3 out of 5 stars.
There are some mild general spoilers to Elementary’s first season, but I have avoided giving away any of the really juicy details.
How many filmed versions of Sherlock Holmes can one generation watch?
It seems like someone is seriously trying to answer that question. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law have been portraying Holmes and Watson as steampunkish action heroes in a couple of movies by director Guy Ritchie. The BBC’s critically acclaimed Sherlock has Benedict Cumberbatch playing the detective in modern London with Martin Freeman as his blogging Doctor Watson. Holmes had even been reinvented as a grumpy pill addicted doctor who solved medical mysteries instead of crimes in Fox’s long running House M.D.
Since CBS has been dominating the TV ratings in recent years with a schedule filled with police procedurals, a series about one of the best known fictional detectives of all time was a natural fit, but it also seemed like it’d be a watered down version, if not an outright rip-off, of Sherlock. However, there’d be some differences between the two like setting the show in America and giving Watson a sex-change operation.
In Elementary, Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering drug addict who has moved from London to New York. Holmes’ estranged and wealthy father has hired a sober companion to keep Sherlock off the needle. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) was a surgeon who quit after she accidently killed a patient and became a live-in drug counselor who moves into Holmes’ brownstone to help keep him clean. Holmes shows off his brilliant deduction skills by solving crimes as a consulting detective for the NYPD’s Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn).
While the idea of a Watson being a sober companion was a clever twist, the series didn’t seem like anything special in the early episodes. Predictably, Holmes and Watson clash with Sherlock resenting having a full-time baby-sitter, and Watson irritated at his arrogance and eccentricities. The show seemed like many other CBS procedurals that revolved around bizarre crimes with just enough red herrings to temporarily throw Holmes off the scent, but he’d still always be able to identify the criminal by the end of the episode.
While Miller was doing an interesting interpretation of Holmes and the dynamic between him and Liu was fun, there wasn’t much else going on to make Elementary stand out from any other crime-of-the-week show. However, as the season progressed and the show gained confidence, it steadily built up the character stories that added new layers to the show.
Over the course of the season we learned of the tragic reason why Holmes took to drugs and left London. The revelations coming out of this led to a much more likeable and sympathetic Sherlock than we usually get. The foundation of this was Miller’s performance. Rather than sticking to a strict Arthur Conan Doyle original version like Cumberbatch brilliantly does by playing Holmes as so arrogant and aloof so that he sees himself as above normal human concerns, Miller’s Holmes has distinct touches of compassion and empathy. His arrogance and insistence on trying to look at everything logically is a mask he wears to conceal his own emotional damage, and Miller deliberately lets the mask slip every now and then to let us get a glimpse of the wounded person behind the brilliant detective image.
This particularly comes out in his interactions with Watson. Rather than treating her as an audience to applaud his brilliance, this Holmes genuinely respects Watson and her opinions. For her part, Joan finds herself increasingly intrigued by Holmes and his methods. When her time as his sober companion ends fairly early in the season, Holmes offers to teach Watson how to become a detective, and to her own amazement, she accepts. It feels like the beginning of a partnership and while Holmes often delights in tormenting Watson with his training methods, Joan is there as an equal, not someone to worship and document Holmes’ accomplishments. (The show’s producers have also been smart enough to keep their relationship completely platonic with no hint of romantic tension. Knock wood that they keep thinking that way.)
This was steady improvement for a freshman show, but the best came in the twelfth episode M. Vinnie Jones portrayed a brutal serial killer that Holmes had failed to catch in London with disastrous results. When M. comes to New York and starts killing more people, Holmes goes off the deep end on a mission of revenge without regard to the consequences, and we got to see a very different and angry side of Sherlock. The fall out from this episode lingered over the second half of the season and it set-up the terrific season finale in which Holmes finally confronts his greatest enemy as well as a fair number of personal demons.
So while Elementary’s first season occasionally got bogged down in trying to come up with puzzling crimes in stand-alone episodes that just weren’t that compelling, the performances of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu helped keep interest alive until the show could introduce some serialized elements that tapped into Holmes lore and put fresh new spins on them. Hopefully the second season will continue that trend this fall.