Eating Crow: I Was Wrong About CBS's "Elementary"

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Eating Crow: I Was Wrong About CBS's "Elementary"

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | July 11, 2013 | Comments ()


Before the pilot aired way back in September of 2012, I — like anyone else who had seen BBC’s massively superior Sherlock — came down very hard on the idea that CBS would essentially steal that concept and worse, cast Lucy Lui in the Watson role. We piled on, and I ended up watching the pilot with a massive head of ill-will built up against it. I didn’t particularly care for the premiere; in fact, I didn’t even bother with a full review. It felt like a fairly generic CBS procedural that had borrowed the name of Sherlock Holmes and pasted it over their procedural template.

I was wrong.

It improved immeasurably. It wasn’t until enough readers had recommended it that I finally broke down to give it another shot. That was about 10 days ago. I’ve now finished all 24 episodes. They were addictive, episodic mystery candy that I couldn’t resist.


It is still not in the same ball park as Sherlock, but they are distinct enough from one another that it hardly matters. “Sherlock” has the benefit of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Steven Moffat, plus only a commitment to produce three episodes every year and a half or so, so it is obviously a more cinematic, better acted, more intelligent, and more engrossing series, and any comparison that one might make does no favors to “Elementary.”

However, if you can drop the need to compare, “Elementary” holds up incredibly well against the spate of other procedurals. Jonny Lee Miller — tics and all — is outstanding as Sherlock (although, he reminds me too much of Hannibal’s Will Graham) and Lucy Liu is absolutely perfect in the straight-man’s role, a former doctor turned sober companion turned full-time assistant to Sherlock. She does an admirable job of keeping the series grounded.

It is nevertheless formulaic, at least when the series is not contending with the some of the more serialized aspects that took up much of the latter episodes, including Irene Adler and Moriarity narratives. I actually found that I preferred the stand-alone episodes. The show is more comfortable, more addictive when it’s self-contained: It’s not built as well for longer arcs. The procedural component, however, does suffer from some of the problems that plague most procedurals: There’s typically a ten-minute window in the middle of each episode where the characters are chasing red herrings, but credit both Miller and Lui for bringing some quirky light into those windows.


More than anything, however, “Elementary” feels more like the older Jeremy Brett series, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” updated and set in New York City. Comparisons to that series are more favorable to “Elementary”: In fact, I prefer the CBS series. It’s breezier, like “Castle,” but with far better mysteries, and too my immense satisfaction, there’s never any suggestion that Watson and Holmes could ever be a couple.

Granted, “Elementary” is not amazing television, but it is a perfect wind-down series, a couch-watcher right before bed, although you’ll be tempted more than a few times to stay up and watch just one more, not because you want to see where the series is headed, but because the episodes themselves are a simple delight.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • A1ie

    I think I actually enjoy this more than Sherlock, to my surprise. Part of that is my increasing annoyance at Moffat's pathetic treatment of women, including the ridiculous Irene Adler in the BBC series. As someone who loves to nerd out, but also is a lady, I find the casual inclusion of women to be mind-bogglingly refreshing. Lucy Liu is also surprisingly enjoyable. I actually watched the series based on this review, so I'm glad it was a favorable one, but part of me wonders whether women will, in general, prefer Elementary to Sherlock simply because it manages to treat women as humans. Such a task seems to have eluded Mr. Moffat so far.

  • DominaNefret

    I love Johnny Lee Miller, so I was in from the beginning.
    I actually enjoy Elementary more than Sherlock; Sherlock may adhere more strictly to the source material, but it takes itself sooooooo seriously. I also was not a fan of the Adler storyline in Sherlock at all. Or Moriarty. I find the show much better when the episodes are self contained mysteries, and think Elementary handled Irene/Moriarty much better.

  • PowLo

    What episode is the header picture?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I didn't even manage to get through the pilot, so I'm not going to start watching it now.

