I used to be a Sherlock fan, but for a long time now my heart has belonged to Elementary.
Spoilers for Sherlock and Elementary follow.
When I heard that CBS was making an American adaptation of Sherlock Holmes with a female Watson, I laughed and laughed. It wasn’t the first time Americans had tackled Conan Doyle, but that mattered little to my irrational dislike. I have been known to frequently make proclamations like, “Making the boss likeable defeats the entire purpose of The Office,” and “Why is Maxxie now a lesbian cheerleader?,” and, in the aloof voice of someone who knows Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards was based on a ‘90s British BBC miniseries, “I just think British shows are much better.” I know, I hate me too.
Like the rest of humanity, I adored Sherlock season 1. Sherlock season 2 verged more on the melodramatic, and made some poor adaptation choices by preserving Conan Doyle’s racism and sexism. Regardless of the decrease in quality, I was not pleased with the idea that we were getting some Americanized rip-off, complete with a female Watson in order to set up some trite, inevitable romance.
And then I actually watched Elementary. And actually, it was amazing.
By the time I decided to finally watch Elementary rather than just make jokes at its expense, the entire first season had aired. Like Sherlock, Elementary season 1 was concerned with establishing the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the villainy of Moriarty. On both fronts, it was vastly superior.
Over time, Sherlock has made plain that it is merely a vessel to showcase the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. It is an exercise in adulation; the clue it in the title. The Sherlock universe is set up so that Sherlock Holmes can never fail. This is partly because Sherlock has erased his drug addiction, the key humanizing aspect of his character after his relationship with Watson. As such, while generally engaging and visually stunning, Sherlock retains very little dramatic tension. As an audience we can never believe that Sherlock is in any real danger because he is constantly portrayed as being vastly superior to every other person he encounters.
In comparison, Elementary grants the character of Sherlock the greatest of services by allowing him to fail. When we meet Sherlock Holmes he is a recovering drug addict and Joan Watson has been employed as his sober companion. Already, the power dynamic between the two is different, with Watson in a role of authority (and one she doesn’t hesitate to use, when necessary). Joan Watson has her own life and her own problems; she isn’t there to facilitate Sherlock’s brilliance, but his recovery.
The danger of relapse haunts Sherlock’s steps for the first three seasons of Elementary. As an audience we assume that he will make it through each week’s case with his life, but whether he will retain his mental faculties is less certain. When Sherlock finally does relapse in the season 3 finale, there is the sense that it is this moment we have been building to. After hints and teases, we glimpse the darkness that lives within Sherlock and we can begin to truly understand why it terrifies him so.
Sherlock, played with a great degree of subtlety by Jonny Lee Miller, can only be more complex because of the fullness and completeness of Joan Watson. Throughout Elementary Joan’s struggles have been weighted by the writers as equal to Sherlock’s; even before Sherlock treated Watson as a formal partner, Elementary was treating her as such.
My immediate reaction to Joan was based on my assumption that Sherlock and Joan would be involved in some horrific will-they-won’t-they love affair that totally destroyed the intense platonic love that I appreciated so much in Conan Doyle’s original stories. But more than any Sherlock Holmes adaptation I have seen in recent years, Elementary manages to capture the balance of their relationship. Sherlock and Joan need each other, professionally and emotionally. Rather than merely being the audience stand-in to admire Sherlock’s genius, Joan is inspired to become a detective in her own right. And importantly, Sherlock recognizes her value by noting that he works better with Joan than with anyone else.
Lucy Liu has restored Watson to the role of Sherlock’s equal. And, although some fans will disagree on this point, the Elementary writers have made no move towards a romantic relationship between the two. Both Joan and Sherlock have their own relationships, and the writers seem to feel no need to throw them together simply because here is a man and a woman who share a lot of screentime.
Genderswapping one of the most recognizable figures in literature is no small feat. The impact of casting a woman of color in this role should also not be undervalued, especially at a time when leading roles for women of color still comprise a small minority of television parts. Liu’s Watson is smart, sharp, and captivating. She is a partner and an equal, and a large part of what makes Elementary such great viewing.
Irene Adler and Jamie Moriarty:
As if genderswapping Watson wasn’t enough, Elementary went all in. As Sherlock demonstrated so unfortunately, the character of Irene Adler is now commonly portrayed as a pawn of Moriarty rather than a powerful figure in her own right. Rather than being The Woman who beat Sherlock Holmes, she has somehow become a minor character in her own story.
Elementary’s treatment of Adler was masterful exercise in subversion. First they killed her character off-screen to enhance Sherlock’s pain. Except, just kidding! When we had grown hoarse protesting a classic character being fridged, it was revealed that she was alive, but traumatized and needing Sherlock to rescue her. Except, just kidding! Once we started complaining about damsels in distress, Elementary hit us with the final reveal that no one saw coming. She wasn’t Irene Adler at all, but Jamie Moriarty.
