From the moment CBS ordered “Elementary,” a new Sherlock Holmes series set in the present, fans of the character have indignantly pointed out that there’s already an ongoing Sherlock Holmes series set in the present: the BBC’s award-winning “Sherlock,” which airs in America on PBS. And “Sherlock” producer hasn’t helped the new show by explaining that before CBS ordered “Elementary,” the network first approached him about remaking “Sherlock.”
Though I’m a big fan of “Sherlock,” I went into “Elementary” with an open mind. There have been so many Holmes adaptations over the years – including the Basil Rathbone movies, from which Moffat took the idea of making Holmes’ adventures contemporary – that no one of them deserves a monopoly on the character.
And “Elementary” (which debuts tomorrow at 10 p.m.) has little resemblance to “Sherlock.” “Sherlock” is set in London and does three 90-minute movies per season which transplant specific Arthur Conan Doyle stories into the 21st century. “Elementary” is set in New York – though star Jonny Lee Miller is thankfully allowed to play an Englishman – and is, essentially, a traditional CBS procedural mystery with a famous literary hero at the center.
And because of that, the more apt comparison isn’t to “Sherlock,” but to the many recent American mystery series with Holmes-esque detectives, including “CSI” in the Gil Grissom days, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” – just as “Elementary” casts Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson, “Criminal Intent” put its genius detective with a sensible woman partner – “The Mentalist” and even “House.”
The existence of those shows makes this Holmes less special, and if you’ve watched virtually any of CBS at all in the last decade, you’ll know almost every beat of the pilot’s story before it happens, which in turn makes him seem less brilliant. (It’s very difficult to craft a mystery that fills less than 45 minutes that will seem challenging enough for the world’s greatest detective.)
But of course, most of those shows successfully co-existed with each other, because viewers ultimately care less about novelty or even mystery than about characters they’re going to commit an hour of their lives to for weeks and then seasons on end. It didn’t matter that Robert Goren and Patrick Jane had a near-identical skillset; their behavior, their relationships with their partners, and the performances by Vincent D’Onofrio and Simon Baker, were all different enough to grab people.
So while “Elementary” fits a little too comfortably into the CBS lineup (in the timeslot “The Mentalist” was in last year), its specific approach to Holmes and Watson, and the way that Miller and Liu interact, makes the show work on its own less ambitious terms.
Lead producer Rob Doherty (“Medium”) has chosen to focus on Holmes’ drug problems (in the Doyle stories, he used cocaine). In this version, he’s a recovering addict who left London under mysterious, tragic circumstances, and whose wealthy father hires Joan Watson to be his sober companion. He aids not Scotland Yard, but the NYPD, where Captain Toby Gregson (Aidan Quinn) remembers Holmes’ genius from a stint in England.
This Holmes is more bohemian than other versions – he favors t-shirts and tattoos to a formal look – and his superiority complex often translates into explosions of temper when his brain is moving too far ahead of the rest of the world. He still has those amazing powers of observation – “I don’t guess,” he tells Watson on their first case together. “I observe. And once I observe, I deduce.” – but also says the incredibly un-Holmes-ian line, “Sometimes, I hate it when I’m right.”
A need to be proven right all the time is at the core of pretty much any interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. A show that has that line escape his lips is essentially interested in the Holmes name as a marketing hook. It may be just an aberration – Doherty has talked about a desire to incorporate other parts of the Holmes mythology over the course of the first season – but it may be safer for viewers to treat this as an unrelated character who just happens to share a name and some abilities with Doyle’s hero.
And if you look at “Elementary” that way, it works just fine. Miller and Liu have excellent (platonic) chemistry, and Miller is far more charming and alive than when he was battling an American accent on ABC’s “Eli Stone.” I’m not a huge fan of procedurals, but I watched a lot of “Criminal Intent” over the years because I enjoyed watching Vincent D’Onofrio work, and I can see myself checking in on “Elementary” from time to time just for the two leads.
CBS may have wanted to adapt Steven Moffat’s take on Holmes, but all the network really wanted was a show that could comfortably slot in after “Person of Interest” and not have to worry about. “Elementary” is definitely that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org