WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Elementary
The last thing television needed in 2012 was another Sherlock Holmes-style investigation series, much less another one actually about Holmes. Crime procedurals already on the air to begin that television season included Castle, Bones, Grimm, The Mentalist, The Following, Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU, the revival of Hawaii Five-0, and multiple iterations of NCIS and CSI. Plus, the BBC had just revitalized the Sherlock Holmes character with its high-profile modern-day limited series starting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
So when CBS announced the pilot for Elementary, a show about Holmes set in modern-day New York City, people scoffed at the idea of a blatant ripoff—and the BBC certainly wasn’t keen on the idea of ceding narrative turf. (It certainly didn’t help that CBS had expressed interest in an American version of Sherlock before greenlighting their own pilot.)
But then CBS landed a giant one-two punch in casting its leads, selecting Jonny Lee Miller for the manic recovering drug addict incarnation of Holmes, and the bolder, headline-grabbing choice of gender-flipping Watson and casting Lucy Liu. And instead of the simpler friend/colleague relationship typical of the traditional story, Joan Watson begins Elementary as Sherlock’s sober companion, only gradually drawn into the world of consulting on police work. Over the course of its debut season, Elementary stood in sharp contrast to Sherlock, in that it was aesthetically blander but infinitely more invested in character development.
Wrath of the Cumberbabes be damned—Elementary has long-since surpassed the BBC series since it follows the American television production schedule of 24-episode seasons, as opposed to Sherlock’s three-episode runs. The BBC series has done a handful of clever updates of Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but Elementary is the better overall update of the character, featuring better guest stars (Rhys Ifans, Natalie Dormer, and starting this season John Noble) and more immersive plots. Sherlock and Elementary both have their charms, but the latter comes out on top because it allows the audience to spend significantly more time with the characters. Here’s how we think you should spend your hours with Holmes and Watson.
Number of Seasons: 3 (72 episodes)
Time Requirements: Elementary, which begins its fourth season tomorrow on CBS, clocks in at just over 50 hours. A full month of watching at least two episodes a day, plus a lengthy Thanksgiving weekend binge, will get you caught up without missing much of the fourth season before the free episodes disappear from Hulu.
Where to Get Your Fix: Hulu Plus, CBS All Access
Best Character to Follow: Joan Watson. It shouldn’t be that controversial of an argument that Sherlock isn’t the best character to track in a Holmes retelling. The brilliant detective consultant changes only incrementally in his personality over the course of the series—but Watson always makes big strides. Lucy Liu’s Joan travels what is by far the most compelling arc on the show, going from highly-touted surgeon to sober companion to Sherlock’s protege to something slightly more independent. Elementary has also made the wise choice of never indulging in the heteronormative romantic possibility of a male/female pairing for these characters (though Joan does have chemistry with another Holmes, which we’ll get to later). With a lengthy filmography including Charlie’s Angels, Ally McBeal, and Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Liu has always shown her tough side. But after a season-long stint on TNT’s LA cop series Southland, her role as Watson may just end up defining her career—with good reason.
The runner-up would be Clyde, the lovely little tortoise who often plays a comedic role in Holmes’ experiments in his New York brownstone home. Always keep an eye out for Clyde.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Season 1: Episode 14, “The Deductionalist” Aired directly after the 2013 Super Bowl, this was the moment when CBS invested heavily in Elementary’s success. Too bad that what will undoubtedly be the highest-rated episode of the series was also likely the worst of its debut season. Post-Super Bowl episodes are supposed to be palatable to the widest possible audience, and ostensibly a detective series about a century-old familiar character should fit the bill. But though Kari Matchett is a good foil for Sherlock as Kathryn Drummond, this felt more like a stopgap in the overall arc of the season.
Season 2: Episode 15, “Corpse Du Ballet” Sherlock spends most of the episode fawning over the principal ballerina of a dance company he’s long admired, while the B-plot delves deep into the backstory for this version of Joan. It’s a bit of a snoozefest, and a good argument for a less-is-more approach to backstory.
