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

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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12 thoughts on “TV review: CBS’ ‘Elementary’ can’t quite escape from ‘Sherlock’s’ shadow

  1. I agree.

    But…

    Have you read Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes Novel; The Seven Percent Solution?

    It is one of my favorite takes on Holmes and concentrates more on his addiction to cocaine.

    I feel this is the Holmes that CBS has brought to America. Which makes sense since Meyer is an American. (He also directed 2 of my 3 favorite Star Trek films Wrath & Undiscovered)

    It is a less confident Holmes. One prone to mistakes. Hounded by paranoia and self-doubt. Brilliant but even more flawed. It’s the drugs. You don’t get that Holmes in either the BBC’s Sherlock or Ritchie’s movies.

    MILD SPOiLERS

    This is what I’m getting from Jonny Lee Miller. A Holmes who lies and says he’s done with drugs when he’s not. (His father knows this which is why he hired someone to baby sit him 24/7) Says he hates sex when he’s addicted to sex so much he breaks out of rehab the day he’s to be released so he can go home and have sex.

    I watched an advanced copy and I watched it again last night. I really enjoyed it more the second time. And I love the fact that it’s different. I also like that he didn’t get shot at and that it was more of a Mystery show than a Procedural. (I expected CSI: Sherlock too but saw more ways that it wasn’t that than you did) I like the fact that he can’t control his emotions (another side effect of drug addiction). When he plows into the suspects car and Watson asks him to let her in on the plan only to find out that there wasn’t any plan and he was just angry. I thought that was brilliant.

    END SPOILERS

    This isn’t the infallible Holmes. This is the incredibly flawed Holmes. So I’m in. I hope it lasts.

    So I agree with you but it’s actually what I like about it.

    And I really didn’t think I would like it.

    Mel

  2. I’ll have to check out that book you mentioned, I’m always interested in different takes on Sherlock Holmes.

    I thought back over the show, and I think I’d like to see the pilot episode again. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it, so it would be interesting to see it again now that I know what tone they are going to use.

    I didn’t fall in love with the show at first, but it does make more sense when you look at it from the perspective of a Holmes who is still battling a drug addiction. It makes you wonder, when he was apologizing to Watson and admitting he was wrong, was he really apologizing, or was he just doing what he had to in order to manipulate her and get her to do what HE wanted her to do?

    I’m planning on watching the second episode this week.

    • That’s what I was thinking. Even when he unplugged her clocks & snuck out, I was thinking he’s manipulating her & probably has a way to beat her drug test. Addicts already find creative ways to get high, creative ways to manipulate their friends and family but add to that, being the most observant and manipulative person in literary history and if he wanted to get high he would, until he hit bottom. So I’m also interested in finding out what chased him out of England and did he actually bottom out. His father also seems to have zero tolerance and doesn’t actually talk to him directly. I think there is much they can do and I’m glad it’s not anything like the Steven Moffat show. But I didn’t really get into it until I watched it a second time.

      In the book, I’m not giving anything away because it says this on the blurb, his drug counselor is Sigmund Freud because he could pretty much manipulate anyone else. I haven’t read it since High School. And i’m surprised they never made a movie. But it was my favorite book for a while.

  3. Have to say I saw about two minutes of Elementary and just KNEW I would hate it. Partly because I’m a judgmental bigoted wanker but also because so much wrongness was present in those few minutes. Sherlock wasn’t Holmes. Watson was just…bllleeuurgh. And the dialogue was about as hip and crisp as a side order of MacDonald’s fries after you’ve carried them home on a cold damp night.

    So in the spirit of knee jerk responses and blind prejudice I refuse to watch any more. The die is cast. Elementary is Garbage for me now and always will be . You had your chance with me Elementary, and ya just blew it. 😉

      • I like “Elementary” well enough but I have never seen the BBC version to compare like many have, nor have I seen the movies. The modern bent is different too but I just made myself get over that prejudice. I think if I read the books I would be more offended, but I bet CBS was counting on more people being like me. I tend to watch TV on my lunch breaks at DISH, using the Dish Online website. I was glad when I saw that the “Elementary” pilot was on there, because I heard about it and wanted to see it, only I don’t have time at home. Now that I watch TV, my lunch is a great time to relax and get away from the pressure.

      • @JimmyMackey I think you’ll really like the BBC version, if you ever get a chance to check it out. If you have Netflix, both seasons should be on there. It’s my favorite take on the Sherlock Holmes saga. 🙂

  4. Maybe once the first season is over I may go and try ploughing through a few episodes. At this point I’m to biased against it and having to wait to see a new episode will only give me more time to think about why I dislike it.

  5. Personally, “Elementary” didn’t quite capture my interest, but I have heard from people who really liked it. Sometimes I also like to wait for an entire season to come out before I start watching a show. I also don’t have cable, so I’m normally have to wait for those shows to appear on Netflix anyway.

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