Oh yeah, and then Elementary lets her win. It’s the unwritten law of modern adaptations that Sherlock Holmes can never lose. Except Elementary made it very clear that Sherlock simply couldn’t beat Moriarty, who was too clever, knew him too well, and was too closely linked to the trauma of his past. The person she didn’t know? Joan Watson, of course. Elementary put these two formidable women up against each other, making Sherlock a prop in Watson’s plan. Sherlock couldn’t put together the puzzle that comprised Moriarty, but Joan Watson — his “mascot” — could do just that. Moriarty failed to recognize the power of women, and it was her downfall.
Elementary mocked the trope-heavy character Irene Adler has become, and yet by making Adler and Moriarty one and the same, they preserved her as the woman who beat Sherlock while simultaneously making Sherlock’s most formidable foe a woman. The writers knew that they couldn’t let Moriarty get away, but by letting Watson be the one to take her down, they made a powerful statement about audience expectations and internalized misogyny. After watching adaptation after adaptation of Conan Doyle’s original stories, did we ever believe that Sherlock wouldn’t be the one to take down Moriarty?
In one hit, Elementary flipped the three traditional white males leads of Conan Doyle’s story into one man and two women, one of whom is of color. Yes, this is a big deal; this is revolutionary. It turns out Elementary is a sneaky feminist gamechanger, and I didn’t notice because I was too distracted by Benedict Cumberbatch in a sheet. Hey, it’s happened to all of us.
‘Elementary’ and diversity:
The diversity of Elementary extends beyond genderswapping characters. The delightful Detective Bell is played with aplomb by Jon Michael Hill, while Ato Essandoh portrays the complexity of Sherlock’s sponsor Alfredo. Mrs Hudson becomes Miss Hudson, one of Sherlock’s various experts who also happens to be trans, played by trans actress Candis Cayne. The introduction of both Miss Hudson and Ophelia Lovibond as Kitty Winter demonstrates Elementary’s commitment to continuing to portray well-rounded, interesting women. Joan Watson is an encouraging start, but they aren’t settling for her alone.
Even in the officers who comprise the police department, and the victims and suspects who we meet each week, Elementary has clearly made the conscious decision that their New York City should reflect the diversity of real life. The 2010 census recorded a white population of only 40% in New York City, and that is what we should see on screen. This is in contrast to the stark male-ness and white-ness of Sherlock, which doesn’t come close to reflecting the reality of London which has, according to its 2011 census, only a 60% white population.
Elementary‘s procedural, 24-episode season works in its favor, both to develop story arcs and characters. Sherlock’s miniseries format of three TV movies helps to generate anticipation from critics and audiences, but results in being more style than substance. This format requires each episode to be bigger and better than the last; each episode becomes more melodramatic, and more of a viewing event. Each Sherlock episode heightens the stakes for the plot, and yet in doing so the stakes diminish for the characters. After three seasons, we hardly know any of the characters outside of Sherlock and John. We know that Sherlock is never in any real danger, and so the emotional resonance is non-existent.
‘Elementary’ vs ‘Sherlock’:
I can watch Sherlock and I can enjoy it, if I switch off that voice in my head reminding me that this is basically underdeveloped fan fiction, that everyone is white, that there are no women in sight. Sherlock turned Sherlock Holmes’ great female adversary into a sentimental would-be lover who came underdone because she had a crush on the detective. As Moriarty’s pawn, she had no agency and worked only to serve the plots of two men: Sherlock and Moriarty. Episodes have been variously sexist and racist, but we’re expected to swoon because Benedict Cumberbatch is so wonderful (and he is).
Sherlock expects everyone to be in love with Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes: Irene Adler, Molly Hooper, John Watson (only as a friend, don’t worry, as John keeps reminding us, it’s totally not gay), even Moriarty’s obsession blurs into possessiveness — but especially the audience. We are required, and expected, to forgive the detective and the show all of its faults because Sherlock is so much cleverer than everyone — us included.
Elementary might be about Sherlock, but it doesn’t pretend like he is the only interesting person in that world. He is troubled, and he fails. He is constantly called out, by Watson, by Moriarty, by Bell. Sherlock is surrounded with interesting, intelligent, damaged, and fundamentally human characters, and we know that they are all of these things because we are given the time to get to know them. They aren’t there to simply illuminate Sherlock. They are allowed the decency of being whole.
And so my love has passed from Sherlock to Elementary. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the Conan Doyle adaptation I had been waiting for. In moving further away from the source material by updating characters and transplanting Sherlock to New York City, Elementary has managed to stay truer to Conan Doyle’s original characters and their relationships.
Sherlock‘s writers spend so much time twisting each mini-movie to fit a Conan Doyle story and then waiting to be praised for how clever they have been for doing so. Yet they willfully ignore the fact that the ingrained sexism and racism of the original stories, while unremarkable during that time, is not appropriate in a modern adaptation. By trying to match the original stories in plot, they have lost sight of the characters who they were about.
Elementary isn’t perfect, but it is leagues ahead of the alternative in Sherlock. And now that Elementary has demonstrated how well Holmes and Watson can be translated into the modern day, Sherlock’s self-satisfied attempts are simply not good enough.