Season 3: Episode 15, “When Your Number’s Up” Maybe it’s just the fear of flying talking, but this case—centering on a string of murders where the victims are all related to passengers who died in a plane crash—is maybe the worst Elementary has ever investigated.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “Elementary” Pilots are necessary to set an initial tone, but this pilot in particular is mandatory because of how it reframes the Holmes/Watson partnership. Former surgeon Joan Watson gets hired by Holmes’ father to act as a live-in sober companion after he spiraled into drug addiction, causing him to lose his job with Scotland Yard. In New York City, he sets up a consulting agreement with NYPD Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn).
Season 1: Episode 6, “Flight Risk” The mysterious Irene Adler’s name gets dropped for the first time here, as Joan meets Holmes’ father (actually a stage actor friend of Sherlock’s) for dinner and uncovers a few pieces of information about his flameout from Scotland Yard.
Season 1: Episode 8, “The Long Fuse” Ago Essandoh is a great recurring comedic presence on Elementary as Sherlock’s sponsor Alfredo, who works as a car thief. His skill as a thief endears him to Sherlock, who sees Alfredo as someone he can learn from and not just lean on as a sponsor in times of need. The drug addict characterization of Holmes on this show can sometimes veer toward preachy, but whenever Alfredo is around, there’s just enough witty repartee to make it OK.
Season 1: Episode 12, “M.” The veritable Vinnie Jones guest stars as M., a serial killer who previously vexed Holmes in England. This episode also advances the Irene Adler arc, causing to kick into a violent frenzy when he learns new information about that case. The case-of-the-week structure is typically great on this show, as Miller and Liu’s chemistry as professional colleagues grows, but the Adler plotline is integral to the Holmes character, and the way Elementary teases it out over the course of the season makes it more interesting than how Sherlock confines it to a single episode.
Season 1: Episodes 22-24, “Risk Management”/”The Woman”/”Heroine” Before HBO’s Game of Thrones became so powerful that its huge cast couldn’t do much else on television, Natalie Dormer became Elementary’s single best guest star. It’s too much of a spoiler to really delve into what goes on with her character, but it turns the Sherlock Holmes mythos on its head in much the same way CBS initially did by making Holmes a recovering drug addict and casting Liu as Watson. This is by far the strongest arc of the series, and the one that cemented its quality apart from all the other incarnations of the character.
Season 2: Episode 1, “Step Nine” It makes sense to have Holmes and Watson visit London to drop in on familiar characters. Here they see Lestrade (Sean Pertwee) and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (the lovely Rhys Ifans), who is a famous chef living at 221B Baker Street. The two Holmes siblings never get along, no matter the adaptation, but Miller and Ifans have a grungy kinship that’s a welcome contrast to the buttoned-up attitude of Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss on Sherlock.
Season 2: Episode 7, “The Marchioness” A crime set in the cutthroat world of horse racing? More Rhys Ifans as Mycroft grows closer to Joan? Yes please.
Season 2: Episode 10, “Tremors” Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) is the best original character created for Elementary. His professional development mirrors Joan’s, and his working relationship alongside Sherlock is one of the most delightful progressions over the course of the series. But this episode is the lowest point of their partnership, told in flashback from a hearing to determine whether Sherlock and Watson will be retained as NYPD consultants after a shooting. Instead of delving into romantic will they/won’t they plots, Elementary shakes up the status quo by having Holmes screw up his professional relationships, which he needs in order to keep doing the work that satisfies his mind.
Season 2: Episode 12, “The Diabolical Kind” The main villain from the first season makes a fantastic reappearance, and once again it’s one of the best episodes of the series.
