When Sherlock debuted several years ago, I was dazzled. I’m still dazzled by a “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Then somebody on here (can’t remember who) said, “Oh, try Elementary,” and I did, and I thought it was fine but it wasn’t Sherlock. Which I’m now thinking is a good thing. I’ve just finished watching all of Elementary in a two-week binge, and I think it’s just as good as the British Holmes and in some ways better. Some of this is, of course, tinged by Season Three of Sherlock because it was terrible, bad enough that I’m not terribly interested in a Season Four. But I’m also coming over to Elementary because seeing all the episodes together emphasized that this show has what Sherlock lacks: characters I care deeply about who change over time.
The biggest problem I have with Sherlock is probably also the thing I like best about it: its immense, flamboyant style. It’s fast, it’s clever, it’s visually stimulating, the characters rage across the screen (great actors across the board), it’s just so . . . smart. Writing all of that now, it occurs to me that that’s the kind of guy I’ve always been drawn to, which explains why all of my relationships tended to not just end but crash spectacularly with musical accompaniment. Sherlock is, if you will, a doughnut of a TV series. I loved watching all the characters–they’re all so clever–until Season Three when Sherlock, the linchpin of the whole shebang–turned sadistic and stupid. He’d always been insensitive, that I could get behind, but somebody who deliberately is cruel to somebody who cares about him because he thinks it’s funny? At that point, the cleverness left a bad taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t helped by all the latent homophobia and not so latent we’re-not-gay jokes that they drove into the ground. It was like going out to dinner with somebody you liked who was rude to the waiter and then left a 10% tip. That’s not something you’re going to forget because it’s so indicative of a mean spirit, but more than that, afterwards you see that everything that drew you to that person was superficial. Style not substance.
Okay, that’s too harsh for Sherlock which is exemplary storytelling, acting, and production, but when Sherlock the character showed a mean spirit, it tarnished all the cleverness of the show for me. The same thing happened to me last year with Arrow, which I loved until Oliver turned into a hypocritical jerk and the whole candy-colored show melted into a sticky mess. I don’t need my protagonists to be likable, but I do need them to be characters I can stand to watch without loathing. Most of all, I need them to stay in character. A Sherlock who’s practically autistic should not turn into the guy who terrifies his companion with the knowledge of his certain death just to laugh at his despair. After that, I’ll take less style and more substance, less flash and more slow character growth. I’ll take Elementary.
Elementary’s Sherlock is not likable, but he’s fascinating, and so far he hasn’t done anything unforgivably out of character. The show is on CBS, so you’re not getting a lot of flair, but what you are getting is beyond-solid characterizations and a deep and well-developed bench of players you really want to see again that are new versions of old characters, new wine in old bottles or at least new wine with old labels. What this show has done with Captain Gregson (he’s smart), Mrs. Hudson (transgender professional muse and kept woman, and that’s Ms. Hudson, thank you), and Moriarty (I won’t spoil that one but it’s marvelous) is inventive without being clever; all the changes are there because they serve the story. Even the characters who show up for just one episode are faceted and well played. The mysteries aren’t always inspired, but the characters are, and what I’ve found in my two-week binge is that the characters matter more that mysteries anyway. Their struggles, their wins and losses, matter to me because they’re developed slowly over time. It’s not just Sherlock dealing with addiction and Watson trying to find her place in the world now that she’s not a doctor, it’s Gregson trying to cope with the guy who abused his daughter, and Detective Bell struggling with physical disability after being shot, Lestrade in meltdown, and so many more. There’s a sense of a coherent world there populated by people who don’t quip and snark, but instead do things that make sense and still get in trouble. I care about those characters, so the dud mystery now and then doesn’t matter. I want to know what Kitty’s doing now, if Mrs. Hudson has found herself with another married man, if Harlan is still doing math without his shirt, who the Captain’s new girlfriend is, and why the hell Watson hasn’t had painters into that damn brownstone. She’d better paint the basement, that’s all I can say. I’m invested.
All of which brings me back to what I already knew: It’s character. The style and the flash and the snark will get me every time for the first time I encounter a narrative, but if I’m going to settle into a relationship with a story, it’s going to be character that does it.
Note: There are probably going to be spoilers in the comments. Proceed at your own risk.