Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
Anyone who watched TV in the 2010s has, at the very least, heard of Sherlock. The BBC’s adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous works made Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman household names (and Marvel stars!), but its wild popularity was not always a positive force. The show was huge on Tumblr in the early 2010s, creating a fandom that was passionate at best and incredibly toxic at worst. When that negativity found its way out of the bounds of the fandom, CBS’s Elementary was often the target.
Elementary premiered two years after Sherlock in the fall of 2012, but its first critic was none other than the Sherlock showrunner himself, Steven Moffat. The series starred Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson and was originally conceived as an adaptation of Moffat’s miniseries—but CBS had decided to regroup and move forward with the series after he turned down the chance to be involved. He claimed he was worried that Elementary could “degrade the brand” of Sherlock Holmes as a “completely rouge version of the series,” and this (along with Cumberbatch’s criticism of the show before it even had a chance to air) opened the door for the fandom to be, simply put, terrible. Lucy Liu’s casting as Watson was met with intensely racist vitriol, and the fighting got so bad on Tumblr that Elementary fans had to make an entirely different tag to post about the show with.
All of that said, only one Sherlock Holmes show from the 2010s holds up, and it certainly isn’t Sherlock. While it might be fun in the moment to watch a show that works as hard as possible to outsmart its audience with unpredictable plot twists, it just doesn’t pass muster on repeat viewers. Rewatching it isn’t an enjoyable experience, because you start to realize that the plot twists and mysteries aren’t good when you know what’s going to happen, and a good mystery is something that you can go back to again and again.
Thankfully, Elementary does not have this problem. Part of this is because it is formatted as a traditional American broadcast drama. When you only have 3 episodes a season like Sherlock did, it’s hard to get a worthwhile amount of character development and plot progression. Elementary’s first five seasons all had 24 episodes, something that allowed viewers to truly get to know Sherlock, Joan, and everyone else on the show without anyone feeling like narrative cannon fodder. Across a seven-season span, there are chances for the most minor of characters to return, and that makes the world feel all the more authentic.
Of course, the relationship that Holmes and Watson have is the beating heart of Elementary, and Miller and Liu see their characters through multiple emotional rollercoasters while they aid the NYPD in solving homicide cases. Joan starting out as Sherlock’s sober companion and growing to realize that she loves solving crimes alongside him is so wonderful to watch. On the other side of things, watching Sherlock go from being dismissive and passively irritated about Joan’s presence in his life to seeing her as one of the people he’s closest too is also amazing, and is a lot more enjoyable to watch unfold than whatever Sherlock wants us to think about their duo.
Though it isn’t obvious at first, Elementary builds a found family piece by piece in front of us over the course of 154 episodes. Sherlock goes from telling Joan that he’ll tolerate her presence in his home to naming a bee after her, and Joan goes from dealing with his antics because she’s required to do so to doing so because she genuinely cares about his well-being. Their relationship is far from perfect, but Joan and Sherlock always have, at the very least, an understanding between each other. They regularly hit walls and do things they disagree about, but at the end of the day, they would always come back to each other.
Outside of the core dynamic that drove the show, Elementary was a really well-structured crime drama series that just so happened to be inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. The Sherlock Holmes mythos certainly made the show more fun, but it wasn’t something that the series treated like a load-bearing wall. Irene Adler, Moriarty, and Mycroft can all appear in the show without weighing it down or blowing the rest of the show out of the water by making a few specific episodes astronomically better than the rest. Sherlock Holmes is so well known that it’s hard to not know at least something about it, but you can put Elementary in front of someone who knows nothing about it and they would be more than likely to have a great time watching it. It’s normal TV that just so happens to be an adaptation of a famous book series, and it knows that you know that and doesn’t try to be overly showy about it.
All this has to be said because Elementary never got the attention it truly deserved. Sherlock was way more popular at the time that both shows were airing (despite the fact that it has a fraction of the number of episodes), and that popularity left Elementary in the dust. It seems out of place to say it now, but Lucy Liu’s performance in the show is highly underrated, and that’s just one element that has been underappreciated for years because of what boils down to a silly Tumblr fandom war. It’s only fair that with both series wrapped up for good, Elementary gets a new set of eyes on it so that everyone can realize that it is the better of the two Holmes adaptations that we were given over the last decade, providing a story well worth investigating.