This review contains spoilers.
Imagine a world where the BBC’s Sherlock never existed. A world where Gatiss and Moffat dreamt up some other adventure to while away the time on those train journeys to Cardiff, where Sherlock Holmes had never been reincarnated as a modern-day, flappy-coated, high-cheekboned sociopath, and him off The Office stayed him off The Office forevermore.
In that sad, grey Sherlock-less world, Elementary would be something of a treat. Not a treat of the highest order, granted, but a treat nonetheless, like a nice toasted crumpet on a cold day. As it is, Elementary is more a cheese sandwich that’s been left in your desk drawer too long, perfectly edible, but no indulgence.
It’s undeniable that without Sherlock, there would be no Elementary. But by the same token, without Columbo, or CSI or The X-Files, or any number of TV detective shows, there would be no Elementary. From the wobbly camera pre-credits attack, to our lead picking up on the one thing the cops missed at the crime scene, to the ‘It’s him!’/’No, no it’s him!’/’No, it’s definitely him again!’ plot twists, Elementary is a generic crime show picking up where many, many others have left off.
The question that nags away through the pilot then, is why Sherlock Holmes? The archetype of an insufferable but undeniably brilliant detective has soaked so thoroughly into our cultural fabric, there’s really no need to name this particular version Sherlock and mess about with all that Joan Watson business. They could just as well have called Jonny Lee Miller’s character Hugo Deducey-Smartarseington and we’d all have known immediately what he was about.
The reason I ask is that Conan Doyle’s Holmes, nor his stories, are so far nowhere to be found in Elementary. The BBC’s Sherlock is literally riddled with nods to canon, either as cheeky punning gags or plot points, and each of its episodes weaves elements from Conan Doyle’s casebook into a new, composite story. Unless I missed something, no such allusion or borrowing was detectable in the Elementary pilot (unless that psychiatric patient’s penchant for fire-haired ladies was an oblique reference to The Adventure Of The Red-Headed League). So why bother?
There’s a very easy answer to that, and it rhymes with dublicity. Elementary has so far surfed along on a wave of press originating from a stirred-up if not entirely invented rivalry between the two shows and their leads. As soon as it was announced, comments sections filled up with prophesies of how dreadful Elementary would be (it isn’t), and how it would be worse than the BBC’s Sherlock (it is, but then so are a lot of things). Sherlock Holmes is a brand name, and CBS are just as entitled as anyone to have a pop at the franchise; it’s just a shame there doesn’t seem to be any justification for them doing so here apart from riding on the coat-tails of Sherlock’s international success.
Now that the moan’s over, there are actually many things to like about Elementary. Miller, for one, is a charismatic lead. He approaches the part with less of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ice Queen-y, viper-like intensity, and more Captain Jack Sparrow-style silliness. He’s a buff, tattooed ex-addict and indulger in casual S&M whom we meet watching multiple televisions simultaneously, like David Bowie’s alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Unlike Bowie’s alien, he’s not drunkenly absorbing Earth-people’s culture, but practising his skills of recall and repetition, filtering out extraneous information to tune his brain into one specific thread of speech. Expect that ability to be used up in the coming weeks.
Lucy Liu too makes for a decent sidekick, and gets more game in her first case than most Watsons. A disgraced surgeon tasked by Holmes Sr. (unseen as yet, but pulling the strings, like a kind of Angel-less Charlie) to babysit Sherlock as his post-rehab “companion” (more in the Doctor Who sense than the Firefly one), Joan Watson is the softly-softly yin to Sherlock’s insulting, impatient yang. Together, they form a monkey-catching, crime-solving dream team.
The pilot also introduces us to Aidan Quinn’s Irish NY cop Captain Gregson (we know he’s Irish because he drinks in one of those green-tinged bars where pixie-ish brunettes play the fiddle), a commanding screen presence, and more proof that in this early stage Elementary’s cast outclasses its script.
Because likeable as Miller, Liu and Quinn were, their first case was less successful. An identikit ‘violence against women’-type intro led into a plot that was unnecessarily complicated rather than brain-twistingly complex. If the psych patient had a problem with redheads, then surely a single pack of L’Oreal Casting Crème in Terracotta could have made the transformation without any accompanying cosmetic surgery? Red herring? Or just a script without a firm grasp on its own mystery?
Speaking of which, while the unravelling of Watson’s career trajectory from a parking ticket was at least Holmesian, the baseball game prediction just felt silly. This wasn’t Holmes the deducer, it was Holmes the Magnificent, psychic extraordinaire. The whole rice allergy/washed phone solution also lacked elegance somehow, as if its jigsaw pieces had been jammed forcibly into place rather than sliding in where they belonged.
Despite all that, Miller’s Holmes was fun to meet (his best lines were the throwaway ones: “Not even on key” during the opera, and “My barrister was rubbish” after his temper tantrum hearing), and there was plenty to keep you interested during its 43 peppy minutes.
Elementary certainly isn’t the dumbed-down, humourless travesty some predicted, but neither is it essential viewing. In a world without Sherlock, we’d likely be grateful for its appearance, but thankfully, we don’t live in one of those.
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