Miller and Liu Make Elementary Work — Barely

I caught the sneak preview of the first episode of CBS’s modern Sherlock show, Elementary, and… I didn’t hate it. Given that I was very much predisposed to hate it, that’s higher praise than you’d think.

I’m a huge fan of the Mark Gatiss/Steven Moffat version and there was a long and ugly saga surrounding CBS’s attempt to get permission from Gatiss and Moffat to remake it for an American audience because apparently this is still 1995 and we don’t how torrents work . When Gatiss and Moffat told them to go to hell, CBS went ahead and made Elementary anyway. So it wasn’t the best way to get fans of the British version on board with this quasi-adaptation. Then there was the controversial casting of Lucy Liu as the first female John Watson (redubbed the groaningly unimaginative “Joan”) and Jonny Lee Miller as a more “rock ‘n roll” Sherlock covered in tattoos and fresh out of rehab — all set against the backdrop of present-day New York City. Even the recent previews, intended to whet the appetite of a prospective viewership, didn’t offer much hope as they made the final product look indistinguishable from any of the other crime procedurals on CBS.

Even with all of that stacked against it, I still had a reasonably good time watching the premiere episode (which technically won’t be out on TV until September 27th, but leaked early online).

My biggest problem with the pilot is the dialogue. Miller and Liu make the best of it, but the writing in general feels… lazy. It smacks of a cheap attempt at hipness to have Sherlock winkingly talk about his Google prowess, or to utter the incredibly stale line, “Sometimes I hate it when I’m right.” The worst example, and the hardest to watch, was the scene where Sherlock and Joan meet for the first time and Sherlock begins professing his love to her (while shirtless and covered in tattoos), only to reveal the fact that he was rattling off some memorized dialogue from a soap opera. Believe me when I say that it didn’t make any more sense in context.

On top of the awkward dialogue, the central mystery felt like a recycled plot from CSI where the whodunnit is unnecessarily confusing, implausible and unsolvable without the show’s investigative magic. Instead of microscopic close-ups of hairs and shiny equipment, we have Sherlock’s deductive prowess theoretically revealing things no average human could possible observe. But where Cumberbatch’s Sherlock gives impressively long explanations for how he makes a particular deduction, Miller’s Sherlock simply connects A and B, making the NYPD look incompetent, rather than showcasing the famous detective’s brilliance. To be fair, Sherlock’s opening episode also had a lacklustre case, but arguably the point of A Study in Pink was to set up the world of John and Sherlock, more than it was to impress us with a complex mystery.  Elementary can never decide which track it wants to follow, so Miller’s Holmes lets Watson tag along for the ride and every once in a while they stop to compare their mutual heavy emotional baggage and heal one-another before they head off to their next crime scene.

It is hard to judge an entire series based on its pilot as pilots typically represent the early growing pains of any show. So a little awkward dialogue here or a somewhat boring case there doesn’t sign Elementary’s death warrant. What does have me concerned for the show as a whole, however, is the Sherlock/Holmes dynamic. The biggest difference in Holmes and Watson’s dynamic from the British version (apart from the obvious gender swap) is that on Sherlock, Martin Freeman’s Watson is Holmes’s eternal champion. Even when he thinks he’s being a dick — which is often — he is always coaching Sherlock on how to be softer, gentler and more media- and people-friendly. Freeman’s Watson has a curiously maternalistic air toward Sherlock, defending him against all of the people who just don’t “understand” him. Even the Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law movies give us a Holmes/Watson friendship rife with a brotherly sort of bickering, moralizing and chastising  — but at its heart, it’s still loving and caring.

Pictured: two dudes who clearly know how to have a good time.

With Elementary, Liu’s Watson is yet another detractor who just doesn’t “get” that kooky old Holmes, at one point dramatically noting that Holmes doesn’t have any mirrors around his apartment because he knows “a lost cause when [he] sees one.” This might change, but for the moment it’s a disappointing twist as it threatens to make yet another female sidekick the “no-fun nag,” rather than the faithful companion that makes the Holmes/Watson relationship so much fun. Liu is instead required to be the lead balloon at the party as she has been employed by Holmes’s father to be Sherlock’s  “sober companion” after his stint in rehab. Because of hipness and edginess and so forth.