  • Jim Slemaker

    I enjoy it weekly and am entertained by Jonny Lee Miller's addled Holmes. Lucy Liu does nothing for me or the show. She's limited as an actress and pales in comparison to Freeman's portrayal on SHERLOCK. i did however love the Irene Adler twist and look forward to the crack writing staff hitting their stride in season 2.

  • As someone who was on board with Elementary from the beginning, do I get to be smug here? Or would that be unseemly?

  • Lily Court

    Hey maybe you could fucking mention that this is a ridiculously feminist and inclusionist show.

  • annie

    Lucy Luis and Johnny Lee Miller were basically the only reasons I wanted to give it a shot. Kind of glad I did. It definitely killed some time in a fun, entertaining way.

  • **I AM** NotTheOne

    So you are going to make me watch this and reluctantly enjoy this the same way you made me watch and reluctantly enjoy Scandal?

    Okay. Fine.

  • Slash

    Jonny Lee Miller is a treasure. And I always like Liu. I thought it was interesting to make Watson both female and Asian.

    I find the mysteries a little unbelievable, but watching Miller solve them is enjoyable.

  • Green_Eggs_and_Hamster

    My main problem with the show is the mysteries. Everything always seems to be solved too often by some lucky break or coincidence that has nothing to do with Sherlock's genius and everything to do with incredible random luck. As an example, the last one I watched (I have them all DVR'd and I am slowly working through the pile) had a guy push a woman off a subway platform. Spoiler: it was solved because Sherlock figured out a label the killer had on his jacket, and Lucy Liu just happened to see a picture of the guy with that jacket on as she was telling the sister of the person he killed that she would be quitting the case. If Lucy does not see that picture, the case never gets solved. I understand luck is involved in any investigation in real life, but the show tends to stretch the luck well past the breaking point in every single episode.

    It's not enough to make me stop watching the show, I will probably watch it all eventually. It just annoys me every time I watch it so that I can't watch more than one or two episodes a week without rage quitting for a while.

  • Artemis

    While I agree that the mystery solutions aren't always fully satisfying, I liked the particular episode you reference because it was demonstrating how Watson was able to solve a case herself in a way that Sherlock never would have. Sherlock wouldn't have bothered going to see the dead guy's sister; Watson did so because she has more empathy than he does and cares more about the people whose cases they work on. She spent the first part of the episode trying to be Sherlockian in her methods and failing wildly (making the logical leap about the trunk that was spectacularly wrong). She succeeded, finding the crucial clue, when she did what was true to herself -- quitting a case she felt she couldn't handle, and going to apologize in person to the victim's family member. It reinforced the idea that Sherlock and Watson are complementary, and will be most effective when they both bring their natural tendencies and strengths to a case.

  • Idle Primate

    Well that was some damning with praise, backhanded complimenting and declarative conclusions that are unassailable as they were unaccompanied by argument. Beware of journalists who lean on "obviously". Opening by telling us how we all thought and felt (and lo and behold we thought and felt just like you!).

    Pretty gracious reassessment, 2 crooked thumbs up!

  • Three_nineteen

    Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock is like Hugh Dancy's Will Graham? Let's see...they both solve crimes...they both have dark hair and stubble...

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Yeah, I've got a little problem with that too. Will Graham is basically a raw bundle of asexual nerves while Sherlock is caustic, witty and very, very sexy.

  • toblerone

    Yes you were, but you've admitted your mistake and are forgiven,

  • ceebee_eebee

    Elementary is one of my favorite things on tv at the moment and makes me happy even to THINK about. I've been a lover of the Holmes stories since I was a tiny wee thing and my dad and I would read them together before bedtime. I loved the Brett series when I was young, hell I even loved the Great Mouse Detective. Sherlock is alright, I will never understand why people act like it's god's gift to television. Half the episodes were mediocre at best. But Elementary? EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE. I'm glad you finally gave it a shot.

