, oh hang on, we have!”

    Wow, I missed that at the time. That’s awfully ironic considering CBS had already done not one, but two, previous versions of Sherlock set in the modern day.

    And that it’s far from unique there, -every adaptation was in a contemporary setting right up to Rathbone in the late 30s iirc, for the first two films in his series, but even then the later films were contemporary. It’s far from an original concept in regards to Holmes.

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