I loved Elementary last season. I liked watching a man and a woman working out how to be dear friends. I liked watching a world full of racial and sexual diversity, but where that diversity was just portrayed as matter-of-fact and hardly worth commenting on. And I especially loved watching people who felt that they had gotten off-track from who they wanted to be as people working to be careful with themselves and each other in order to get back on track.
In the season premier this year, a character we’re supposed to like blew up a bomb in London, a city not unfamiliar with actual bombings and no one screamed or cried and we never saw the police show up. It hasn’t gotten better since then.
It’s strange. We have the same great actors, the same characters, the same — as far as I can tell — writers and yet the careful world full of thoughtful, sometimes overly thoughtful, people seems to be gone.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the piece Rob Bricken wrote for I09 about why Sleepy Hollow works, because I think it answers what’s gone wrong with Elementary. The two shows share a similar template–you have the fussy British detective with incredibly progressive politics for his time (Ichabod Crane lacks all of the racist and sexist attitudes you might expect in a man from the 1700s, Holmes’ social circle is incredibly diverse without it being played for “Look how accepting he is!”), the American woman of color partner who’s helping him figure out, the somewhat stern police captain who is supportive of the efforts of the two leads, and a huge cast of weird characters doing often seemingly inexplicable things.
Bricken identifies two specific things that Sleepy Hollow is doing right that I think Elementary did right last season, but has departed from this season.
1. Have the characters take the ridiculousness seriously and realistically. Going back to Mycroft’s “playful” revenge bombing of Sherlock’s things, yes, I get how upset Mycroft was and that he might have wanted to destroy Sherlock’s things. But, in general, the episode made a point of portraying Mycroft as thoughtful. Would he really have put London through that kind of scare? Would Sherlock really not have been deeply hurt by the destruction of his property, even if he understood why Mycroft would do it?
2. Play by the rules you’ve set. In a recent episode, Sherlock sleeps with one of Joan’s friends and, for stupid reasons, Joan tries to make him think he could have gotten her friend pregnant. Sherlock has, up until this point, been portrayed as someone with sophisticated sexual attitudes, who is friends with sex workers, and who has plenty of recreational sex, and now we’re supposed to believe that he doesn’t use condoms? Or take his attitude toward fat people this season. In all other matters, when it comes to people who don’t fit societal norms, Sherlock exhibits curiosity and a willingness to buck conventional wisdom. But he doesn’t want to sit by a fat child on the plane?
The show went to great lengths last season to build this really interesting world full of people you don’t normally see on TV to tell interesting stories in. And it’s like they lost their nerve about letting Sherlock and Joan continue to occupy that interesting world this season. So, instead, we’ve been given a much more conventional, much less enjoyable show.
And maybe that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that, like I said, if you want to watch a dynamic friendship forming between a British dude and an American woman who are trying to solve mysteries on a show that is still funny and charming, you can turn to Sleepy Hollow. So, Elementary needs to find a way to get the magic back and soon.