Smaller nitpicks include Holmes referring to Jane Watson as “Watson,” given that women aren’t usually assigned their surnames as nicknames. It would make a lot more sense, and sound much more natural, for him to call her “Joan,” or even “Miss Watson,” if they want to get formal about it. At any rate, it would come off less as a wink to the original series, since it’s hardly needed; We’re not confused about who Lucy Liu’s character is, so we don’t need to be reminded every 5 minutes.

Overall, while the episode wasn’t terrible, it’s the long-term story elements that concern me. Watson as the motherly nag, Holmes as the roustabout bad boy, Aidan Quinn as the surprisingly bland New York detective. The truth is that without the famous name behind the show, I’m not sure there would be much interest in this project at all. And I do hope that they actually start incorporating some elements from the original series, because at this point the only thing anchoring it to Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective series is the name of its lead character.

12 thoughts on “Miller and Liu Make Elementary Work — Barely

  1. Pingback: The Luther Tie-In is a Suprisingly Good Read « Tea Leaves and Dog Ears

  2. “The worst example, and the hardest to watch, was the scene where Sherlock and Joan meet for the first time and Sherlock begins professing his love to her (while shirtless and covered in tattoos), only to reveal the fact that he was rattling off some memorized dialogue from a soap opera. Believe me when I say that it didn’t make any more sense in context.”

    Well, this part wasn’t very clear, but I don’t believe it was intended to be memorized dialogue. In the Doyle stories, Holmes famously is able to follow people’s trains of thought, even when they’re not speaking but just sitting quietly, and suddenly come out with their inevitable next line. He does this to Watson once, for example, and then goes back over his deducing to explain to the good doc all the clues in his facial tics that allowed Holmes to come out with the very thought that was in Watson’s mind at the very time that Watson had it.

    I suspect — No, actually I believe completely! — that what the writers were attempting here was to show the CBS Sherlock following along with tv dialogue, getting inside the writer’s mind in Holmesian fashion, and then coming out with the next inevitable line of dialogue that he’s deduced just before the actor says it. That’s why Holmes’ next line is a triumphant “Spot on!” He’s congratulating himself on another brilliant deduction, very similar to ones that Doyle has SH do in the books.

    Unfortunately, I guess this doesn’t work on tv very well because they depended on people knowing tiny details of the book to follow this. But I’m sure it’s what they were trying to do.

    • I’m afraid you might be right. I say afraid because even if Sherlock Holmes is a mega-genius (which frankly this show doesn’t seem to be trying to convince us of because he’s still “young” and “fresh” and “hip”) that does seem an awfully specific monologue to have predicted. Knowing what someone will say next is one thing, being able to completely parse out a minute-long aside is another.

      Your interpretation would be more logical, in the sense that it seems odd to be showing Sherlock Holmes as a master of memory, but I’d also have a much harder time buying it — especially when, as I said, they don’t really show him being as phenomenally smart in this series as he normally is.

  3. (Ignoring the typo-errors…) This is a decent enough review. I somewhat agree with you with the deduction. Jonny-lock’s deductions is something the police can see later on. On the other hand, Ben-lock’s deduction is something the police will never know even if they spend time looking at the evidence. Another cringe-inducing scene is the one about the sex thing. Ewww…

    • Yeah, the post-sex part was weird, but I thought it was part of making the more rough-and-tumble Holmes. And surely Irene Adler will be some sexy junkie or whatever.

      But yeah — I just don’t like the fact that they’ve really only made him a slightly quicker-thinking detective and not the super-brain he’s supposed to be.

  4. So here’s my nit-pick: Gregson was actually an inspector in the ACD Sherlock Holmes canon and is categorically nothing like Lestrade to the point that they are referred to as complete opposites in both physicality and typical response towards Holmes. So, using Gregson instead of Lestrade is very much on purpose and not a different iteration of the more notable inspector. Gregson, more or less, more agreeable to Holmes in canon, more likely to help him and to admire his skillset. That translates pretty swimmingly in the show.

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