Elementary: 101 Pilot Review
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
For many of us in the UK, CBS’s new modernised take on Sherlock Holmes will undoubtedly be compared to the BBC’s own Sherlock, and looking at it through this lens is unfair, and bound to end in disappointment. However, from an unbiased standpoint, there is a lot to like in Elementary.
The set-up of the show is much different to what we have seen before: in this interpretation, Holmes is a former drug addict just out of rehab and living under his presumably wealthy father’s attention in New York City, while the gender-transposed Joan Watson is his sober companion, a former surgeon tasked to live with Holmes for six weeks while he continues his recovery. The change of Watson’s gender is perhaps unnecessary, but ultimately it makes little difference as the seeds of the familiar ‘odd couple’ chemistry are there between Jonny Lee Miller’s erratic Holmes and Lucy Liu’s much calmer Watson.
When we first meet Joan Watson, she is jogging through the park early in the morning. Our first encounter with Holmes, on the other hand, consists of a shirtless, heavily tattooed and wild-eyed man breathlessly predicting the dialogue on a cheesy soap opera having just enjoyed a night of less than innocent company with an anonymous woman. The differences between the two are stark and perhaps a little overly blatant, but this is forgivable when dealing with a character as unique as Sherlock Holmes.
However, there were moments in the pilot where Holmes felt very unfamiliar, particularly when compared to Benedict Cumberbatch’s intensely arrogant, almost unemotional portrayal. For instance, I can’t imagine many other versions of Sherlock Holmes saying something like “Sometimes I hate it when I’m right”, or causing a significant car accident because of a ‘temper tantrum’ brought on by having no firm evidence of the killer’s identity: combined with his bratty behaviour at the end of the episode wherein he ruins the outcome of a baseball game for Watson with a clearly ludicrous prediction based entirely on sport statistics, it actually makes Holmes rather unlikable as a character. But, in a dynamic where Watson is traditionally the ‘relatable’ one in the pair, this is a relatively minor complaint, and one which I trust will be remedied in later episodes of the show.
Where Miller’s Holmes felt right was in the obligatory deduction processes, particularly his lightning-swift analysis of Watson which, as is standard in most adaptations of their meeting, is mostly correct, but not entirely. Holmes’ admission that the only way he knew about Watson’s father having an affair was through Google was a nice touch, as it clearly indicates that Holmes is never going to be able to deduce everything from a brief meeting, and that he is simply highly intelligent, rather than superhuman in any way.
Similarly, his confrontation with Dr Mantlo is terse but intense, and in many ways the most ‘Holmesian’ moment of the pilot: an explanation coupled with an accusation, stemming from Holmes’ razor-sharp deductive skills delivered to a cold, indifferent villain. A few more moments like this and a few less straightforward crime scene inspections would highlight the strengths of a show like this: namely the performances of the two leads.
While much of this first episode is concerned with setting up the relationship between Holmes and Watson, there is also the introduction of the ‘crime-of-the-week’ element of the show, and this is where Elementary falls down. Where the Sherlock Holmes most of us are familiar with plumbed the depths of only the strangest and most interesting cases, in this episode at least Holmes seems to be paddling in the shallows, with a relatively straightforward murder case that brings Elementary dangerously close to the many other police procedurals found in the US television schedules. With a character as interesting as Sherlock Holmes, it seems a shame to lose him amongst a sea of psychic detectives and dozens of incarnations of CSI.
The simplification of Holmes’ case could be down to the fact that, minus advert breaks, Elementary only runs to 45 minutes; a relatively meagre amount of time to set up both the relationship between two complex characters and introduce a twisting plot set up by a dastardly criminal. But in this case both elements are required to give an accurate representation of what the show is going to be, so it is a difficult balance to get right. Unfortunately in this case, the makers of Elementary just missed the mark: whilst there were obsessive criminals, steroids and a cold, devious psychiatrist involved, the case never quite felt ‘Holmesian’ enough, particularly as Holmes’ familiar process of deduction and explanation felt a little rushed towards the end.
However, these seem like the standard set of problems for a television pilot, and ones which are likely to be at least partly ironed out over the next few episodes. The beginnings of a recognisable relationship between Holmes and Watson are there, and seem promising so far, and there are some nice dangling plot threads to be picked up later in the series: particularly the history of Holmes’ descent into drug addiction and the identity of the woman Watson works out was involved in this process. But the element which needs the most improvement is the cases Holmes is called in on, as they run the risk of becoming predictable; and where both Sherlock Holmes and police procedurals are concerned, predictability is a veritable death sentence.
So whilst it is problematic to judge the quality of an entire series based purely on the pilot, the writers of Elementary are going to have to work a lot harder than they did on this episode to make their new incarnation of Sherlock Holmes memorable.
Verdict – 6/10
A promising, if rough-around-the-edges start to Holmes’ adventures in New York City, but a considerable amount of work needs to be done to make Elementary stand out amongst the wealth of police procedurals on television these days.