Not Much of a Mystery

For its first two seasons, Elementary, was a solid ratings performer for CBS.  It wasn’t a massive hit, but it had no trouble earning itself a third season.  This year, though, the series’ ratings have dropped precipitously.  Due to the economics of syndication, it’s in no danger of getting canceled (See THIS article by Bill Gorman, the Cancellation Bear, for more information about why). 

The question, though, is why has there been such a drop in viewers since the end of last season.  Yes, the show premiered later than usual due to CBS Thursday night football, but it’s back in its usual Thursday 10PM Eastern timeslot.  Also, The Big Bang Theory moved from Thursdays to Mondays to start the season and then back to its usual Thursday berth once Football was over, and its ratings have been relatively unaffected.  Elementary is facing new and stiff competition from How to Get Away With Murder the latest Shonda Rhimes series airing on ABC.  However, would viewers in droves abandon a show that they enjoy just because there is a new show on another network?

No.  I do not think that any external force, such as premiere dates or Shonda Rhimes, has anything to do with Elementary’s troubles.  The wounds are self-inflicted.

While many fans (including me, if I’m honest) consider Elementary to be the lesser of the two Sherlock Holmes TV series set in the present (The other being the BBC’s Sherlock).  While Sherlock has always been flashier and more of a special event (That tends to happen when you only make three 90 minute episodes per season.), Elementary has been solid and really grew on me as the episodes went on. 

If anything, I felt that Elementary became a better show because it felt the need to differentiate itself from Sherlock.  While Sherlock updates the original characters and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Elementary goes in entirely different directions.  Instead of London, the show is set in New York City.  Watson, while still a doctor, is female and wants to become a detective.  Also, the episodes have barely touched elements of the original stories.  Through all of this, Elementary forged its own identity.

All of that was well and good, but I think they took it one step too far at the end of last season, which is what cost them their viewers.  Sherlock Holmes is an amazing detective, but television is full of those, many of whom have been built in some ways on the Holmes model.  Looking at two recently-departed shows, House was very much Sherlock Holmes solving medical mysteries (They were very up front about that.  House lives at 221B Baker Street, and his close friend is Dr. Wilson.), and even Shawn Spencer on Psych is basically a Sherlock Holmes who pretends that his deductive and observational powers are psychic abilities. 

In my view, what has been at the core of Holmes’ popularity for over a century now is his friendship and partnership with Dr. Watson.  Sherlock on the BBC has put that relationship above the cases themselves in importance to the series.  The second episode of the third season, “The Sign of Three,” is a prime example of this.  Far more of the episode centers on Watson’s wedding and Holmes’ reactions to it (including his attempt to give a best man’s speech), than on the case itself (which Holmes solves while giving said speech).  Elementary, meanwhile, has always been more of a straight procedural more in line with other shows on its home network, CBS.  In many ways, that’s to be expected, since they have to produce 24 episodes per season as opposed to the three Sherlocks we get whenever the stars align to allow Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Martin Freeman to all have spaces in their schedule to film it. 

Despite Elementary’s procedural nature, the show since the beginning has developed the Holmes/Watson relationship from that of recovering addict and sober companion to teacher and mentor to friends.  But at the end of the second season, the show ripped apart that friendship, and now five episodes into season three, shows no signs of really putting it back together.  Watson is off on her own now, a detective in her own right, and Holmes has a new protégé, Kitty.  Worse, Watson has been very cold toward Holmes since he returned to New York after leaving to work in England at the end of the previous season, and, while things have thawed a little bit, the friendship as it was seems to be gone forever.  Far from being the high-functioning sociopath of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes, Jonny Lee Miller has seemed downright contrite toward Watson in his attempts to rebuild their relationship, attempts that she has basically rebuffed. 

I think this is what has turned off viewers (and gotten them to turn the show off).  We can see mysteries on any night of the week on any network.  What keeps viewers coming back are the characters and their relationships.  Take away the Holmes and Watson friendship on Elementary, and what’s left?  It’s just another show with a super-smart guy solving crimes. 

I am usually one to give a show’s writing staff the benefit of the doubt, but in this case, I feel they have taken the show in a direction that has hurt it badly.  I’m still watching for now, but I sincerely hope they fix this soon.  If I’m right, their show depends on it.


(As a side note, I’m not positive, but I have to believe that Jonny Lee Miller has now played Sherlock Holmes on film more than any other actor.  Eille Norwood was in 45 shorts (each running around 30 minutes) and two feature films, but Miller now has over 50 hours logged in the part.)

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter