Saturday, 22 September 2012


Saturday, 22 September 2012
written by Robert Doherty / directed by Michael Cuesta

Elementary's problem isn't that it's been inspired by the success of the BBC's own modern-day Sherlock Holmes, it's how US TV's choked with too many similar shows. Erase the words "Sherlock" and "Watson" from this CBS pilot and it doesn't make any difference, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's characters are merely a good marketing ploy for a country that's always been attracted to the "consulting detective" and police procedurals in general. By combining both with Elementary, CBS are most likely onto a long-running hit, that's my deduction.

I've already made it clear what my deep-rooted feelings about this project are; especially considering the "coincidence" it materialised soon after the creators of Sherlock refused to make CBS an Americanisation of their own show. I even reviewed Elementary's pilot script awhile ago, which appears unchanged. Consequently, the only new things to discuss are the performances, direction and production values. Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) manages to avoid copying the two other Sherlock's around at the moment (he's less physical and camp compared to Robert Downey Jr; less menacing and inscrutable when measured against Benedict Cumberbatch). That's a relief, but it also makes Miller's version the third most interesting Sherlock on the block.

Miller's opted to play the "intelligent, eccentric, hunky Brit abroad" card, which he does well, but it's an overused and boring approach to a character of this nature, which could be so much more. Sherlock Holmes has inspired hundreds of other characters with similar traits, so it's a hard role to stand out from the crowd with, and Miller's decision to go for a straightforward English sleuth with a famous name is disappointing.

Lucy Liu fares worse as a feminised Watson called Joan. She doesn't crack a smile throughout the pilot—which is somewhat understandable because she's hiding a tragic, clich├ęd past as a surgeon (no prizes for guessing what happened), but this still makes her feel one-note and unlikeable. There isn't much of a feeling we're witnessing the beginnings of an amazing partnership here, either. The only thing I did like about Joan was how the story gave her good opportunities to outwit Sherlock himself, or surprise him with an accurate deduction of her own. She was less enthralled by him as a person, which was something a little different to the Jude Law and Martin Freeman takes on the character.

The fact Watson's a woman just feels like politically correct box-ticking, because there's otherwise no female regular to appeal to all the potential female viewers. I'm sure women could cope with a show about two male investigators, but current trends dictate gender equality in the billing. It also leaves the door open for love to blossom between the sexy leads, although the producers have made it clear Sherlock and Watson will remain platonic. For now. Let's see what happens in a hypothetical third season when ratings are dwindling and a CBS bigwig noticed a spike in ratings and media coverage that time Miller kissed Liu.

To be fair, some of the deductions in creator Robert Doherty's script were pretty good (I loved the reveal of a secret "safe room" and the discovery of an incriminating phone drying in a bag of rice), but the whole mystery collapsed because of a common problem with US TV murder-mysteries: the culprit is almost certainly the guest-star with the most recognisable face. I don't want to spoil things outright, but if you watch a fair amount of TV you'll have no problem "deducing" who the murderer is when they appear. The hour-long format also means it's hard for writers to introduce enough suspects and red herrings to trick the audience, too. These are such a common problems with US detective shows it's why I rarely bother with then. Why don't they give unknown actors a break and let them play the week's villain? Or trick viewers by filling an episode with reputable character actors and then instead point the finger at a little-known actor straight out of drama school?

Overall, Elementary wasn't terrible and doesn't give Sherlock fans cause for alarm, but it's just another efficient US crime drama based on this workmanlike pilot. There's no magic to anything. It doesn't even feel like a true Sherlock Holmes update, because the title could be English Jonny and it really wouldn't matter. Overt comparisons to the BBC show are understandable, if slightly unfair, but even if you dislike the BBC's Sherlock you can't deny it's more stylish, surprising and stimulating than this effort from across the pond.

ELEMENTARY will premiere on CBS, 27 September 2012