Eating Crow: I Was Wrong About CBS's "Elementary"
Before the pilot aired way back in September of 2012, I — like anyone else who had seen BBC’s massively superior Sherlock — came down very hard on the idea that CBS would essentially steal that concept and worse, cast Lucy Lui in the Watson role. We piled on, and I ended up watching the pilot with a massive head of ill-will built up against it. I didn’t particularly care for the premiere; in fact, I didn’t even bother with a full review. It felt like a fairly generic CBS procedural that had borrowed the name of Sherlock Holmes and pasted it over their procedural template.
I was wrong.
It improved immeasurably. It wasn’t until enough readers had recommended it that I finally broke down to give it another shot. That was about 10 days ago. I’ve now finished all 24 episodes. They were addictive, episodic mystery candy that I couldn’t resist.
It is still not in the same ball park as Sherlock, but they are distinct enough from one another that it hardly matters. “Sherlock” has the benefit of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Steven Moffat, plus only a commitment to produce three episodes every year and a half or so, so it is obviously a more cinematic, better acted, more intelligent, and more engrossing series, and any comparison that one might make does no favors to “Elementary.”
However, if you can drop the need to compare, “Elementary” holds up incredibly well against the spate of other procedurals. Jonny Lee Miller — tics and all — is outstanding as Sherlock (although, he reminds me too much of Hannibal’s Will Graham) and Lucy Liu is absolutely perfect in the straight-man’s role, a former doctor turned sober companion turned full-time assistant to Sherlock. She does an admirable job of keeping the series grounded.
It is nevertheless formulaic, at least when the series is not contending with the some of the more serialized aspects that took up much of the latter episodes, including Irene Adler and Moriarity narratives. I actually found that I preferred the stand-alone episodes. The show is more comfortable, more addictive when it’s self-contained: It’s not built as well for longer arcs. The procedural component, however, does suffer from some of the problems that plague most procedurals: There’s typically a ten-minute window in the middle of each episode where the characters are chasing red herrings, but credit both Miller and Lui for bringing some quirky light into those windows.
More than anything, however, “Elementary” feels more like the older Jeremy Brett series, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” updated and set in New York City. Comparisons to that series are more favorable to “Elementary”: In fact, I prefer the CBS series. It’s breezier, like “Castle,” but with far better mysteries, and too my immense satisfaction, there’s never any suggestion that Watson and Holmes could ever be a couple.
Granted, “Elementary” is not amazing television, but it is a perfect wind-down series, a couch-watcher right before bed, although you’ll be tempted more than a few times to stay up and watch just one more, not because you want to see where the series is headed, but because the episodes themselves are a simple delight.