  • Milly

    I too was a non-believer of Elementary, until I watched three episodes back-to-back. As entertainment I think this is the most enjoyable portrait of Holmes and Watson, and it has serious replayability because of the relationship between the characters.

    As the series appears to not be duty bound to retreading existing stories it also has the scope to be more believable and be more of its time than the BBC version. It is lighter in touch than 'Sherlock' but since that particular series is weighed down by its own seriousness/adherence to original works, being lighter in this instance does not imply that it is candyfloss.

    I watched all 24 episodes in a few days - then noted that the final 2 were add ons that were ordered once the series gained viewers - and am only disappointed that I caught up so soon.

    I can understand the comparisons being made with 'House' - same take on the character of Holmes - and don't think that that should be seen as a negative thing.

    And Lucy Liu has some ridiculous legs, while Sick Boy is quite the dapper dresser.

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    Where are you getting access to all 24 episodes. the CBS player only seems to be giving me 5. iTunes?

  • Milly

    Well, the streaming place I use isn't exactly kosher, but it does have pretty much any and all TV episode of any programme that has ever been digitally encoded.

  • Milly

    As an addendum, once Elementary becomes available to purchase (BluRay/DVD) in the UK I'll be getting a copy like I do with any series I stream/download via non conventional means.

  • Kate at June

    I read somewhere that Elementary is the most feminist show tv, but I haven't actually gotten around to watching it yet.


  • A1ie

    I don't know about "the most," but, I mean, it's not like there are a lot of contenders.

    Certainly its gender politics are vastly preferable to Moffat's. As a hardcore feminist, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. Also, there's one episode in which a transwoman plays a transwoman, without dying or being used as the butt of the joke. So you know, that's pretty impressive (which is itself depressing).

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Um... The most? I wouldn't feel comfortable commenting. And I think it fails the Bechdel test in that Watson's basically the only consistent woman, so she can't talk to another about anything at all, never mind something not a man.

    But that said, Watson's being a woman isn't ever a primary factor. She is a woman, and it's not ignored, but her strengths as a sober companion and then apprentice to Sherlock are highlighted over anything else. So... there is that.

    And Irene Adler is even better, possibly.

  • Ben

    Things can fail the bechdel test and still be femenist as well as things can pass the bechdel test and still be horribly mysognist.
    It's not a be all and end all test, more of general guide.

  • NateMan

    The most? I don't know about that. But in the episodes I watched it did avoid an overwhelming number of female victims, and Watson is definitely a strong, intelligent female presence who was never reduced to eye candy or talked down to. I'd say it qualifies as one of the top contenders, certainly.

  • Semilitterate

    I beg to differ----Lucy Lui is fine eye candy, not that it is stressed

  • Nickaloo

    one problem they all have (apart from "Sherlock") even the original, is how to deal with Lestraad - he has to be a bit thick to show how brilliant Sherlock is, but can't really have got to his position if so, so he tends to end up a bit of a cypher

  • Artemis

    I think Elementary is handling their version of that character (on the show he's called Gregson and is an NYPD Captain) pretty well. He's not dumb and he's a good cop, but he calls Sherlock in as a consultant when something really weird has gone down that the police don't know how to handle. He's not incompetent, and you can see how he'd be good at handling more run-of-the-mill investigations.

  • Minor quibble, but Gregson on 'Elementary' is not a TV version of Lestrade, he's a TV version of the character Tobias Gregson from the original Holmes stories. Gregson was another Inspector and sometimes rival of Lestrade's who worked in the same department.

  • kronos

    I think I read just yesterday that they've cast Sean Pertwee as Lestrade.

  • John W

    You weren't the only one who was wrong about the show. I didn't think the show was going to be any as well but it turned out to be pretty good.

