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TV Review: Elementary Brings Sherlock to New York City

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“Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Sherlock Holmes is such an iconic figure in pop culture that he has long ago transcended the bounds of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character. There are novels featuring the “consulting detective” still released every year; he has been burned onto celluloid and reinvented for new generations of fans on screens large and small from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr.

The character has made appearances in guise, if not in name in television series including House, M.D. with its direct references to Holmes scattered throughout the series, and concluding its eight-year run with a Reichenbach Falls-esque exit line for Dr. House and best buddy Wilson! Currently, there are no fewer than three Sherlocks running around, including Downey Jr.’s action-hero film version (with Jude Law as Watson) and the BBC television series with Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock with Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) playing Holmes’ long-suffering partner in crime solving.

And now, CBS brings us a new take on Conan-Doyle’s hero in Elementary, debuting September 27. In this contemporary version, Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting) is an independently wealthy a son of privilege (or at least as long as Papa continues his allowance). Having spent several months in rehab for a drug problem (of course the classic Holmes is addicted to his seven percent solution of cocaine to take the edge off his boredom), Sherlock finds himself in New York City. The event that triggered Holmes’ recent drug problem is a secret, presumably only known to Holmes. Assigned to be his “sober buddy,” a female Watson (Lucy Liu) has been employed by Holmes Sr. to make sure Sherlock stay off drugs (or else he’s to be left penniless—and homeless).  A former surgeon with a dark, presumably tragic past, she is paid to put up with Sherlock’s antics, live with him, and report to Papa on a regular basis.

The pilot episode starts with a teaser for the case-to-be: a woman falls in her kitchen, breaking a glass, and then pursued through her home—blackout. Cut to Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson who’s to pick up Holmes at his rehab, but, turns out, he’s escaped. Tracking him back to his apartment, she notes a hooker leaving the building, but finds her quarry inside—tall, dark and tattooed—watching several television sets at once. He stares intently into her eyes, his gaze serious and intense (and I confess, melt-worthy), declaring he’s fallen in love at first sight.

Watson half buys it (who wouldn’t?) until he replays one of the television scenes he’s just watched. He’s recited word for word the soap opera confession, displaying his perfect memory, leaving her impressed and disconcerted, but not quite so dazzled. He then proceeds to pick her psyche apart, leaving the stunned Watson (he’s hit a bit too close to home) how he guessed. Sherlock explains, “I don’t guess; I observe. And then I deduce,” slightly annoyed by the perception he’s just a lucky guesser. In fact, he wears a t-shirt that would have worked well on Dr. House, which say, “I am not lucky, I’m good.” And indeed he is.

Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall) plays Captain Gregson, Holmes’ police contact. Having met Holmes while detailed to a task force in London, Gregson has seen Holmes’ results and respects him, not matter how peculiar he finds the consulting hobbyist detective.

This week, Holmes uses his deductive superpowers to locate the missing woman last seen in the teaser; she is close at hand, actually—dead in a secret room just off her bedroom. But who put her there? The case grows more and more complex from there, and the conclusion is as interesting as Holmes’ process for solving it.

Elementary is off to a good start. I like Miller in the role; he’s certainly a different Holmes, distinct from both Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch (although I venture he’s a bit closer to the dashing Downey Jr.) There is clearly pain and tragedy underlying his attitude and action, and unlike Conan Doyle’s original (and Cumberbatch’s Holmes), there seems to be more troubled soul underlying the blasé façade, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re not  a purist.

I’ve read the entire Holmes canon, and I’ve always sought within and between the lines for bits and pieces of Holmes’ human side leaking through his rational, uber-objective persona. I’ve found them, of course, and I’d like to think that Miller’s take on the character would infuse Holmes with a bit more of that (and it’s apparent he has, at least in the subtext of his eyes and body language). Sorry, it’s the romantic in me.

Speaking of which, I wonder as well about how they’ll develop the relationship between Holmes and Watson. I can certainly see the potential for sparks at some point, built up over many episodes, but this is Holmes-Watson—friends, confidantes…not lovers (or love interests). I also see Holmes’ curiosity about Watson, and what drove her out of medicine, and Watson’s parallel curiosity about what triggered Holmes last visit to rock-bottom as spurring mutual interest (eventually). I all for romantic subtext, but I hope it stays— subtextual.

If the series develops as strictly procedural, I’m not sure it will maintain interest; after all, there are already so many versions of the story out there, so I hope there is exploration of back stories character development. That’s a tall order to do it right with such an iconic fictional character, especially on network TV. But if the creators keep the right balance between procedural and character drama with becoming neither too soap-opera-ish nor too formulaic, they might just have something.

Elementary premieres on CBS Thursday, September 27 at 10 p.m. ET.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • rjw

    I think that so far,Elementary has been a pretty good,but not great,show (my personal preference for best overall show is Vegas).However,it certainly has alot of potential,and Jonny Lee Miller’s performance has been very entertaining.

  • Leroy

    Pretty good, mostly because of Miller. It’s a twist to have a female Watson, but there is probably a better actress for the role, someone like Cathy Bates, maybe (speaking of whom, she had a nice role as the ghost of Charlie Harper on “Two and a half men”).

    Still, the best overall is Jeremy Brett, with Cumberbatch second, for my money.