Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Script Review: ELEMENTARY (2012, CBS)

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

I don't usually review scripts of TV pilots, for three basic reasons:

1. Simply finding the time to read them is hard.
2. I don't want to be spoiled prematurely.
3. I think it's fairer to review pilots once they're ready to be seen.

Still, a script is a fascinating insight into the creative process, and reviewing one feels more acceptable in TV circles because the written word's the driving force of that medium. I still feel uncomfortable about labelling something "good" or "bad" based solely on a script, but you can form opinions on key things like character and story from a script. So what did I make of CBS' contemporary Sherlock Holmes update, set in New York City and starring Jonny Lee Miller as the ex-pat sleuth in a drug rehab program?

Well, it reads like an ordinary yet efficient US detective show that happens to star the famous "Sherlock Holmes" with a female Watson in tow (commonly referred to as "Joan"). There isn't much to distinguish Elementary from a show like The Mentalist, really; as both tackle a weekly mystery that only an extraordinary oddball can solve. I'm not forgetting that this whole genre owes a debt to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation.

After reading Elementary's pilot, I was first struck by the number of clich├ęs it contains: someone is woken up by their alarm clock on page one before going for an early morning jog. How many times has that happened to start a pilot? It's as eye-rolling as a dream sequence where the protagonist wakes up in a cold sweat. And that's indicative of this script's by-the-numbers approach, which delivers a stale modernisation for mass consumption. There are just so many settings, ideas and lines of dialogue that feel very shopworn. (To be honest, this kind of thing isn't as noticeable when you're not reading the lines.)

We get our first sampling of Sherlock's talents in a scene where it's revealed he's practicing his ability to memorize dialogue from nine different TV channels, simultaneously. I guess that's an impressive demonstration of his multitasking mind, but it also comes across as stupid.

Elementary will be unfavourably compared to the celebrated Sherlock (which airs on PBS in the USA), but that BBC show has nothing to worry about. As a character, Elementary's Sherlock is nowhere near as fascinating or antisocial, being a passionate but softer version of the sleuth portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch across the pond. (And in Miller, a more classically handsome, rugged face for the marketing people to lean on.) This script's Sherlock isn't an asexual virgin either, although he claims sex is something he indulges in to keep his libido sated. He's also more self-aware of his quirks, tics and foibles.

CBS' Sherlock also isn't as joyfully clever as his BBC equivalent, either—which is another way of saying writer Rob Doherty is no Steven Moffat—although some may see this is a strength because the CBS Sherlock's talents are more believable. I have to admit it can be ludicrous how Cumberbatch's character deduces highly complex things from stray hairs and scuffed shoes, so the more plausible deductions in this US script could please some people. Sherlock even accepts defeat a few times (once admitting he uses Google to "deduce" certain things), which gives his character a less God-like air.

I didn't hate Elementary's script, it's just nothing memorable. You don't get the feeling Doherty is a rabid Sherlock Holmes fan, per se, just someone who was struck by the brilliant UK series and has written a paler copy that adheres to the strict rules of US network drama. I still believe the BBC's 90-minute episodes of Sherlock are too long, but its feature-length format does lend the show "event" status and a narrative unpredictability that's lacking in Elementary's perfunctory hour-long format. This US show will produce more episodes in two months than Sherlock has managed in two years, but I know which one I'll be keen to watch.

Does Elementary do anything better than Sherlock, I hear you cry? Well, as I mentioned, Holmes is less "alien" and his IQ probably lower, which some people will find preferable. And I quite liked how ex-surgeon Joan Watson gets acquainted with Sherlock (assigned as his drug rehabilitation partner by his as-yet-unseen older brother--Mycroft?). This suggests the character's drug-taking won't be avoided like the BBC version, which is good to see. But the friendship between Joan and Sherlock didn't really grab me; in fact, it was hard to see why Sherlock embraced this woman as his "personal valet" and whisked her to a downtown crime scene moments after meeting her.

There's a chance Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu will bring an on-screen chemistry that elevates the script (which is half their job as actors), but we'll just have to see. Regardless, a friendship between a man and woman, with an undercurrent of sexuality, is less interesting than the purely platonic love/hate relationship between two male pals--don't you think? It's like Watson's been feminised purely so Elementary can appeal to women. (So what, is there evidence women dislike the BBC show because it focuses on two male characters?) More likely it was just an easy way to make Elementary appear superficially different to the BBC show that clearly inspired it.

As I said at the top of this review, this is still only a script. The murder-mystery story isn't bad and there's nothing reprehensible about this update. I may even have been mildly excited by its potential if I'd read Elementary before Sherlock arrived on our screens. The performances may lift the script, and the pilot's director could breathe life into the crime-solving scenes (although it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than the BBC's Paul McGuigan), but I don't envisage Elementary becoming a discerning fan's favourite show. Not as long as a new trio of adventures with Cumberbatch are promised by the BBC.

Still, they at least avoided making Sherlock a native New Yorker, so be grateful for small mercies.