Elementary: Is it just BBC Sherlock with adverts and a bloke with tattoos?

Oh dear, there is marital discord in the air now that husband and I have just watched the first two episodes of CBS’s Elementary – or ‘lemon entry’ as he insists on calling it.

Husband loved it, described it as excellent, well written and managed to stay awake all the way through – always a test of how good TV shows are.  I’m just not so sure.  So then we argued.  And now he’s sulking in the kitchen.  Time to put my thoughts into a blog methinks . . .

I couldn’t watch the episodes when they first aired in the UK due to being in hospital with a broken leg.  Husband kindly recorded them on the Sky box and so we sat this morning, me with my leg up on lots of cushions, and finally watched the show previously known as American Sherlock.

I know I should be judging Elementary in its own right, not in relation to BBC Sherlock, of which I am admittedly very fond, but it’s hard to do that.  Sherlock came first – came, saw and conquered as far as I’m concerned.  How can I just put that to one side?  Would Elementary have happened at all if not for Sherlock?  It certainly wouldn’t have had so much press.

For those who don’t know (or have been living under a rock) Elementary is a modern, American series which takes the character of Sherlock Holmes and has him solving crimes in present-day New York – assisted by Joan Watson, a woman who his father has hired to be his ‘sober partner’.  This Holmes is a recovering addict who previously worked as a consultant to Scotland Yard and then came to NY for re-hab.  He gets in touch with Captain Gregson who knew him from London and offers his skills as a consultant detective.

I started watching it and couldn’t miss the similarities to Sherlock.  The coat with the collar, the scarf, the use of technology, the modern setting, the title set against a cityscape, a crime centring on a missing phone (Study in Pink anyone?).  Yes this Sherlock is half naked when we first see him and covered in tattoos, but the eccentricities, the perfect English diction, the frenetic behaviour all made me think of Benedict Cumberbatch.  And Captain Gregson is basically BBC’s Lestrade with an American accent.

But this show is different to Sherlock, in content and style, and this did start to take over as the episode progressed.  Watson is a woman (played by Lucy Liu) and is not an army doctor – she’s not a soldier missing the battlefield like Martin Freeman’s John.   There is no big brother Mycroft – instead Holmes has wealthy parents looking over his shoulder.  And it’s a more conventional cop drama, not as stylised as Sherlock – Elementary plays things for real with a greater sense of naturalism.  Personally, I think this makes it dull by comparison, less imaginative, less humour, less of a ‘cult-classic’.  Husband disagreed and said that this gave it gravitas, quality.

But, putting BBC Sherlock aside, my biggest problem with Elementary was that it was so diluted from the original Sherlock Holmes stories and characters that it was barely recognisable.  Change the names and you’d have just another US cop show like The Mentalist or CSI.  There were very few references to the canon and the stories had no relation to any of the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tales.  Yes I know they threw in a few things like the bees, opera, violin, Gregson, mind-attic and the Holmes-Watson partnership, but that’s simply not enough for me.  I doubt people will watch Elementary and feel fascinated enough to want to read the originals or support the Undershaw Preservation Trust for example.

BBC Sherlock comes across as a loving tribute relying heavily on, and cleverly re-working, the source material – created by genuine Sherlock Holmes fans making their own fan-fiction.  I don’t know what Elementary came cross as to be honest, but it didn’t feel like that to me.

So did I hate it?  No, not at all.  It was very watchable and Jonny Lee Millar played Holmes well, with a nice balance of warmth, rudeness, control and rage.  And I really liked the tattoos; they set Holmes even farther apart from the official police, from normality.  The way the show brings in Holmes’ drug use is clever too.  I thought I would have issues with Watson being a woman but I didn’t.  It felt completely natural and they did a great job of keeping the friendship free from sexual tension.  My only criticism here would be that I find Lucy Liu a bit cold, severe even.   I have heard it said that she would have made a great Holmes and this may well be true.

