NCIS vs. Elementary: A Comparison

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Note: No, this is not a book review. I’m going to the library tomorrow, I promise.

Recently, I watched the pilot episodes of the crime procedurals NCIS and Elementary. I enjoyed both to a degree, but I would like to write a comparison to sort out my thoughts. I have not seen anything other than the pilot episode of these two shows, so if I am completely wrong about either, do not hesitate to tell me! (Spoilers for the episodes in the next two paragraphs).

The pilot of NCIS involves an attempted assassination on President Bush. A man dies shortly after eating with the president. Several agencies wish to investigate the body, with Agent Gibbs of NCIS and Secret Service Agent Caitlin Todd leading the investigation. They eventually discover a terrorist plot to poison the president’s dry-cleaning. Caitlin Todd quits the Secret Service and joins NCIS.

The pilot of Elementary introduces ex-drug addict Sherlock Holmes and his sober companion, Joan Watson. As it is Watson’s job to follow Holmes to his workplace, she follows him as he tries to solve the murder of a woman. She discovers that she enjoys being a consulting detective, and he discovers that it’s very helpful to have another perspective on his cases.

Both shows made me realize how much I missed the mystery genre. I love reading and watching clever people do clever things. This summer, I’ll probably read some Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes stories. That being said, I liked the plot of the Elementary pilot better. While it was fun to watch Agent Gibbs solve his mystery, the Elementary case was a lot more interesting. There was an emotional stake in the murder of a woman that wasn’t present in the terrorist plot. By the end of the episode, I really wanted the murderer to be punished. I was angry at him. It felt good to see him caught. The fact that the murderer was (spoiler) her husband, and that he had manipulated and taken advantage of a man who trusted him in order to murder his wife (end spoiler) was a bit more compelling than “Al-Qaeda did it.”

I think the Elementary pilot was better from a character standpoint as well. To be fair, NCIS is much longer than Elementary, and has more time to develop the characters. But Elementary made me care about Holmes and Watson almost immediately. I already want to know what happened to Holmes in London, and what drove Watson out of her medical practice. The NCIS characters, on the other hand, felt like a collection of random archetypes. I really didn’t care about any of them.

From a feminist perspective, Elementary is superior. Both shows are an example of the White Dude Super Detective trope (let’s be honest, if a coke-addicted black Holmes showed up at a crime scene and started licking the carpet, or an Arab Muslim Agent Gibbs had stolen an airplane, no one would let them anywhere near their cases). Both involve a brilliant man solving a case with a more average woman tagging along behind him. However, Watson has a much more active role than Todd. In fact, certain actions she takes lead directly to important information about the murderer. Also, from what I’ve heard about both shows, Todd’s relationship with Gibbs is very paternal, while Watson’s with Holmes is that of a partner. Todd looks up to Gibbs, but Watson is Holmes’ equal.

All in all, I did like both shows. But I’d say I’m more excited to continue watching Elementary.

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