When Elementary was announced in televisions fall schedule a lot of people asked whether TV really needed another Sherlock Holmes show when the one we already have is so good.
That strikes me as unfair,though,and not only because the makers of BBCs Sherlock cough up only three episodes a year. The crazy-genius police consultant character has so thoroughly colonised television over the last decade,from Monk to Psych to The Mentalist,that the creator of Elementary,Rob Doherty,should get credit for at least being honest about their source.
In keeping with that honesty,this new Holmes is not only played by a British actor,Jonny Lee Miller,but is also actually British. Having fled London for drug rehab in New York,hes now living in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone with a marvellous rooftop view of the Brooklyn Bridge.
His Dr. Watson,however,is a novelty triple play: Asian-American and female. Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson,a former surgeon who suffered a crackup of her own and now makes a living as a combination baby sitter and warden for former addicts.
Miller and Liu are good in the pilot,and their rapport is reason enough to check out Elementary,along with a solid performance by Aidan Quinn as Capt. Gregson,Holmes New York police confidant. Miller is a likably hangdog Holmes,showing the glint of mania without the pyrotechnics that Benedict Cumberbatch brings to his audacious performance in Sherlock.
Liu,who comes to Elementary after an excellent run as an ambitious cop in Southland,appears to have definitively moved beyond exotic sexpot roles: Here shes deglamorised,swathed in layers of dark clothing symbolic of this Watsons repression after a career-ending calamity.
Part of the shows premise is that Holmes and Watson are equally damaged,and that Watson begins to come out of her shell because shes excited by the intellectual challenge of solving crimes. Its not a bad idea,and Liu makes it work in the pilot,delineating Watsons awakening with a touching restraint.
However,beyond its stars Elementary is a mixed bag. Doherty,whose primary credit is a long stint on the voluptuously melodramatic Medium,is good on atmosphere and character but not so strong on plot mechanics,and thats a problem with a Holmes story.
Some of Holmes deductions in the first murder case seem arbitrary even by TV procedural standards,and regular viewers of crime dramas will have the kind of nagging questions that drive them crazy. (Shouldnt the coroner have been able to tell whether the deliveryman died yesterday or three days ago?)
And as well as Miller and Liu finesse their characters,at times you cant avoid noticing a tiring familiarity and superficiality in their psychological issues,and how the Holmes character,especially,shows signs of Frankenstein-like origins: a piece of Adrian Monk here,a piece of Gregory House there.
Those are both things that can be fixed as the series progresses,because its fun to watch Miller,Liu and Quinn work together. Its also nice to see the real New York locations. Doherty grew up nearby in White Plains,which may help explain a pleasing and nearly unprecedented feature of the show: New York brownstone interiors that are actually as narrow as a New York brownstone.