The deductions aren’t bad – some work a lot better than others – but they do demonstrate fairly well Holmes’ method.

I enjoyed the second episode more (husband enjoyed it less) as it did contain more banter between Holmes and Watson and the crime was more in-line with the sort of thing encountered in the originals – someone bumping off heirs to secure a large inheritance.

I will carry on watching (gosh that will be a big relief for the show’s creators) and my gut feeling is that things will get better.  Elementary might be a slow-burn, but it’s simmering away quite well so far.  However, I doubt it will match the firestorm that is BBC Sherlock and sadly doesn’t come close to the brilliance of the original stories.  Took my mind off the pain of my broken leg though, and for that I am most grateful.

See also: Have we seen this Sherlock somewhere before?

About barefootonbakerstreet

Author from Shropshire
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11 Responses to Elementary: Is it just BBC Sherlock with adverts and a bloke with tattoos?

  1. I know I could’t say this, but I’m not in the mood of seeing Elementary. Too close to Sherlock, too similar in the concept and too different in important things (Watson a woman???). My friends are watching it and liking it, but for me it’s not the moment yet. So I’ll see and judge it when I’ll be ready. Now I prefer to rewatch season 1 and 2 of BBC Sherlock.

  2. LuAnn says:

    I, for one, like Elementary much better than Sherlock. This Holmes lets a bit more compassion slip out like the original, whereas BBC’s Sherlock seems devoid of it, almost creepy. I think the relationship between Holmes and Joan Watson is developing well–and I like the twist on Watson being a woman and former surgeon–it’s creative.. The plots are much more straightforward like the originals than the convoluted BBC plots. And they don’t all revolve around Moriarty and aren’t super dark–just everyday murders like Holmes the original often encountered. I also like it that it avoids some gimmick to show Holmes’ thinking–didn’t USA Network’s Psych or some other show do that first? I think there is enough of Holmes in the character not to need constant references back to the Canon. I’ve seen every episode so far and will eagerly keep watching!

  3. Erick Chong says:

    I’ve watched both series and personally I find them both great. I think, if I wouldn’t have watched Sherlock first, I would still have enjoyed the episodes so far. The cases were new, and with shockingly endings also! I think that, even with those differences, BBC’s Sherlock would be enjoyed much more by the Sherlock Holmes purists (for as to say, those who love the Sherlockian canon), and Elementary for those who like to try new things. Also, it’s impossible not to think that the characters are similar somehow! It’s Sherlock Holmes! every character in fiction based on him will look alike!

  4. Becky says:

    I didn’t think I would like it, but I do. I don’t feel they borrow from Sherlock at all, (and I love Sherlock) I had no expectations of the show. I just decided to watch it as a mystery without trying to overlay the original or following Sherlock series, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

  5. J9 says:

    As a hardcore Holmes fan (with my first and foremost love being and always will be the original Sir ACD stories) I would normally be incredibly tempted to watch this. However, knowing that CBS originally approached the BBC asking if they could do an American spinoff of the incredibly successful Sherlock, and getting shot down, and a few years later coming out with /this/… I don’t know, i tried watching the pilot, but the dirty, underhanded feeling I still had with that knowledge is really too much for me.

  6. Anyone else feel that it bears similarities to [H]ouse? It has a [H]ouse like feel to it especially when they are in medical settings. They snatched up two of [H]ouse’s former writers. So far, I think it’s worth watching but it doesn’t come close to the brilliance of “Sherlock.”

    • Molly says:

      Really, because i feel like “Sherlock” practically rips House off. Hell, Cumberbatch is practically playing the character of House, but as a detective rather than a doctor. I mean Sherlock’s Holmes has more in common with House personality wise than he does with the Original Sherlock Holmes.

