Elementary episode 2 review: While You Were Sleeping

Review Frances Roberts
5 Oct 2012 - 16:26

CBS’ modern-day Sherlock Holmes show continues to get by on the skin of Jonny Lee Miller’s teeth…

This review contains spoilers.

1.2 While You Were Sleeping

Have you ever considered why TV detective shows are in such plentiful supply? It can’t only be down to timid, imagination-lacking networks. It has to be at least partly down to us, the audience, and our quest for ‘a-ha’ moments.

You know a real ‘a-ha’ moment when you experience one; it’s what you felt watching Kevin Spacey walk away at the end of The Usual Suspects, or when Poirot gently unravelled the murder aboard the Orient Express. Real ‘a-ha’ moments are so satisfying, you can’t help but gasp at the deception and applaud the elegance of your deceiver. Real ‘a-ha’ moments work like a model ship’s sails being delicately raised inside a bottle, the result of preparation, and the end-point of a beautifully realised plan. They’re also what CBS’ Elementary, so far at least, really lacks.

The sticking point with Elementary - once you’ve got over those other tedious sticking points about its knock-off existence and tenuous grasp on the Holmes inheritance - is that the conclusions to its cases are flat. No sails are raised, no light bulbs go on, or pennies drop, we’re just unfurled a bit of plot, then a bit more, and then a bit more, until it all comes to an end when the credits roll.

(Incidentally, the opening credits are great aren’t they? That Heath Robinson contraption of snipping scissors, burning candles, crystal balls and Mouse Trap-style cages is stylish stuff, if only it didn’t end on a title shot so reminiscent of Sherlock’s it does the show that follows no real favours.)

In episode two for instance - which, with its Hippocratic-oath breaking Doctor and inheritance-related murder was markedly similar to the pilot -, the suspicion eeny meeny’d clumsily from one twin to the next before reaching its anticlimactic fake coma climax. It wasn’t an ‘a-ha’ moment, just an ‘oh, right, that then’ moment. In fact, if CBS had gone full-copycat and given Elementary ninety minutes of screen time, it’s hard not to feel that the exchange of blame would have kept on rolling to whichever butcher, baker or candlestick maker was written in next, like a never-ending ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story. 

Putting aside the thud-thud-thud case plots, Miller’s character also suffers from a bad case of post ad-break mouth, the syndrome that causes US TV characters to jarringly sum up an ongoing storyline upon the return from a commercial break. They should really develop a cure for that.

Plot and dialogue niggles aside, what does work about Elementary in these early stages is the chemistry of its two leads, and the attraction of its ticking, fidgeting Holmes. Watson threatening her charge with a thumb tack and his diagnosis of her recent sexual history were fun moments amongst a very workaday series of events.

Miller plays his physical quirks just on the right side of caricature, making his Holmes more interesting to watch than many procedural leads, but thankfully avoiding Captain Jack Sparrow levels of wackiness. Liu makes a decent straight-man to Miller’s chair-sniffing, impatient genius, and trouble has obviously been taken to make her character no pushover, which is a blessed relief. Will spirited bickering and an entertainly oddball performance from Miller be enough to sustain a series though? One fears not.

Perhaps the emotional trajectories of the characters will sustain audience interest where the cases cannot. This episode made clear that Holmes and Watson are both carrying out acts of penance; Watson in her career, Holmes by pushing away people he could become close to following the heavily dangled events of ‘what really happened in London’. When he’s not entering self-induced trances or bothering al fresco diners with metaphorical explanations of attic theory, this Holmes is an emotional chap, and one capable of fellow feeling, even if he’s reluctant to show it.

The appearance of the violin was the newest attempt to tie Elementary’s flapping tent to the Conan Doyle groundsheet, though it being repurposed as an object of sentiment rather than an aide for clear thinking moves this Holmes another step further from his literary counterpart.

Perhaps we should make a deal with Elementary. If it doesn’t come up with a decent reason for peopling its cast with Sherlocks, Watsons and Gregsons by episode six, we’ll rename its characters, retitle it something nicely generic, and all agree to forget it ran around in a Sherlock Holmes hat for a bit. That sounds fair doesn’t it?

Read Frances' review of the season opener, here.

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