  • Joe Grunenwald

    "there’s never any suggestion that Watson and Holmes could ever be a couple"

    VERY glad to hear this. I was very worried it would be a 'will-they-or-won't-they-of-course-they-will-this-is-TV' situation with those two. Might have to give this show a watch if it ends up on NetFlix or elsewhere.

  • Ben

    The show runners have confirmed that they're never going to do it. I think it might even be in Miller and Lui's contracts


    I love Sherlock and like Elementary has it's moments and it really shines when it focuses on things like Moriarty.

    As much as I love Sherlock... I was unimpressed by standard femme fatale/damsel in distress Irene Adele, and the annoyingly cartoony Moriarty whose end plan was such a WTF the fuck moment, not in a good way, more in a going off the rails. His entire plan from start to ending on the resolve on the roof top (later reveal) was such logical mess.

    Elementary's take on Moriarty? Fucking brilliant. It added so much more the lays to the Sherlock/Moriarty relationships and solved the problem of Irene Adler, the only female character in Sherlock's stories with her one sole appearance. Most people's take on Adler generally falls into standard hero's girlfriend motif.

    Elementary's take on Irene Adler, loved it to bits.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I think Sherlock is very overrated but then I'm not a drooling Cumberbatch fangirl. Freeman is wonderful though.

  • IngridToday

    I just loved the completely fresh take on Adler and Moriarty. I never completely understand the Moriarty/Sherlock conflict. Sherlock works... occasionally and sometimes he stops Moriarty. Since Sherlock/Moriarty don't have an actual relationship I never understood why Moriarty didn't just send a hitman if he was so bothered.

    Elementary establishes Moriarty's interest in Sherlock and builds a bit of a relationship. Moriarty fucking with Sherlock makes sense, Moriarty has a reason.

    The problem I had with Sherlock's Moriarty is that I could never figure out why Moriarty cared about Sherlock, why all these elaborate plans that took months (year? years?) to orchestrate. Why?
    I know the general motive for the Sherlock vs Moriarty feud is they were equally brilliant but opposite sides of the law blah blah blah. It always seemed like a flimsy motive.
    Moriarty's interest in Sherlock (on Elementary) actually seemed genuine.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Good post. I had the same problem with their relationship but I also found the incredibly hammy and over-the-top performances rather annoying. Moriarty came across more like Boris Badenov on crank than a superior intellect battling his competition. Sherlock wasn't much better, the scene with him in bedsheets at Buckingham Palace was asinine.

  • Three_nineteen

    That's where we differ. I would have been happy if Adler had just stayed dead. Knew it was never going to happen, but held out hope.

  • Artemis

    Love this show. I watch nothing else on CBS, but gave this a shot because I like Lucy Liu and was excited about the idea of a female Watson. The mysteries themselves aren't always the strongest, but everything between Sherlock and Watson is phenomenal. I love love love Jonny Lee Miller in this role, and he and Lucy Liu have such great (platonic! yay!) chemistry. And Watson is actually a fully formed person who is a match for Sherlock instead of just trailing around behind him being blown away at his brilliance.

    I don't watch Sherlock and it pisses me off to no end that every discussion of Elementary has to include a comparison to that show. We get it, Sherlock fans, you like your show. That's got nothing to do with this completely different show that has nothing in common with yours, beyond a weird detective with the same name.

  • AlexW

    Oh hell no you did not just say that a breezy CBS procedural is better than the Jeremy Brett series. Hell. To. The. No.

  • Hazel Dean

    Ugh, right? Jeremy Brett is THE DEFINITIVE Sherlock Holmes, and as much as I enjoy Elementary, it is nowhere near as brilliant as the Granada series. But then, I never seem to agree with Dustin on anything.

  • cgthegeek

    I'm glad you like the show. But I don't understand why Sherlock fans insist on comparing Elementary to Sherlock when Elementary is not a Sherlock remake, but another iteration of Sherlock Holmes. They are two different interpretations of the same character/lore, not of each other.

