CliqueClack TV

CBS’s Elementary: it’s Elementary, but it’s not Sherlock Holmes

I wanted to like CBS' "Elementary," really I did. But, it’s pure and utter tripe. It has the framework of the Sherlock Holmes novels, but the acting and speedball pacing of a high-energy sugar addict. "Elementary"’s lead might be called Sherlock, but he is no Sherlock Holmes.

The Bad
Elementary’s Sherlock Holmes has all the quirks of Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn’t feel like Sherlock. Yes, he is British. Yes, he is observant. Yes, he has the same hobbies. However, his hobbies seemingly exist for the cool factor. And, his observation skills are practically omniscient. I enjoyed Monk (USA), Psych (USA), The Mentalist (CBS), Castle (ABC), Sherlock (BBC), Sherlock Holmes (film) and the original Sherlock because the leads took time to survey the land before stating their theories. But, in Elementary, Sherlock walks into a room and can immediately discern what’s wrong, even when watching events he has no familiarity with.

In fact, my main problem with Elementary surrounds how Holmes is written. Doyle’s Holmes is an admitted hermit who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. For all his brilliance, he’s slightly broken. All of the recent shows/films have done an excellent job portraying that. However, this Sherlock acts like a dick to people, not because he’s focused on the task; not because lives will be lost; not because he can’t stand idiots; but because he’s … Sherlock Holmes. And, that’s my problem: this Sherlock lacks focus. None of his actions appear to have a reason save to show how “cool,” “smart” or “Sherlock-y” he is.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock is a big baby on meth candy. He seems too artificially hyper, too chipper, and too child-like. Doyle’s Sherlock used silent spaces to see the un-seeable. But, Miller’s Sherlock Holmes lacks quiet spots, preferring to act like an immature twat who prattles off thoughts at hyper-speed.

I mostly attribute that to pacing. Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock needs to slow the eff down. I don’t get the energy Sherlock typically feels when he encounters a new “game.” Instead I think he just needs a case of Ritalin. The script and director seem afraid the audience will leave if not continuously entertained by Miller or the music. As a result, moments that could’ve lasted longer are interrupted by peppier music or by Miller’s character bouncing awkwardly. Miller and Liu have a nice casual chemistry. But, I sense the writers want to get to the Watson-Sherlock glue we all know and love as soon as possible, but they shouldn’t. These people just met. Give it time.

The Good
Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson remains the show’s bright spot. It’s the first time I’ve watched a Sherlock derivative and consistently thought “wow, that’s great, but when does Watson return?” Everything about the Watson character is well-paced, well-written and well-acted. At its core, the Sherlock Holmes novellas are gothic mystery stories. As the series progressed, Doyle incorporated that darkness into his lead character. While Elementary’s Sherlock is a one-dimensional cartoon who lacks self-awareness, the writers seemingly incorporated that haunting self-flagellation, self-doubt, and underlying darkness into the Joan character. It’s amazing watching her. When Joan is alone in Sherlock’s house, I see the gothic elements immediately, particularly within her silence. I feel the writers spent more time re-imagining her character than Sherlock himself. I might’ve doubted Liu’s addition at first, but the Joan Watson character is a joy to watch in her watchfulness. Honestly, I can’t say enough about this character and how they reworked her, but I’m looking forward to future episodes.

I also have to high five the casting director, Mark Saks, for bringing on Aidan Quinn as Captain Tobias Gregson. Aidan rocks whatever he does, and he does a similar job here. My only complaint — which I share with other Sherlock-type procedurals — is the overt reliance of the police officials on their consultants. In Elementary, the police seem incurious almost to the point of carelessness where they barely bother about finding the most basic items like cellphones.

Other things I enjoyed included the musical score, the set, and the cinematography. While we didn’t require it in the quieter moments, the musical score is exactly what I hoped for. The set for Sherlock’s house is amazing. And, I loved what the costume designer did for Joan Watson (Sherlock, not so much).

Last Thoughts
Elementary has many elements that I enjoy, but the main character shouldn’t be the show’s weakest link. Here, I won’t blame Johnny Lee Miller, but I will blame the directing and writing. It’s tough writing a show about a character everyone knows and loves. However, CBS already has a modern-day Sherlock, called The Mentalist, and it does an excellent job. If Elementary‘s producers slow the character down and spend more time on pacing, Elementary can work as well. And, yes, I probably will continue to watch the show for a couple episodes. It doesn’t hurt that Johnny Lee Miller is a hot Brit with adorably huge eyes. However, throughout the show the characters talk about “trying too hard” while stating “[the case is] too simple. It’s too fast. Something’s off”. Yes. My thoughts exactly.

Elementary premieres on September 27 at 10 PM EST on CBS.

