TV review: CBS’ ‘Elementary’ can’t quite escape from ‘Sherlock’s’ shadow

By Ashley Bergner/Box Office Buzz

I’ll admit I was somewhat skeptical about CBS’ modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes. The show, which is called “Elementary,” premiered last night and features Holmes as an ex-Scotland Yard consultant who’s living in New York City. Regardless of what CBS officials might say, it’s clear this show is (right or wrong) an attempt to take advantage of the famous literary detective’s recent spike in popularity. The concept of CBS’ show is fairly similar to the BBC’s “Sherlock,” which is set in modern-day London and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes.

As an avid fan of “Sherlock,” I was afraid “Elementary” was simply an attempt to “Americanize” the BBC show. Still, I tried watch “Elementary’s” pilot as objectively as possible and judge it based on its own merits. However, I have to confess the pilot fell just a little bit flat for me. It’s different enough from “Sherlock” that it unfortunately doesn’t share the BBC show’s strengths, and yet it’s similar enough that it can’t escape from “Sherlock’s” shadow.

“Elementary” re-imagines the Sherlock Holmes character as a recovering addict (played by Jonny Lee Miller) who does consulting work with the NYPD. Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is his live-in sober companion. While her job is supposedly to make sure Holmes doesn’t have a relapse, she ends up tagging along with him to crime scenes and helping him to solve cases.

I think the main reason the show didn’t quite work for me is that I didn’t ever really feel like I was watching a Sherlock Holmes story. The “Elementary” pilot seemed more like a straight-up CSI-type procedural, with a few elements from the Sherlock Holmes stories tossed in every once in a while. The British flavor of the original stories is pretty much gone, and I haven’t quite decided whether or not I like how the writers have portrayed the characters.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu were good casting choices, but I felt like the show runners were holding them back and not giving them enough to work with. The writers didn’t really give them a chance to build the type of chemistry Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have as Holmes and Watson in the BBC’s “Sherlock,” or Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Guy Ritchie’s recent “Sherlock Holmes” films. There’s a hint of witty banter here and there, but not nearly enough. I also felt the show didn’t have the same passion or energy the BBC or Guy Ritchie versions had.

Miller does, I think, have the potential to give us an interesting portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. “Elementary” features a slightly more punk version of Holmes — he has several tattoos and a more “grunge” style of dress. And the show did contain some nice “Holmes” moments: when Watson first meets the detective, he’s watching multiple programs on multiple TV screens at the same time, and the bit about “small talk” was funny (I won’t spoil the moment if you haven’t seen the pilot yet). He also tells Watson he doesn’t really need her to be his “sober companion”; he tells her that when he decided to quit drugs, that was it, and he is done for good. Holmes does strike me as the sort of person who could suddenly compel himself to quit “cold turkey” one day and succeed out of a sheer act of will.

Yet there were several moments in the pilot that felt very un-Sherlock Holmes like, and these moments are part of why the show left me with mixed feelings. At one point, Holmes remarks, without sarcasm or irony, that “sometimes I hate it when I’m right.” To me this seemed to be a bit of a departure from the traditional character, who is known for his obsession with always being right. At another point in the show, he also apologizes to Watson for being wrong. It almost seems like the writers are trying too hard to create a more sympathetic, vulnerable Holmes. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; it’s just that the character probably won’t seem a lot like “Sherlock Holmes” anymore.

Holmes’ arrogant narcissism can be frustrating, but it also is part of what makes the character so fascinating. I think the BBC show did a better job of capturing the complexity of Holmes’ character. Occasional moments of vulnerability will slip through (such as when he is concerned for Watson’s safety, and in the episode with Irene Adler, “A Scandal in Belgravia” — which is, I think, one of the best “Sherlock” episodes), but Holmes never apologizes for who he is. He’s a brilliant but highly flawed person, and I think that’s the reason the character is intriguing.

I’ve heard “Elementary’s” show runners plan to bring in separate love interests for Holmes and Watson, and this concerns me a bit, as well. I just don’t think Holmes is the type to have a committed, “normal” relationship. It’s just not who he is. The character typically has viewed love as a “distraction.” Both the BBC and Guy Ritchie versions have flirted with a Holmes/Adler dynamic, but I thought both versions handled it quite well, using the situation to bring out some interesting facets in Holmes’ personality but not compromising who the character is as a whole. Anyway, I’m probably being too picky, and it could be that I’m just an overprotective “Sherlock” fan. 😉

While I’m planning on giving “Elementary” another try next week, I’m not sure I’ll end up enjoying the show as much as I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s touch-of-steampunk Sherlock Holmes movies and the BBC’s modern-day “Sherlock.” Both these productions have taken some creative risks, as well as some liberties with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original material. However, they still felt like authentic Sherlock Holmes stories to me. “Elementary” simply felt a little too much like “CSI: Sherlock.”

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