Preview: Elementary 1×1 (CBS/Sky Living)

On the quest for blandness


In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, CBS. Starts September 27
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Living for October broadcast

You will recall that not so long ago, Steven Moffat was extremely dischuffed. “Pourquoi?” you might ask if you were French. Well, my francophone friend, because as well as being the showrunner for Doctor Who, Stevie is also the showrunner and indeed co-creator of a little known show called Sherlock, an updating of Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective. After pitching an updated version to the American TV network CBS, he became seriously dischuffed when he heard that CBS was going to do their own version without the benefit of his wisdom.

And here it comes: Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes, a former consultant to Scotland Yard, who moves to New York to get away from his father and to help US cop Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) with his enquiries. Of course, since he doesn’t get paid for his work, he needs his father’s money to keep him in little things like food and lodgings, and since our Sherlock also had a bit of a drug habit, as a condition of continued support, daddy dearest gives him a live-in ‘sober companion’, a therapist who stays with Sherlock night and day to make sure he doesn’t revert to old habits. That would be one Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).

Sound much like Sherlock? No.

Stevie need not have worried.

In fact, Elementary, even putting aside the change in location of the stories, gender of Dr Watson and promotion of Inspector Gregson, is possibly the loosest adaptation of Conan Doyle’s classics there’s ever been. Well, apart from that manga one and that one set in space. And while it’s a perfectly functional procedural, efficiently told and competently made, with an intriguingly quirky performance from Miller, it’s also the blandest adaptation of Conan Doyle’s classics there’s even been. Yes, even including Young SherlockThe Mystery of the Manor House.

Here’s a trailer. It’s basically a four-minute precis of the pilot.

ELEMENTARY stars Jonny Lee Miller as detective Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in a modern-day drama about a crime-solving duo that cracks the NYPD’s most impossible cases. Following his fall from grace in London and a stint in rehab, eccentric Sherlock escapes to Manhattan where his wealthy father forces him to live with his worst nightmare – a sober companion, Dr. Watson. A successful surgeon until she lost a patient and her license three years ago, Watson views her current job as another opportunity to help people, as well as paying a penance. However, the restless Sherlock is nothing like her previous clients. He informs her that none of her expertise as an addiction specialist applies to him and he’s devised his own post-rehab regimen – resuming his work as a police consultant in New York City. Watson has no choice but to accompany her irascible new charge on his jobs. But Sherlock finds her medical background helpful, and Watson realizes she has a knack for playing investigator. Sherlock’s police contact, Capt. Tobias “Toby” Gregson, knows from previous experience working with Scotland Yard that Sherlock is brilliant at closing cases, and welcomes him as part of the team. With the mischievous Sherlock Holmes now running free in New York solving crime, it’s simple deduction that he’s going to need someone to keep him grounded, and it’s elementary that it’s a job for Watson.

Is it any good?
Take away the name Sherlock Holmes and what you really have here is The Mentalist or Monk as if done by a cast who had been up for 48 hours without sleep. It’s not that different.

The shows tries piling on a few quirks for Sherlock from the outside: he has sex with dominatrices for no good reason; he has/had a drug habit; he’s a bit messed up, probably by a woman (or even The Woman); he has a rich dad; he watches lots of tele; he can predict baseball results; and he’s good at abductive reasoning (despite all claims to the contrary, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t deduce, mes amis).

But if you’re expecting the original Sherlock Holmes – a cold, calculating machine, skilled in baritsu, science, music and smoking – you’d be wrong. In fact, the biggest quirk of this Sherlock Holmes – apart from the fact he keeps bees, possibly the only big Holmes reference of the show – is that he’s English. He calls people pratts and says things like ‘spot on’. Jonny Lee Miller is even putting on a slightly strange, eccentric, posh-boy English accent to ram this point home.

Yes, the ultimate eccentric in the US is one with an English accent.

True, this Sherlock picks up some degree of cool from Jonny Lee Miller’s tattoos, but that’s about it, which is a shame because Miller has done so well and even given stronger performances in US shows like Smith, Eli Stone and Dexter. Indeed, he could do with a bit more fire in his Sherlock, since his faux-poshness comes across as breathlessness half the time.

Dr Watson suffers a similar problem. She – for John is now Joan – is a failed surgeon who feels guilty for causing a patient’s death. She likes the opera. She doesn’t like her job, but this police work lark looks like fun, she decides by episode’s end. And that’s about it.

Even Nigel Bruce had more to work with than that and Lucy Liu, as she showed in Southland, is capable of a lot when give the lines and the character.

So we have the blandest Holmes and Watson yet created, with minimal chemistry between them. Although it’s to its credit that you rarely think of Sherlock when watching Elementary, except to think how it’s not as good, Cumberbatch and Freeman have more chemistry in their worst scenes than Miller and Liu do in their best.

Moving on to the rest of the characters, Quinn’s Inspector Gregson, to his credit, is merely someone smart enough to employ Holmes, rather than the idiot of the books. But we do have an idiot-of-the-week Latino detective to bumble around instead of Gregson, just in case you were worried there.

And that, surprisingly for a CBS procedural, is the cast. It basically all rests on Liu and Miller, doing their best to make the material interesting.

Then there’s the plots. There’s another old cliché-cum-stereotype: that Americans do crime stories and Brits do mysteries. And that’s pretty true of Elementary. Although Holmes does reason his way around in a relatively clever way, it’s not that clever. And the story of a pilot – the murder of a rich psychiatrist’s wife – is pretty much a by-the-numbers bit of CBS crime plotting, with false success, final clue, twist, etc, exactly where you’d expect them to be. CSI is smarter than this and when the killer’s identity, his or her mechanism for killing and the way the crime is eventually solved are revealed, you’ll end up thinking CSI: Miami was smarter than this. No one should ever have to think that.

There’s certainly no mystery, nothing that made the Doyle stories what they were. There’s no secret code à la The Adventure of the Dancing Men, no secret scheme in the style of The Red Headed League, no riddle to be solved as per The Musgrave Ritual. What I wouldn’t have given even for a charmed snake that scaled down bell pulls at night rather than this unremarkable, crime story of the week that gets solved in the exact same way as every other CBS crime story of the week.

So it’s Sherlock Holmes in name only: characters who aren’t really Holmes or Watson solving crimes that aren’t really Holmes mysteries in a city that isn’t Holmes’ city. It has a bit more character than something truly forgettable like last year’s unfortunately titled Unforgettable. Miller and Liu are engaging

It’s not the worst TV hour around, but when you consider the competition from the fireworks of Sherlock, if not in the ratings but in the cultural zeitgeist, it’s a shame that CBS only brought a sparkler to the display.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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