Photo Credit: CBS

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20 Responses to “CBS’s Elementary: it’s Elementary, but it’s not Sherlock Holmes”

September 3, 2012 at 11:07 AM

Isn’t Johnny Weir a figure skater? It’s Jonny Lee Miller is it not?

September 3, 2012 at 11:46 AM

Yes, it’s Jonny Lee Miller — fixed now!

September 3, 2012 at 11:24 AM

I think it’s Johnny LEE MILLER not Johnny Weir who is the lead as Weir is a skater not an actor:)

September 3, 2012 at 11:33 AM

It thought it was quite a good generic crime show. I just saw no reason why the lead characters should be named Holmes and Watson. Were there any parallels to ACD in the pilot? I couldn’t spot any and I’ve just finished reading the canon.

September 6, 2012 at 11:12 PM

There are actually tons, Kete. I just don’t want to talk about too many specifics before the pilot airs on normal TV. In fact, I almost think this went back to the original ACD more than other versions; however, the pacing made the bits that were most ACD-like seem less-ACD-like. Here’s hoping it improves by episode 3 or 4.

September 3, 2012 at 5:16 PM

No doubt the screener you saw was the Pilot episode who’s purpose is to introduce the characters and their setting. Since most of us will be waiting until the series premier on Sept. 27th to watch this ep., it makes it difficult to agree or disagree with your estimates. Since CBS has put this show on their Fall schedule, they must feel it has some worth. Time will tell.

September 3, 2012 at 7:20 PM

I think the word “heart” is the right word, and maybe trying too hard. CBS wanted to re-make the BBC-PBS “Sherlock” and went to them a couple years ago and they’d not seen much good come of remakes)
One thing Benedict Cumberbatch does is take a character that can be a pain a lot of the time but you still care about him. He’s a complex character too and is great at nuance and a look. Will people feel the same “love” for Jonny’s character as they do with Benedict.

September 6, 2012 at 11:18 PM

Agreed. Although I reference the other Sherlock versions, I reviewed Elementary on its own. I’ve loved almost every single Sherlock Holmes derivative I’ve ever seen (including Castle S1). Am I the only one who remembers ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ (1985)?

The only reason I didn’t fall head over heels in love with this Sherlock is it just didn’t feel right. A lot of the cogs in the machine just didn’t fit in their grooves. And, a lot of the pegs were too big for the holes. Will CBS wittle down the pegs and add oil to the grooves? One can only hope. I’m just too accustomed to CBS’ crime dramas hitting it out of the ball park from day 1 (The Mentalist, CSI, H5-0). This is the first time that it just didn’t feel wholly right case-wise, pacing-wise or lead character-wise.

September 4, 2012 at 8:55 AM

Personally, if they had really wanted to make a Sherlock Holmes story set in America, they should have gone the whole way and had a full American cast (or at least American characters) because 1) it would have helped them come out of the shadow of the already adored BBC program and 2) it would stop the show from being “the brilliant British man shows up the incompetent Americans again.” Considering what House ended up being, we know the Sherlockian personality can work as an American if done by the right actor and honestly if Laurie had used his natural British accent I have to wonder if House would have fallen into the “Smart Brit, Incompetent Americans” cliche I mentioned above.

And it’s funny that when I mentioned that idea to someone they said “Well then, even more people would be yelling at them for changing the story,” but if you’re going to go for a modern adaptation when another modern adaptation is out already, why not go big instead of play it safe? Because all playing it safe will get you is more comparisons to the current show.

September 6, 2012 at 11:49 PM

If they had made Elementary 100% American, it probably would’ve garnered more comparisons to The Mentalist, Castle, House, Monk and Psych. So, I think keeping the lead British was smart. Also, I love when my Sherlock is British, male and shirtless.

However, I didn’t get the feeling of stupid Americans/smart Brit in CBS’ Elementary. Like ACD’s Sherlock, Elementary is basically smart Holmes/stupid everyone else. But the problem is Elementary made everyone too stupid to the point it’s unbelievable. They took something that made sense on paper in a 19th century novel, but didn’t update it for the modern age.

Doyle admits he made Watson overtly wonder-struck to highlight Holmes’ brilliance further; but, modern-day shows knew that wouldn’t hold water. As a result, the recent ‘Sherlock’-esque crime dramas made their Watsons (Gus, Lisbon, Beckett) and Lestrade-esque crime teams (CBI, Esposito & Ryan) less clueless. But, Elementary doesn’t do that. So, we have one-dimensional police characters that would’ve made more sense on paper.

I’m puzzled that a network whose specialty is analytical Holmes-esque crime dramas didn’t pull off a smoother pilot. Maybe, as you stated, if they called Miller’s character Jane Grissom, that would’ve taken the pressure off. But, hey, if they’re lucky, they have an entire season to improve –

September 4, 2012 at 12:20 PM

You did a wonderful job at pinpointing the fundamental problem with this series, which is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason to do it (other than a crass motivation to jump on the Sherlock bandwagon). The writers threw in a few changes in order to demonstrate that they were doing something “different” from the BBC Sherlock, but I can’t discern any meaningful vision behind those “differences”. There is a great deal more that could be done or said with the Holmes characters and stories, but this series doesn’t appear to have any interest in doing something truly creative. In that case, why bother?

September 7, 2012 at 12:10 AM

Thanks, Cari. You’ve just said the same thing, fellow CliqueClack writer, Katie, said above. I wanted Elementary to work because I’m tired of waiting every 2 years for a new Sherlock movie or every 6 months until the BBC’s Sherlock airs on the BBC. So, CBS jumping on the bandwagon didn’t tick me off. I just thought – “Finally! I can get my Sherlock fix sooner.”

Sometimes the second episodes of shows can differ from pilots because there’s downtime before the network picks it up. Let’s hope Elementary’s writers had sufficient in-between time to review the show’s weaknesses and improve its strengths for the second episode.

September 5, 2012 at 4:55 AM

You really summed up how I felt about the pilot very well. I watched it but couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong after I saw it. It wasn’t “bad”, but it wasn’t “good” either… it was pretty much every other CBS police procedural show I’d ever seen. Only, with some of those I’d felt more engaged. I did get drawn into it for short periods a couple of times, which actually surprised me. (I did truly try to keep an open mind but I admit the disgraced Doctor Watson thing bugs me–Canon Doctor Watson was always a man of honour. Why did CBS need to have her be a *disgraced* female?)

There were so many other ways they could have gone that could have got me hooked on this. For example, two strong, intelligent *FEMALE* actresses as Holmes and Watson in present day London? (Or even in New York… but still keep Holmes British, Holmes really needs to be British.)

The other thing I felt was odd, was that CBS seemed to feel that they had to invent new characters that were not in canon simply to avoid being sued by Misters Moffat and Gatiss. Why did they need to keep referring to Sherlock’s “Father”? Why not use Mycroft who actually is in canon? *sigh*

Truly, part of the appeal of BBC’s Sherlock is the obvious love for the Canon stories and the respect for the subject matter. What I get when I watch “Elementary” is a feel that some poor bunch of writers are in a room brainstorming… and the scripts keep being sent back with notes, “redo this scene because we watched “The Blind Banker” last night and they had a character named Sarah in it.” –Rather than having the WRITERS read Arthur Conan Doyle and WRITE. –And that there is SO MUCH higher up interference that no one can get a clear voice into the show. Which usually results in a very weak show and a rapid cancellation.

Which is sad because these are two fine actors.
(You only have to look at Sherlock and The Avengers to see what happens when management allows someone to follow their vision on a project…)


September 7, 2012 at 2:24 AM

Thanks Clare! Having Watson as a disgraced female surgeon is the only point I don’t quibble with. They’ve re-imagined Watson so that she fits with contemporary society but also incorporates what I loved about Watson as an observer. Sherlock’s daddy’s issues slightly annoyed me until I realized why they wrote that in.

I think Elementary has good spots. It has good actors and excellent production values. But, to truly succeed it needs a focus. You need show runners who loved Sherlock Holmes and were inspired by the character. I’d almost suggest a basic understanding of British culture for writing the lead, but that’s less necessary.

However, something tells me if they do an Irene Adler and Watson spin-off, you’ll be first in line!

September 7, 2012 at 3:04 AM

Watson and Irene? Nah.

I’m really not much of an Irene Adler fan. I really liked what Lara Pulver did for her on Sherlock, and how she and Benedict Cumberbatch played off of each other… but the character itself? One trick pony really. I see Watson as the loyal, lifelong companion of Holmes. Regardless of whatever other changes are made to muck about… that is the basic heart of Sherlock Holmes allure is it not? Well, for me at least, it is. It isn’t just the brilliant man, it’s two men (two friends). The heart and the brain. It’s like on Star Trek … they had the triad… Spock/Kirk/the Doctor –Brain/Physical/Heart of the Vessel… In Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock is the Brain, and John is the Heart. (Joan.) And a great deal of the enjoyment was watching the interplay of those symbols of the vessel’s heart/mind/body work together –it could cause some funny/ tragic/ interesting moments sometimes.

It does bug me they “disgraced” her. I wished they had altered her in some other way… grieving over dead husband, or something. –although they may use this in an interesting way come to think of it. Perhaps they’ll use it to show her to be an “outsider” to the establishment, in a sense “like Sherlock” drawing them closer together as a team. — Because what bothered me the most in the show so far is that in every *other* Sherlock Holmes show so far, Holmes and Watson are working together *by Choice* at this point. Watson normally isn’t being paid to babysit Holmes… and these two aren’t friends at all either, which is a bit disturbing.

