There’s a modern day Sherlock Holmes hitting screens in the United States tonight, and he isn’t played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s the new series from CBS, Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. Almost as soon as it was announced, we started to be inundated by people asking our opinion on the show, and we refused to be drawn, much like the producers of Sherlock, as we simply hadn’t seen it. But now we have, and while it’s clearly not related to our beloved BBC series at all, the shared DNA of both Arthur Conan Doyle’s original characters and that modern day setting and all its attendant technology demand our attention. While this isn’t so much a comparison of Elementary to Sherlock – the shows are simply too dissimilar – it’s instead an examination of it as a piece of work on its own, coupled with a look at its links to the source material.
Firstly, it’s admittedly perhaps churlish to judge the possible faults of a series based upon a single pilot episode made months before the green light for a full season. As is often the case, pilots have a habit of being the weakest point in the life of series, serving purely as that initial hook to land interest from network executives and a test audience. So it’s a pleasure to say that as a pilot episode, Elementary is actually remarkably strong in terms of production and plotting, and is certainly much more ambitious than other first episodes of some series that ended up with an extended lifespan. However, it’s probably best to get any negative points out of the way immediately, as in terms of tentative characterisation those negatives certainly cry out loud and clear.
And even from the off, it’s difficult to see this quite clearly as a Sherlock Holmes we recognise in anything but name. Jonny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch’s co-star in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, plays his Holmes as warm yet soft, arrogant yet remorseful. Tattooed and half naked when we first encounter him, this is a man happier in t-shirts and sweatshirts rather than fine tailoring, his Englishness rumpled and oddly unobtrusive. Countering Holmes’ canon associations with women, he is happy to have sex with them purely as a biological function as his body demands it, rather than any for any emotional connection. Miller is nervous and slightly twitchy at times, purposeful and dynamic at others, with deductions spilling out as if from a checklist instead of instantaneous insight. There are a couple of gentle nods to the canon characterisation – a throwaway line about bees being one example – but there’s a clear attempt throughout the pilot to strike out afresh. It’s a curious interpretation of the character, seemingly contradictory to himself – though we could pin these changes on his new origin as a recovering addict – but also strikingly dissimilar to the literary version too.
Likewise, and possibly more glaringly, those changes are in full evidence with Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. Ignoring the obvious gender change, something that has already made purists baulk in horror, the numerous changes to Conan Doyle’s original characterisation render Joan oddly misplaced here. By removing the fact that Watson was a soldier, you remove a huge element of the character’s skill set and usefulness to Holmes – is this person a crack shot with a pistol? Someone you could count on in a fight? Most critically, someone who wouldn’t flinch? A surgeon traumatised by the loss of a patient on the operating table is oddly unconditioned to the violence that Conan Doyle would expose his characters to, as demonstrated by Joan’s shocked reaction and instant exit when Holmes discovers a body at a crime scene in this pilot. Whether this is indeed intentional, and we’ll see this Watson grow into the steely characteristics we’re more accustomed to is something we’ll have to follow as the series progresses. Lucy Liu is however perfectly fine in the role, conforming to the supporting role in the procedural format well, with a couple of scenes that allow her to display some wider emotional range and gentle comedy arising from Holmes’ behaviour as the episode progresses.
Perhaps the strongest link to the canon in this first episode comes in the form of Inspector Gregson, played by Aiden Quinn, elevating the more minor character in the original stories into the position more commonly filled by Lestrade. While admittedly transformed into an NYPD detective, his consultation and trust of Holmes reflects the characteristics of the literary character. Quinn brings an official robustness to the pilot, giving the air of an officer of the law extremely well. He’s perhaps the bedrock of the episode, being neither quirky or showy in performance, nor overly surprised by Holmes’ methods in the same way as Watson.
Transporting the series to modern day New York City is also something of a mixed bag. On one hand, there’s the benefit of that useful wrinkle of the ‘English fish out of water’ archetype that will clearly serve the series well, with Holmes’ interactions with disbelieving NYPD officers a constant rich seam of probable comedy and antagonism. But on the other hand, the location change leads to the loss of further defining characteristics of the world Holmes inhabits – most obviously, 221B Baker Street, which in turn has the absence, in the pilot at least, of Mrs Hudson. London and New York are very different cities - New York is the ultimate metropolis, while London is arguably a smaller, grimier place that retains its history while also a clawing modernity - and as Holmes fans we’re perhaps too conditioned to prefer London as that iconic base of operations.
As an hour (well, forty five minutes) of drama though the pilot is well constructed. Directed by Michael Cuesta [Dexter, Homeland] it’s a handsomely shot piece of work, opening with some gorgeous slow motion photography, but continuing with a degree of restraint throughout the remainder, marked out by occasionally striking cinematography. Narratively, the episode is suitably Holmsian but not overly complex, the twists and turns of the case eventually delineated by simple but seemingly unconnected objects, that when combined form a solution found on any technology blog. It’s also rather interesting that in the end, everything required to solve the mystery hinges on the presence of a phone… and we’ll say nothing more about that. Perhaps the strongest part of the episode is actually the final scene, both leads loosening up and playing the material for the comedy that’s been missing throughout the preceding moments, and revealing a chemistry that was lacking before. As an hour of television it’s certainly highly watchable and populist stuff, but very much in the vein of other similar series on CBS.
From this opening episode then, Elementary has the air of an uneasy series. Indisputably well made, decently plotted, and all together entertaining, the use of these famous characters is actually its greatest fault. Bolting Holmes and Watson to the 45 minute police procedural format is itself an extremely valid idea, if they remained relatively unchanged. But in practice thus far it remains just that, an idea, and from this single episode the genuine passion that forms the very spine of the BBC series seems to be tremendously lacking. Desperation to avoid issues with the modern British version seems to have made many changes necessary, and that willingness to make these rather dramatic amendments could be construed as a betrayal of the characters themselves, making them almost unrecognisable from those that we know so well from the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As with every pilot though, there’s certainly potential, and we shall have to see what strides Elementary is willing to make to justify the use of the names ‘Holmes’ and ‘Watson’ as it proceeds.
Elementary will begin airing in the United States from September 27 2012 on CBS at 22:00EDT/21:00CDT.
UK broadcast will be handled by Sky Living in late October 2012. Worldwide broadcast dates will be announced at a later date.
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