Review: CBS’s ‘Elementary’ is a Wait and See
I both did, and did not, want to watch the pilot of CBS’s Elementary, which premiered last night at 10pm, but which has also been floating around the internet for a bit longer than that. The reasons for not wanting to watch it should be pretty obvious – the biggest being Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock starring the incomparable duo, Martin Free and Benedict Cumberbatch. In addition to the fundamental indignation that comes from the notion that something excellent is being knocked-off, viewers of Sherlock – and fans of Moffat – know the full story – CBS loved it, and approached Moffat about doing an American version, which he couldn’t commit to due to scheduling constraints. Most knock-offs do everyone the good service of feigning a sort of ignorance. With their decision to go ahead, CBS denied us even that. This was a blatant go-ahead without the motor that made the car move – without Moffat. Without Cumberbatch. Also? The show’s executive producer was partially responsible for the CW’s Ringer. NEED I SAY MORE?
And yet…Jonny Lee Miller. Jonny Lee Miller, who wormed his way into the hearts of me and most of my contemporaries (including Angelina Jolie’s) with his role of Sick Boy in Trainspotting, and of Edmund in the Austen adaptation Mansfield Park. He is a good actor, whose recent turn on Dexter disproved what his stint with the failed Eli Stone had made writ – the guy can helm a TV show, and he isn’t afraid of darkness, violence, and pathos. Add to this, Lucy Liu. Where to begin with my ardent feelings for Lucy Liu? Remember when she played Fry’s girlfriend-in-a-jar on Futurama? I kind of want to go the way of the internet on this and just be all “LUCY LIU. YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID.” Instead I’ll say that this bit of casting alone was intriguing enough to give at least the pilot a watch. So watch it I did.
Here’s the thing – it’s a mystery procedural. You need to know that, and accept it going in. If you don’t, you will be disappointing. It will be not unlike wanting to watch Deadwood and getting Calamity Jane starring Doris Day instead. Straight up. In a perverse way, the show’s done itself a disservice by being so closely associated with the UK’s version, and even to a large extent, with the works of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle at all. Because so much of what Sherlock was doing was fairly revolutionary and had a bit of complexity sprinkled over the standard mystery format, it was a breath of fresh air. That’s not the case here, and setting the show in New York doesn’t help. It’s like loudly announcing your naked as a way of making everyone think you are cool with accidentally being naked. It just draws more attention to you.
The fact remains, Miller and Liu are both incredibly charismatic – though not necessarily generating any sort of chemistry of their own. That could be just fine - Miller’s ability to peer at a person and see everything about them – that’s straight up perfect, and I defy anyone into Sherlockania to deny it. Liu’s furtive, isolated persona is mesmerizing. Cool. That’s fine, that’s great, even! I’d like to see a take on this story where the Lady-Watson and Holmes develop a bond different than the romantic or erotic typically played out on these shows (exceptions including Monk, holla). (I AM LOOKING AT YOU BONES AND MOONLIGHTING) But even without a sexual charge for each other, there’s got to be a sense of rapport, and, while I could watch the two probably sit and talk about what to order for lunch for 45 minutes on the basis of their looks alone, these two don’t have that.
For all the ire I had mustered at the re-telling of the story, strangely, it might have benefited from being a bit more extreme in their choices of redirecting the narrative. Strangely, there isn’t enough that is new here to separate Elementary from the other well-cast but creatively dull mystery procedurals that trot along network TV through the week. That’s sort of inexplicable really, in fact, there really isn’t any excuse as the perfect example (for better or worse) of this sort of reboot exists in the pop cultural lexicon – a little program by the name of House. Sadly, this show evokes none of the pathos of early House. If anything, I kept thinking about Medium, another Rob Doherty affair, which probably isn’t a good sign.
All of this stuff to one side – I wouldn’t write the show off as of yet. If the show backs off the formula and delves deeper into exploring the traumatic psychology that is the only possibly entryway to a point of understanding between the Watson and Holmes we met last night, we might be on to something. The show is superbly acted, and I think Liu and Miller are more than up to the challenge. Even last night you could see the two making strong, strong, character choices – they were, through no fault of their own, existing on a Network show, which was trying in the blind-man-stumbling way, of most networks, to play the anti-hero card without quite knowing how to go about doing it well. I am incredibly hopeful they figure it out, but as of right now – I am not optimistic.