Still, we’ll see. I’m still reserving judgement. It’s early days.

September 5, 2012 at 9:30 PM

All your arguments have already ALSO been made against the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes” movies, which in my opinion and that of many others are far more canonical and enjoyable than the BBC Sherlock. Here’s my problem with BBC’s Sherlock – I just don’t buy Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. At all. He seems cold, mean and completely selfish throughout the series (and believe me, I have watched and re-watched the series, and BOUGHT the Blu-Rays, thinking that maybe watching the episodes with the cuts restored might change my opinion…) and have tried and tried to like him, but he is in the end an unlikeable character. Add to that the spoofish and often silly plotlines (oh, Moffat, your Dr. Who is showing)and you just have a mishmash of a series that spins and means nothing. I have loved the Sherlock Holmes canon — the short stories and novels/novellas — since I was a wee lass. Sherlock Holmes was probably my very first fandom — I could probably recite some of the stories chapter and verse. When the Guy Ritchie movies came out, I was completely skeptical at first — the trailers and ads painted RDJ’s Holmes as some sort of Victorian superhero, all steampunk and badass. But — when I actually saw the first movie, I was entranced — there is SO much more to Downey’s Holmes than that, and as subversive as the portrayal may be, his is a character who very much pays tribute to the canon Holmes. Canon Holmes is a man who does feel, who is devoted to the cause of justice, who does not hate women (doesn’t understand them, but doesn’t detest them), who is NOT a misogynist (far from it), who is as devoted to his Watson as his Watson is to him — and the two RDJ Holmes movies entirely capture that. As in the movies, stuff blows up and fisticuffs happen (and Canon Holmes IS a martial artist of some repute). Yes, there are big goofy comedy sequences and too much gunplay and all the other stuff that big studio tentpole action movies require to make a billion dollars on the global market. Bit there is also a surprising level of care and a devotion to the canon by all involved with the RDJ Holmes movies, from the top down, that make them a joy for the true Sherlock Holmes aficionado. I simply don’t get that from the BBC series, which seems too tremendously pleased with itself and its cleverness and with its self-involved main character to really resonate as a favorite with me. And I know (oh, boy, check out Tumblr and Facebook) that I am not alone in this. I have seen the “Elementary” pilot and very much enjoyed it, too – I think the series will be very popular and will add to the Holmes love that is already percolating throughout the world (and I will point out that the current Holmes renaissance was kicked off by the RDJ movies, NOT by the BBC series, which really has only reached a very small audience in comparison with the movies and with the upcoming CBS show). Holmes fans can debate and debate who is the best or the better Holmes, and that’s what makes this fandom great – but don’t dismiss something put of hand before you have watched, re-watched and given it a chance. I sure did with “Sherlock” – gave it every chance in the world. Didn’t do it for me.

September 16, 2012 at 6:20 PM

I mainly didn’t like the RJD films, because it felt more like an action movie set in the 1800s. They weren’t a mystery, and they didn’t really explain the observations all that well. It felt like a Jason Bourne movie set in the Victorian era with a bit of a sendup included. Great if you want a funny sendup, but to me the BBC is the true Sherlock. Throwing in mysteries and clue that you can get, especially once explained to you, but nowhere near as quick as Sherlock. And they explain the clues to you the way the original series did.

Also, Sherlock is a sociopath who does occasionally try to fit in. You can easily see his growth by the 2nd season. No, it’s not enough soon enough, but it’s 4.5 hours of excellent material every 1.5-2 years. That’s more than than the RJD movies. At least twice as much.

September 6, 2012 at 11:19 AM

Not everyone is going to like the same thing so not everyone is going to like “Sherlock” but the majority do and they can see what is behind the facade of Sherlock – Also the character is evolving – there was more humanity to him in the 2nd season, as it was planned to be. A scene in The Blind Banker – when his fellow school mate said to him ‘we all hated him” – did you not see the look..the eyes that wnet down in a split second you saw someone hurt by what was said – that is what a nuanced actor is. Surface is not always all there is.

September 7, 2012 at 1:41 AM

Oh, exactly! There’s a wealth of feeling under the cold facade! And Cumberbatch makes it visible in his micro expressions. And it’s so much more interesting to see the development of a character than to have him pitched fully formed onto your TV screen.

And BBC!Sherlock is so quintessentially British – what is what Sherlock always should be (imo).

September 6, 2012 at 11:22 AM

One more thing. The movie takes place in Victorian Times. Moffat & Gatiss had talked about making a current day Sherlock for a number of years before they started it. Their talking about it was before there was any plan for or knowing about a Sherlock Holmes movie with RDJ.
And it Was this “Sherlock” that CBS was trying to go for – as they went to them 2 years ago to ask to re-do the show and they said no…(I think this has been mentioned before).

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