BOOK TO SCREEN: Elementary

CBS poster for Season 1 of Elementary (photo from

CBS poster for Season 1 of Elementary (photo from

(CBS television series)

I blame Clare at the Literary Omnivore for sparking my interest in this show! Her occasional posts about this updated version of Sherlock Holmes – set in New York, and with a woman Watson – made me really eager to watch it. Of course, in the UK it’s only shown on Sky, and I don’t have a television anyway, so I bought the first season on DVD recently and have been binge-watching.

The format of the show is not new. It’s a police procedural, with murder or murders of the week, which is just like CSI or Law and Order or any other cop show. The crimes are not uninteresting, but what makes the show much better than this is its characters. Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) here is imagined as a recovering drug addict, who has recently completed a stint in rehab and is joined by a sober companion, paid for by his (evidently wealthy and very distant) father to help him stay clean. This is Watson (Lucy Liu), a former surgeon, who now works helping recovering drug addicts. Sherlock’s deductive skills are utilised by the NYPD, where he works as an (unpaid) consultant, under the guidance of Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and with lead detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).

Apart from Holmes’ deductive capacity and his central relationship with Watson, not a great deal relates to Doyle’s original stories and novels. Elementary doesn’t try, as the first season of the BBC’s modern-day retelling, Sherlock, did, to re-write Holmes stories in the modern world (I can’t comment much on Sherlock, since I only watched the first two episodes and haven’t felt much urge to watch any of the rest), although there are nods to the originals – Gregson was a police officer at Scotland Yard in the original stories (rather more competent than Lestrade, if I recall correctly), for example, a serial killer who turns up is Sebastian Moran, and there is a Ms Hudson (who I gather has more of a role in the second series). Despite that, Elementary is, in my opinion, far more interesting and engaging than Sherlock, despite its greater departure from the source texts, and that’s primarily due to the really interesting relationship between Holmes and Watson, which evolves through the first series.

The relationship is at first a little combative on Holmes’ side – he doesn’t feel that he needs a sober companion and resents Watson’s presence – while Watson at first tries to get on with and connect with him through attendance at group meetings, and talking about past experiences. It’s soon evident that a traumatic experience in London, where Holmes was consulting for Scotland Yard (and where he first met Captain Gregson), triggered his drug addiction, though it’s not until the episode, M., in which the name of Moriarty first appears, where Watson really starts to find out more about Irene Adler, with whom Holmes was in love, and who was murdered by a serial killer. Despite Holmes’ disdain for conventional addiction therapy, he does attend meetings, acquires a sponsor, and – once Watson’s tenure as sober companion expires (about midway through the series) – offers her a partnership in the consulting detective business which she is coming to enjoy.

None of the characters exists in a vacuum, too – Watson and Bell have family we meet, and not altogether easy relationships with them and with friends. Holmes’ distant relationship with his father, whom the viewer never meets, also explains a great deal about his personality and his distancing of himself from others. I do like that the police officers, while respecting Holmes’ abilities, don’t hesitate to reprimand where necessary, and he in turn respects them.

Liu and Miller as Watson and Holmes (image from

Liu and Miller as Watson and Holmes (image from

Elementary benefits greatly from a Watson who is an intelligent, no-nonsense woman, who doesn’t hesitate to smack her charge verbally if he’s being obnoxious, or just plain wrong, but who is also compassionate and caring. This is something of a departure from the original stories, since Watson had an almost reverential respect for Holmes and his methods, but I think works much better in a modern context. Her medical knowledge often complements Holmes’. Lucy Liu is just delightful in this role: she’s old enough and intelligent enough to be thoroughly convincing as a former surgeon and later partner to Holmes, and sufficiently sure of herself to be able to tell Holmes when he’s being a jerk. Liu has a great repertoire of gesture and facial expression, particularly of exasperation, and she plays convincing friendships and relationships with family and colleagues. It’s not as showy a role as Miller’s, but Liu plays Watson with ease and likeability (even if she does have a tendency to choose impractical footwear).

Jonny Lee Miller is great as Holmes, conveying both arrogance and moments of vulnerability with equal ease. His Holmes is scruffy, a little twitchy, prone to sniffing carpets and furniture, and moving quickly and decisively; although not seen in a disguise during the series, he does accents very well – putting on (what seems to me as a Brit)  authentic-sounding New York voices occasionally. His face expresses both glee and misery beautifully. He pulls off the trick of playing a character who is believably “smarter than everyone else”, and is often rude or dismissive of others, but who is also likeable and can be compassionate: a real person. The relationship with Watson works so beautifully because there is no romantic tension between them – clearly great fondness and mutual respect grows up between them (and I do like that this is done organically and slowly over the series), but there is no unresolved sexual tension between them (at least, not so far). This is particularly evident in the last few episodes, where Watson’s reactions are clearly not inspired by jealousy, but by anger that her friend has been so hurt and manipulated.

While, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve not seen enough of Sherlock to make an adequate comparison, I have just watched six DVDs worth of 40-minute episodes (a considerable chunk of time which has probably, in Holmes’ words, pushed a lot of other facts out of my brain), and now can hardly wait for the second series to materialise on DVD (probably not till the end of the year in the UK) so I can get my fix of more Miller and Liu. Watching two episodes of Sherlock has not made me eager to see more of Cumberbatch and Freeman as the same characters. A gif I’ve seen seems to me to capture the essential difference in dynamic between the two sets of partners:

from Sherlock: Holmes is at a microscope, asks Watson to fetch his phone from somewhere across the room, Watson brings the phone to Holmes, putting it in his inside pocket;

from Elementary: Watson brings coffee into the room, Holmes is at his computer and holds out his mug to be filled, Watson tells him it’s at the table waiting, and he gets up and pours the coffee himself.

Minor incidents, but they show quite a telling difference in how the characters relate to each other.

Anyway, in summary, Elementary is almost enough of a reason to get Sky. I’m kidding, but it would be a serious incentive if I had a TV already (oh CBS you taunt us with your excerpts on YouTube which are not viewable in the UK).

I watched Elementary Series 1 on DVD.

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5 Responses to BOOK TO SCREEN: Elementary

  1. Thanks for that Ela and enjoyed the comparison between the two current TV iterations (though the gif is either not visible on my browser or you didn’t include it on your post?)

    I really liked what they did with the transgender Mrs Hudson and the introduction of Moriarty and Irene Adler front he stories, though I though having Vinnie Jones as Moran was truly dreadful. I think a lot of the plots were clever, which you would expect front he guys who made the wonderful Medium.

    I would argue that the BBC Sherlock is preferable though, because it is truer to the spirit of the original stories and is smart about finding equivalents and also tougher on the characters. Watson may seem a bit slavish in his adoration of Holmes but the fact is that they are friends and need each other, something that became the focus of the third series that was on last month. As you ay, Elementary, which i really do enjoy, is also much more traditional and conventional in its character set up (Watson is basically there to make Holmes a better person) – to have a strong woman tell a weak man what to do (in this case making the tea) is not especially stirring in this day and age, whereas having a show in which we think that Watson really cares about a Holmes who just doesn’t understand human interaction is harder to convey successfully as it flies in the face of what we would normally expect – to put it another way, it’s hard to see, for me, why Liu would stick around whereas I have not problem understanding what freeman gets out of it. It does help if you watch the most reason trio of episodes of he BBC Sherlock but I have a feeling you are not likely to! Really enjoyed the detailed post lea – really wants to make me ho back and watch Elementary again!

    • Ela says:

      I didn’t actually post the gif, so apologies for the confusion! I really haven’t seen enough of SHERLOCK to make an adequate or fair comparison (and of course the format of the shows are completely different, not to mention the number of episodes), so maybe I should just shut up about it. And of course it is unfair to base one’s conclusions about character interactions on the basis of one gif (posted by an ELEMENTARY fan who dislikes SHERLOCK)! But I don’t think the Liu-Miller dynamic is “strong woman telling weak man what to do” – it shows that there is mutual respect, and that Watson isn’t going to be pushed around by Holmes. ELEMENTARY does seem to be more rooted in the real 21st century world, whereas SHERLOCK is not so much.

      I do actually see why Liu’s Watson sticks around – she’s as fascinated by Holmes’ deductions and cases as the original was, and that comes across nicely in the series, particularly as it’s done organically and slowly over weeks. And I am unsure that the original Holmes actually didn’t understand human interaction: that’s a modern innovation. Book!Holmes, in my opinion, chose not to interact with others all that much, and was contemptuous of Lestrade and the police, but he was perfectly able to empathise with others, and was genuinely concerned if he found out any of his clients were in danger. Although not fond of women, he did treat them courteously and found their problems of interest – whereas I don’t get that impression from what I’ve read about SHERLOCK’s Holmes.

      Anyway, thanks so much for your interesting comments! I should really watch SHERLOCK and see if you’re right!

  2. Pingback: BOOK TO SCREEN: Emma | Ela's Book Blog

  3. I was way out on Elementary when it first came on the air — I don’t like Jonny Lee Miller, as a rule, and I’ve never been the biggest Sherlock Holmes fan anyway. At this point I’ve heard so many good things about it, I’ll have to get it from the library and give it a try.

    • Ela says:

      The series takes a few episodes to get going, I think, but I really do like the character development.

      I never really had any opinion, good or bad, about Miller before watching this – I probably had seen only ‘Trainspotting’ of his films, and I don’t actually remember him in that at all!

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