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“Elementary” is a Disappointment

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Victoria Zelvin

In short, I’m not impressed with CBS’s new “Sherlock Holmes” procedural, “Elementary”. That’s really the crux of it. It was shot borrowing the cinematographic style of “CSI”. It was structured its plot in the vein of shows like the “Mentalist”, “Monk” and “House”. It is basic type of drama, cop/crime solving procedural that CBS has made its name off of, but the simple nature of its existence makes it so much more than that.

Because CBS didn’t just make another basic cop/crime solving procedural — or, to be fair, that’s not what they set out to make. Instead, they set out to make a television drama based off of the now public domain stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”. That brings to the table a whole lot of excess baggage and expectations from the fans of the original stories and the fans of the other adaptations that came before it. Such expectations are inevitable, so please consider that as a disclaimer to the remainder of this review. CBS made a competent cop/crime solving procedural, one that is harmless in its own right but will be subject to seemingly unfair, excess scrutiny due to the nature of this famous addition to an otherwise bland and safe cop/crime solving procedural.

As it is, “Elementary” is harmless at its roots. Competently acted on all sides, beautifully shot, interesting locations and equipped with a perfectly acceptable, albeit standard, crime as the setup for the pilot episode. Admittedly, the mystery was a little too easy as well, since it has the basic cop procedural problem of the killer being basically the first person you assume it’s going to be. Maybe that’s just my own personal bias coming in, seeing as I’ve had a steady diet of these types of police procedurals for the past several years, but I still felt the mystery was far beneath needing the expertise of the great Sherlock Holmes. It was just the pilot, though, so I’ll give “Elementary” the benefit of the doubt so far as creative crimes go. I’m sure that as the show progresses the writers will hit their stride in this regard.

Johnny Lee Miller is Sherlock Holmes and he’s trying. Bless him, he’s trying. The script hints at interesting things for him to do — for example, this Sherlock is a recently recovering cocaine junkie a la the original stories — but gets little to do with that other than the odd chance to be quirky. He speaks loudly in an opera, crashes a car once, but gets little else to do that would be indicative of a junkie. We’re supposed to buy that his massive intellect has negated the need for a sober companion, which is fine except for the fact that it removes an edge from Sherlock Holmes that this adaption makes clear is the main premise for bringing the famous duo together.

Because Joan Watson as played by Lucy Liu isn’t just someone who is looking for a roommate or back from Afghanistan or even anyone of military service at all. No, instead she is a former surgeon turned sober companion. It is a little irksome of “Elementary” to place Watson in position of being paid to be around Sherlock Holmes, since the relationship between Watson and Holmes has always been important because it’s voluntary. Why should Sherlock Holmes suddenly care about this person who is being paid to be there? Why would he suddenly trust them? It doesn’t mesh with the character as well, though I can see that the creators are trying to take more than a few liberties with the source material and that’s fine. This change just doesn’t sit well with me, given the nature of that relationship.

I also take issue with the change that she is no longer an Army vet. Sherlock Holmes does not need a doctor around to validate his views, as he has Joan do (though, admittedly, he uses her to confirm his assumptions when telling other people of them). He basically has an eidetic memory in this adaptation, so why does he need a doctor’s assistance on his cases? He could just as easily read a medical journal or two and be fine, but as it is now “Elementary” treats Joan Watson as a simple doctor who is partnered with Sherlock Holmes. Not to belittle Watson, but traditionally he has been the muscle. Admittedly, there hasn’t been much of a chance for anyone to face any violence yet because this is a much more responsible Sherlock Holmes who actually makes calls to the police when he figures things out, but that’s my basic read on the situation. I just couldn’t quite figure out why Sherlock liked her outside of plot contrivance.

I do want to make the point that I really did like Lucy Liu’s interpretation of the Watson the writers gave her. Honestly, of all the changes the one that bothers me the least is the addition of Lucy Liu as Watson or, to put it more bluntly, Watson as a woman. I understand the fear of the creators being tempted to create a romance and I truly hope they don’t, but so long as the chemistry is there, then I’m fine with it. The importance of the character is not necessarily tied to the gender, but rather what she (or the more traditional he) can offer Holmes. “Elementary” bills itself as being about the relationship in the same way that the similar NBC procedural “Castle” focuses on the relationship between the titular Castle and the detective Beckett. The only difference is that “Castle” handles the relationship a little more competently. Miller and Liu have enjoyable chemistry, but it’s fledgling. If given more time to flesh out, then maybe it can grow to something unique and special, but right now it’s very straight-laced/quirky in the most routine and bland way imaginable.

“Elementary” has only as of yet aired a pilot and I’ll be interested to see if the show actually gets a full first season, what with the enthusiasm with which CBS shoved it out of production and the consequent problems therein (i.e., with the BBC and potential copyright infringement). If “Elementary” was given more time in development, then I think it would have felt more polished and taken more risks, but as it is now it just doesn’t push any buttons. It’s the same kind of bland cop/crime-solving procedural that CBS has already seen a million of already. CBS shows like “Criminal Minds”, “Without a Trace”, “Cold Case” and the original “CSI” had more grit to them, and I can’t help but wonder if “Elementary” is playing it safe because of the famous characters attached to it. In this way, I almost wish they hadn’t called the main characters Holmes and Watson, just so that the show would have the freedom to develop and hit its stride the way it truly deserves to.

I’m of the mind that every television show deserves time to get its stride, so I’ll give “Elementary” a few more episodes, but I can’t promise any more than that. If they hadn’t slapped the name of “Sherlock Holmes” on the series, it’s doubtful I would have given it a watch in the first place.

All in all, for my money, I found the BBC’s adaptation, “Sherlock”, as my preferred television interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. If you can get into “Elementary”, then that’s harmless enough. Personally, I find it lacking, especially if it claims to be an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. The names of Sherlock Holmes and John (now Joan) Watson are weighing “Elementary” down, perhaps unfairly, and I really do hope the show is able to succeed despite it’s potentially too lofty aspirations.