Elementary is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me thus far. The show is delightful in ways that Sherlock is unsatisfying, which more than makes up for its lack of the whizz-bang of Sherlock.
Why yes, I had hitherto been a fan of Sherlock, but only a reluctant one towards the end. Episodes such as “The Blind Banker”, with its blatant racism and frankly lazy storytelling, to the strangely sexist “A Scandal in Belgravia”, really turned me off. With so few episodes Sherlock could hardly afford such bad apples in the basket. There are other sour notes in the Sherlock sundae, including the general treatment of characters who are not Sherlock or John; despite the performance of Mrs. Hudson and Molly, they remain purely background characters, little more than bland flavoring compared to the spice of Sherlock and John.
And then you come to the treatment of John by Sherlock. Examining this relationship too closely is disturbing. Sherlock is a jerk, with no empathy for others until John came along, and even then only slightly, with sociopathic tendencies. While the original canon of Sherlock Holmes stories can be read with that interpretation in mind (in other words, believing that Watson is so unreliable a narrator that his portrayal of Holmes’ bouts of kindness are just blind hero worship as opposed to, ah, “reality”, such as it is), it is a depressing take. All the more depressing if you realize that in Sherlock it’s the titular character who matters the most to the story, and everyone orbits around him.
This is not the way you develop a deep cast with a value larger than one. But then again, Sherlock is one kind of show, and Elementary quite another.
Let us begin with the outer aspects of Elementary‘s Watson. I know that some are really against the idea of a woman being Watson, much less a non-white person; but the idea that Holmes belongs only to white male-centric culture needs to die in this age of retellings. Goodness knows that such culture already owns most of the media and doesn’t need to glutton itself on monopolizing even more (you have, after all, Sherlock for that).
As for combining her with this Holmes: I absolutely love the relationship between Holmes and Watson; it has the warmth and friendship (without dipping into that tired old well of sexual tension, something that Sherlock engages in continuously) of the first half of the Sherlock Holmes canon. More importantly, it has robust character development on both sides of this partnership; Watson grows into her role as an investigator, whiles Holmes opens up and gradually moves his way out of addiction. They mature to depend on each other without becoming co-dependent.
In other words, the best of the natures of both characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories is featured in Elementary; and they continue to develop towards their own characters. No longer are they merely a slavish cribbing of the original Holmes and Watson, if they ever were to begin with, but characters in their own right.
But no discussion of Elementary is complete without discussing the rest of the cast. Look at the relationship of respect between Holmes and Gregson. No bitter grudge with a Lestrade counterpart this. And yet look at how their relationship also changes, not always for the best, and sometimes for the worst. It’s not without its spice and tension. Look at Detective Bell, given his own episode (though I wish I could say it was more than one) and development. And then there’s Ms. Hudson, who has more depth and backstory in one episode than most background characters do in other shows. The cultural variety of these characters is also a strong and welcome aspect of the show.
What about Elementary‘s lack of whizzbang, and its smaller focus on little cases, its more procedural nature? I admit there were stories that I could too easily see the end of, but the point of the show was always the characters. And man, the plot really picked up in the second part of the season, and went into high gear for the finale—so it wasn’t for lack of plot strength that the arc was slower to start up. This pacing, a slow burn indeed, is necessary for a show that lasts over 20 episodes.
I’m willing to return to the world of Elementary again and again. In fact, I think I’ll start rewatching it.
(And people who claim I only like safe things can suck it. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is about as far from safe as you can get, and I also willingly return to its world.)