  7. John Schulte says:

    I agree with DeJune – there are a lot of similarities to House, which essentially was a riff of putting a Holmes-like character in a medical setting. House worked primarily because of the strength of the lead character/actor – Hugh Laurie. Elementary works for me on a similar level – I think Jonny Lee Miller does an incredible job of drawing me into his version of Holmes. I think I appreciate the differences as much as/maybe more than the similarities to Sherlock. For the record, BBC Sherlock is a tour de force on all levels – acting, characterizations, writing, respect to the canon – can’t even describe my enjoyment watching it. But as a Holmes fan who loves reading even some of the more far out pastiches and enjoying them for what they are, I think more well executed Holmes in TV and movies is a terrific thing. My verdict on Elementary so far is that it is a fantastic and creative variation on the characters, and consider that largely due to Miller and Liu’s interpretation. Yes, the storylines are more geared towards throwing Holmes into a CSI episode than anything tied to the original canon. Yes, it is a further out there stretch than BBC Sherlock, and doesn’t quite have all the unique and special qualities that show brings, but is very enjoyable as a stand alone production. It is considerably better than I expected, and eagerly will watch every week while waiting for the next BBC Sherlock.

    By the way, haven’t we all seen lazy and shallow interpretations of Sherlock on screen before? I won’t name names, but simply throwing a deerstalker and pipe on an actor without the skills/effort to bring the Holmes character out from within are much deeper disappointments to me than what we’re seeing in today’s creative interpretations. Miller’s take on the spirit of Holmes gets a hearty thumbs up from me. It’s an exciting time to be a Sherlock Holmes fan.

  8. lily says:

    Not a patch on bbc sherlock. I know they want to distance themselves from that production but, come on! Would they have bothered if they hadn’t seen the incredible success of that production? We all know money is everything in american tv and if it starts to dissapoint ( ratings wise ) we know what will happen. The comments about johnny lee millers more sympathetic performance being better i couldn’t agree with less. The astonishing performance by Benedict Cumberbatch ( which is the way it was written ) makes the moment’s of compassion (when they come) more meaningful and, heartbreaking. Give me BBC Sherlock anytime!

  9. Resa Haile says:

    I disagree that Lucy Liu’s Watson is cold on *Elementary.* The AV Club says it well regarding the original episode, although she’s shown a lot more shades since: http://www.avclub.com/articles/elementary,85195/: “This character-based approach extends to the leads. Holmes and Watson are damaged people here, and both Miller and Liu depict those bruises beautifully. Liu’s performance is a point of contention for other critics, but I think it’s revelatory from an actress I haven’t liked all that much in the past. She makes the choice to go very, very small, and it can read as if she’s phoning the performance in, yet the more you watch and the closer you watch, the more you see that she’s carrying around a lot of psychological damage she’s not even prepared to deal with. She’s put the other pieces of herself in little boxes and is functioning at only about five percent capacity. It’s an interesting choice, performance-wise, and I hope the show’s writers don’t just turn her into a wise-cracking sidekick.”

    As a Sherlockian of forty years’ standing, I love the book references, and I love seeing different versions of the concepts. I am surprised to see so many pastiche writers, particularly those who have chosen to expand the or recast the Sherlockian universe (whose desire and right to do so I support, whether I like the results or not), expressing so much dislike of the concept of Watson as a woman (hardly a new idea), and Holmes’ having tattoos or other superficial changes. As I’ve posted elsewhere, if we were all asked to think about what Holmes would be like, had he been born and raised in the modern era, we would come back with very different concepts, but that does not mean that one concept is correct and the other wrong; it just means that different writers will approach the same ideas differently.

    Sorry for the long comment. Some good articles on these ideas are:


    • I don’t have a problem with Watson being a woman – I really thought I would and am surprised at how natural the partnership seems in Elementary. Nor do I mind the tattoos. I just think the series has lost sight of the original stories a bit too much and I can’t help comparing it to Sherlock. But, I do like the relationship/interaction between Holmes and Watson and will try to watch Liu’s performance with more of an open mind.

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