Elementary – Pilot
Given the wealth of works in character creator Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, the current cultural fascination with infuriatingly intelligent protagonists and the resurgence of the good detective’s popularity since the Guy Ritchie films were released the concept of structuring a modern day, crime procedural show around Sherlock Holmes is one of those ideas that has you hitting your head and saying: “Why didn’t I think of this?” or “Why didn’t anybody else think of this?”. It’s such a smart move, one that Sherlock himself might have made, because the show basically writes itself; I could see it in my head as soon as I heard the first synopsis. Of course those in the know will by now be yelling at the screen “Yes, because you have already seen it. Someone did already think of it. It’s called Sherlock!”
It was inevitable that this show would cop some comparisons to the original BBC production but the sheer enthusiasm that audiences, English and otherwise, have for that show means that this one never stood a chance in the informed realms of discussion. Sherlock, like Doctor Who before it, isn’t just a show some people liked, it’s a show that in-literate* girls liked and hell has no fury like a fangirls. Personally I never quite cottoned on to Sherlock like some did, I watched all the episodes the day they aired and enjoyed them well enough but my heart never skipped a beat for Mr.Holmes and so I was able to watch this, sort of different, show objectively. Should it be compared to Sherlock? Do they share some similarities? Absolutely, but only as many as it does with CSI and every other CBS crime drama.
*Literate in the ways of the Internet
There have been so many Sherlock Holmes simulacrums plastered onto the small screen this decade that Johnny Lee Miller’s literal take on the literary detective wouldn’t have been shocking even if it weren’t first, but that is not to say that it isn’t still good. He has the eyes down, able to convey that expression of constant cognition even when at rest and so we believe the brainy banter that he spatters as something thought up then and not just said from a strenuously constructed script. The second most vital part of his performance is the accent in which he recites these lines and that is his original British brogue. Miller, like his Holmes, hails from the Motherland and though this show is set in – and makes stunning scenic use of – New York City keeping this element intact is an interesting and important one since it allows the show to suggest that he did all the detective work we know about back in London before setting out overseas; skipping the origin story and allowing the show more space.
The one way that Miller’s main character makes himself different from Cumberbatch’s (who he coincidentally starred alongside with in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, the pair switching roles with each performance) is that while he has an extraordinary mind his body is as banal and brutish as the rest of us humans. He makes reference early on, after his guardian spots him with a semi-nude woman sporting what appears to be a Dragon Tattoo and a Salander-ish haircut, to disliking sex but needing it on occasion to keep his mind focused and when, confronted with a dead end in the case, Holmes does something very drastic his companion, now attuned to his ways, asks whether it was all a part of some elaborate plan and he simply shakes his head; he was simply angry. Miller then makes his Holmes a human man from the get-go, one with an intelligent brain and base instincts and the conflict between the two is a fascinating one.
Of course though this show is on CBS and so its not a character study that they’ve constructed, its a crime procedural and so most of our time is spent with Holmes and his Sponsor/ Companion Watson as they attempt to solve a murder. While this wasn’t the greatest procedural case that I’ve ever seen it did go above and beyond what I expected from a pilot by giving us something properly convoluted – something that only Sherlock could solve – when it could have gotten away with a much simpler story while it was building its world and characters. I didn’t exactly care about the case but I was compelled by it, sticking myself in each crime scene and trying to spot the clue that only Sherlock would see, and that is more than I can say for most procedural present on the network.
Because this case takes so much of the time though I can’t really say how I felt about the character of Watson undergoing a change in gender: Liu is also quite good as the shows co-lead, has her own interesting history and holds her own against Holmes almost right away but I was never sold on the bond between the two of them, nor do I really see her as standing in the same space as Watson did. To my mind they could have given her character any other name and the show would have worked just as well, only that wrinkle would have been removed from our minds. Though given the change in setting, era and the (seemingly) original case I guess you could say the same for Sherlock himself; besides the Battleship-esque name recognition I’m not sure that I see why this show had to be about a known character.
In short, Elementary is rudimentary, but rather well executed besides. It’s also not a show that I can see myself ever falling in love with, nor do I imagine will any single subsection of the audience like they did Sherlock, but it is a broadcast show and will work very well for that broad audience. That might not sound like much of a compliment but I meant it as one. If the average American (or Australian) wants something easy to put on after work, then I would love it to be this; Elementary is a solid show and perhaps the smartest mass-market media that I’ve seen in some time. It’s not as good as Sherlock but it is more reliable with another twenty-one episodes still to come. It’s not as good as reading the real original, the books, but really no-ones going to do that. It’s CBS and yet it’s good enough that a snob like me is going to be coming back for a second shot come the end of September. You don;t have to be a genius to know that is a compliment.