  • Three_nineteen

    They compared Elementary to Sherlock because CBS saw Sherlock, went to Moffat, and asked him to adapt Sherlock as an American show. Moffat said no, so CBS went to some other guy and asked him to give them a Sherlock show.

    Elementary probably would not exist if there was no Sherlock, and since Moffat was asked first it made sense at the time to think Elementary might turn out to be a Sherlock ripoff.

  • Artemis

    Sure, at the time. But it's now a year later, and there are 24 episodes of Elementary that demonstrate it's not a Sherlock ripoff and is in fact an entirely different show. So why does every discussion of Elementary still have to talk about it in relation to Sherlock instead of just discussing it on its own merits?

  • Three_nineteen

    Dustin brought Sherlock up because he was explaining why he didn't want to watch Elementary AT THE TIME when it first came out, which was when everyone was comparing it to Sherlock.

    Dustin doesn't actually compare Elementary to Sherlock in this review. He compares Elementary to the Jeremy Brett series.

  • Idle Primate

    He does seem to take great pains to continually remind that sherlock is the superior in every way show while "eating crow" about elementary and he does so as though its an obvious self evident fact requiring no comparison. Its a little tedious

  • Artemis

    Not to belabor the point, but yes, he does. He explains why he didn't want to watch it, then said he got over it and watched the whole series and enjoyed it, and then says this:

    It is still not in the same ball park as Sherlock, but they are distinct enough from one another that it hardly matters. “Sherlock” has the benefit of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Steven Moffat, plus only a commitment to produce three episodes every year and a half or so, so it is obviously a more cinematic, better acted, more intelligent, and more engrossing series, and any comparison that one might make does no favors to “Elementary.”

    And while that's not the entirety of Dustin's post, the problem I have is that basically every online review of this show feels the need to make some comparison to the BBC show, and then the comments are almost inevitably full of (a) fans of the BBC show complaining that it's better and/or (b) people who like Elementary but want to talk about why it's better than/as good as/can't hold a candle to Sherlock. It's annoying because it changes the discussion from "what does this show do well and what could it improve" to "what parts of this show are better or worse than another show that clearly has a different tone and focus." And it's doubly annoying when you don't want the other show and don't have any interest in it, and want to just read about and discuss the show you DO watch that the post is ostensibly about.

  • Idle Primate

    So they saw that sherlock holmes is a popular character that could sell a show and made their own. Crazy theft. When I think of all the movies and tv shows that animate the doyle characters I just all twisted up at what low down rotten dealing it is

  • Three_nineteen

    I didn't say it was theft. I said it was why everyone was comparing Elementary to Sherlock when CBS first started airing it.

  • Idle Primate

    My mistake. Its a sore spot because the whole stealing whinging that still goes on is just so knuckleheaded

  • NateMan

    I wish Elementary was available on Hulu, and I hope it will be on Netflix. It got bumped off my DVR for something more important, and the CBS video player suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks big sweaty donkey balls. But I quite enjoyed the 5 or so episodes I saw in the beginning.

    On this: Jonny Lee Miller — tics and all — is outstanding as Sherlock (although, he reminds me too much of Hannibal’s Will Graham)... Would it be fair to say it's the other way around? Elementary did start well before Hannibal... Though I suppose you watched them in the opposite order, so that does make sense.

  • emma852

    like Cynthia said I'm surprised that a single mom can profit $7520 in one month on the computer. did you see this site w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • JenVegas

    Yes, Sherlock did come before Hannibal IRL air time.

  • iRememberAnonymityOnTheWeb

    The CBS player is TERRIBLE. Heaven help you if there's a glitch, because if you have to hit the "refresh" button on your browser, you will spend the next ten minutes trying to guess where you left off (and having to watch a four-set of commercials for each guess). Luckily, the player is less glitchy now than when the series first started.

  • Michelle

    The CBS video player IS awful. When I still cared about HIMYM, we watched it on the CBS site and that shit was painful.

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