Last night was the premiere of the CBS version of Sherlock, titled Elementary since the Sherlock producers declined to sell Americans the rights to their show. Starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, it’s been the brunt of a lot of “why bother, the BBC show is so good and this is just a cheap knock-off” criticism, and I’ve been part of that. I just don’t see the point of an American Sherlock. So watching Elementary last night, I didn’t want to like it. Even though I love Lucy Liu, I just wanted the show to suck so we could all be smug about the superiority of the British original and then forget this ever happened.
Except Elementary doesn’t suck.
Is it as good as Sherlock? Is Jonny Lee Miller any comparison for Benedict Cumberbatch’s career-defining turn as Sherlock Holmes? No, of course not. But what Elementary does do well is differentiate itself from its flashier cousin. It’s just different enough that direct comparisons are not going to work. It’s actually capable of standing on its own.
What Elementary is is potentially the best network procedural cop drama since the ill-fated Life (Homeland’s Damian Lewis’s breakout). No one is doing procedurals better than CBS right now, and Elementary has the beginnings of what could end up being their best one yet, better than CSI even (mainly because Elementary has actual characters, not just walking exposition dumps). In it, we find Sherlock Holmes exiled to New York City by his daddy because of some trouble with drugs—and maybe A Woman—back home in London. There’s no Mycroft, no Lestrade—this is Sherlock without any of the usual anchor points. Even Watson, now a woman, feels and functions differently.
It’s a softer, kinder Sherlock to boot. Miller plays Sherlock worn around the edges, a little faded. Where Cumberbatch is all cutting sharpness—physically and emotionally—Miller’s Sherlock is more undone and less refined. There’s a background poshness—he doesn’t have to work for money and he’s living in “one of five” family homes in New York—but this Sherlock is more of the people than the BBC’s. He’s got stubble and tattoos and graphic tees and he’s considerably less antagonistic toward Watson. He’s going to be a lot easier to take on a weekly basis.
It struck me while I was watching that what Elementary has done is take Sherlock and bottle it for our parents. My folks watch Sherlock on PBS and they like it, but they have a bit of a hard time with it. They have to watch each episode multiple times to really get it. But Elementary is much more digestible, successfully transplanting Sherlock Holmes to a world that the CBS audience can understand. And yes, that’s a total jellyfish because the CBS audience skews older, so I am saying that Elementary works by virtue of its un-hipness. They’re not trying to compete with their English predecessor and the result is a functional procedural anchored by an interesting character introduced at his lowest point.
As for Liu and Miller, they have good chemistry as Watson and Holmes. They complement each other well and play nicely off one another, and have the potential to form a strong partnership. If Elementary really does avoid the whole “will they or won’t they” trap, they could define the show by the portrayal of a realistic male/female friendship, which is a perspective sorely missing on television. Elementary got off to a good start. It’s not going to be easy to dismiss.
Attached - Liu and Miller on set last month.