CBS’ new Sherlock Holmes series, Elementary (Thursdays, 10/9C), shares a few things with the BBC series, Sherlock: it’s a series that plants Holmes firmly in the 21st Century; there are novel mysteries to be solved, and there is a Watson. There as many differences: Elementary’s Watson is an Asian-American woman; the mysteries are not based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, and the setting is New York, not London.
The series premiere features a twisty little mystery – the murder of a woman by someone who seems to have had no good reason for killing her – but mostly lays the groundwork for setting up the series.
Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) is in New York having just completed rehab for drug addiction; Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) has been hired as his sober companion (to make sure he doesn’t relapse) for six weeks; Holmes decides to resume his avocation as consultant on murder investigations – he worked with NYC’s Captain Toby Gregson (Aidan Quinn) in London ten years before (giving him a bit of an in in New York), and Holmes immediately makes friends and influences people (not really – he’s as abrasive and obnoxious as any incarnation we’ve ever seen)!
Elementary has the bad luck to follow on the heels of the British series Sherlock, in which a contemporary Holmes solves murder mysteries in present day London. That series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, is one of the best mystery series of all time, and an awfully hard act to follow.
In spite of the rather long odds, though, Elementary is a thoroughly engaging, briskly paced, intelligent series that captures the Holmes character extremely well. The mystery is well thought out; the Watson character is written in such a way that it’s clear from the outset that this is a traditional Holmes/Watson relationship and there will be no falling in love on either side of that equation.
Miller is as likable/detestable a Holmes as anyone could ask for. He’s abrupt, condescending, smug, obnoxious and right. All that matters to him is solving the mystery – though by the end of the premiere, he’s begun to respect Watson more than he’s probably ever respected anyone before (including his wealthy papa!). He’s even willing to admit he doesn’t know everything – at least when it comes to people things that fall outside his areas of interest.
Liu’s Watson is smart, too, but as in the Conan Doyle stories, just not as smart as Holmes. She has a backstory that makes her a bit haunted, and therefore, a bit more interesting than a mere sidekick (Conan Doyle gave the original Watson an equally interesting backstory, though, again, a much different one). She is deadly serious about her job – but she doesn’t like it much (as Holmes points out, no one who loves her work would require two alarm clocks!).
Another revelation is that Holmes actually puts into words one of the key elements that Watson brings to their relationship – despite knowing that he would have figured things out, he admits to her, ‘You got me there faster.’ Something that he will never admit, though, is that she grounds him firmly in the reality that exists outside his crime solving skills. She keeps him from becoming inhuman.
The premiere was written by Pete Doherty and directed by Michael Cuesta. They’ve take the grandfather of procedural fiction and given it a stylish, intelligent makeover that shows how Holmes has influenced everything from The Mentalist to House, while remaining true to the original in spirit.
Very few shows – of any genre – are as good as Sherlock, but Elementary comes a lot closer than I was expecting. It definitely stands on its own.
Final Grade: A-
Photos courtesy of CBS