Season 2: Episode 23, “Art in the Blood” If you don’t like Rhys Ifans or his interpretation of Mycroft as a gifted chef in over his head when dipping his toes into his brother’s investigative world, then the second season of Elementary isn’t for you. It may not resolve as neatly as the first did, and there’s some annoying stuff about where Joan fits into the season-long investigation as Sherlock’s professional partner and Mycroft’s former flame, but it does accomplish something substantial by the end. Every procedural needs to shake up its status quo every season or so to keep things interesting, and the ending here set up a marvelous return to form in the third season.
Season 3: Episode 1, “Enough Nemesis to Go Around” The best Elementary casting decisions have all centered on female characters. First Lucy Liu, then Natalie Dormer, and starting in this season premiere, Ophelia Lovibond as Kitty Winter, Sherlock’s new protege following his return from England. Watson’s growth to an independent investigator in her own right is a great direction for the show, but her mild jealousy at Sherlock’s new wunderkind, and her subsequent friendship with Kitty, helped the show rebound from a lackluster second season.
Season 3: Episode 3, “Just a Regular Irregular” Holmes collects strange people to assist in investigations throughout Elementary, and Mad Men’s Rich Sommer as a frenetic mathematician is one of the best. His reappearance here in a case involving a math game about Belphegor’s prime is one of the most clever puzzles the show has ever concocted. There’s also the progressing friendship with Joan and Kitty, whose past gets slightly uncovered.
Season 3: Episodes 11-12, “The Illustrious Client”/”The One That Got Away” The end of the Kitty arc is second only to the final episodes of the first season in terms of best Elementary storylines. The way this resolves left a giant question mark scrawled across the rest of the season, since Lovibond is so compelling as Kitty that she looms large over every episode in which she doesn’t appear. She affected every character, from Holmes and Watson to Gregson and Bell. Hopefully she gets a chance to return as a guest star in future episodes.
Season 3: Episode 16/24, “For All You Know”/”A Controlled Descent” These are the only two episodes anyone really needs to know for the final arc of the third season, which focuses on Sherlock’s downfall and relapse. Michael Weston plays Oscar Rankin, Holmes’ former heroin dealer, who returns to demand Sherlock help him find his missing sister. Holmes’ frustration and malaise builds throughout the third season to a very vulnerable place where he can’t express himself to anyone, not even Alfredo or Joan. The first season ends with the conclusion of the Irene Adler plot, the second with Mycroft, so it stands to reason that in order for the show not to repeat itself, the third season finale is all about Holmes confronting the demons he sees in the mirror.
Why You Should Binge:
Case-of-the-week shows involving murder can often get laborious after a few hours in a row, as anyone who has spent too much time on an SVU hamster wheel marathon can tell you. But what sets Elementary apart is the lighter moments of character interaction, how they genuinely appear to care for each other’s well being, and how Miller’s Sherlock can inhabit both the aloof genius and the benevolent mentor at the same time. It’s an eye-opening interpretation of the character, and watching it evolve incrementally in shorter amounts of time than week-to-week over a few years brings that into focus.
Best Scene—Joan Outwits Moriarty
It should go without saying, but spoiler alert for the big reveal at the end of the first season. The way in which Moriarty underestimates Joan here, and how that enables her and Sherlock to ultimately apprehend the Napoleon of crime, helps create perhaps the best dialogue exchange in Elementary’s run. Sherlock Holmes cases often hinge on a final revelation—as do most television crime procedurals, whether in the courtroom or a police interrogation room. But this particular twist, the culmination of an entire season’s worth of mysterious breadcrumbs, made a strong case that Elementary was more than just another Sherlock Holmes story.
Sometimes, American remakes can equal or even surpass their inspirations. And the infinitely copied police procedural can still be mutated enough times to create something surprising and effortlessly entertaining.
If You Liked Elementary You’ll Love:
Sherlock (we’re honestly not bashing the BBC show, it’s great—but Elementary is better), Castle, and for another dark twist on the witty detective series, Veronica Mars.