A review of the first episode of Elementary, the new Sherlock Holmes CBS series.
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most enduring characters in literature, fascinating people for over a century with his keen detective skills and fascinating personality. In many ways, he’s the grandfather of the countless procedural dramas that fill the airwaves. Without Holmes, there’d probably be no CSI, Bones or Castle.
Holmes is also the most portrayed fictional movie character in history, having been portrayed by seventy-five different actors in over 200 films. Most recently, he’s enjoyed a resurgence of popularity due to Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes movies and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock television series. A comparison of these two shows help to explain why the character is so popular on film. Downey’s Holmes is a patriotic action hero while Cumberbatch’s Holmes plays more on his eccentric detached behavior and mental brilliance. Despite how disparate the two portrayals are, both were mined from the same source material and brilliantly capture different aspects of the Great Detective.
It’s important to acknowledge Sherlock Holmes’ history and his past portrayals because that’s what Elementary, the new CBS adaptation featuring the famed, will be compared to, especially at its onset. While it might be unfair to compare the hour-long procedural drama to BBC miniseries or Hollywood blockbusters, it’s an impossible comparison to ignore.
Elementary features Sherlock Holmes, portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller teaming up with Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu, in modern day New York series. By making a few crucial deviations from the source material, it appears that CBS is attempting to forcibly separate Elementary from its peers. Watson is female (the third time that CBS has attempted this twist), Holmes has been separated from his native land of Britain and Holmes’ patented brilliance has been dulled a bit for the network show’s masses. While Miller’s Holmes is still the smartest person in every room he walks in, his portrayal seems to play up Holmes’ tendency towards addiction, an easy role for Miller, who previously played an amoral addict in Trainspotting to great acclaim.
So was Elementary able to live up to its Holmesian peers? After one episode, I can safely say “not yet.” The pilot episode’s mystery, featuring a missing wife of a prominent psychologist, was too simple and predictable for a good Holmes story. Even worse, the much-vaunted chemistry between Liu and Miller (that the show’s producers swear is asexual) is almost nonexistent. There are also a number of silly contrivances inserted into the show to give the show more built-in drama, such as the introduction of Holmes’ father as an absent benefactor and a past tragedy in Watson’s medical career that forced her out of a surgical career.
That’s not to say that there’s not plenty to like about Elementary. The show’s writers obviously love Holmes and give hardcore fans plenty of little nods. Between the use of the lesser-known Inspector Gregson as Holmes’ police contact, a nod towards Holmes retirement into beekeeping and even a hint at Irene Adler, my biggest fear that this would be a Sherlock Holmes show in name only has been safely sated.
In addition, it’s my belief that Miller could prove to be a fine Holmes. He lacks the overwhelming arrogance given to Holmes by Downey and Cumberbatch as well as the unwavering brilliance popularized by Basil Rathbone during his stint as the character in the 1940s and 1950s. Miller’s Holmes is brasher, quicker to apologize and more damaged than other depictions, which at least offers the prospect that we'll see something different than past portrayals. However, my wife did note that Miller seemed to lack the passion found in the best Holmes actors. I'm hoping that he'll come to find it in future episodes.
Other than the cookie cutter plot, the biggest weakness of Elementary is Liu’s Watson, who simply isn’t developed well at all. While not as weak as Nigel Bruce’s bumbling Watson, Liu seems to be there merely to react to Miller’s outbursts and provide the show with a way to dig into Holmes’ psyche a little deeper. As I opined earlier, there’s only the scantest traces of chemistry between Liu and Miller, something which desperately needs to improve in future episodes.
While Elementary did not burst out of the gate with its first episode, it didn’t stumble as badly as I expected either. Future episodes will decide whether or not the show can find its legs and do justice to the Great Detective while not mimicking past depictions.