The primary pleasure of Elementary is Jonny Lee Miller’s performance as a present-day Sherlock Holmes: a brilliant, jumpy, self-described ”recovering addict” fresh out of rehab. Part of his recovery program is to keep himself distracted with work, which for the legendary detective means solving crimes, of course. He does this by the methods laid out in the venerable stories written in the late 19th/early 20th centuries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Holmes uses acute observation, an omnivore’s knowledge, and leaps of logic to arrive at conclusions while those around him stand scratching their chins.
The canny commercial aspect of Elementary is that Holmes is given the CBS treatment. By this I mean the packaging is an hour-long, case-of-the-week procedural. There are just enough tantalizing suggestions about the history of Holmes to get viewers hooked without miring them in the gummy mythologies that have made other networks’ attempts at luring a mass cult audience so risky. It doubtless helps as well that this new show has a new hook for its Dr. Watson, who is now a woman, played by Lucy Liu (more on her in a bit), and that it’s set not in the Holmes-traditional London but in New York City. (Do I sense a huge opportunity for CBS to lure Donald Trump away from NBC and cast him as archvillain Professor Moriarty?)
Elementary is probably the closest thing to a new fall-season surefire hit. Miller, a Brit who made his initial impact in films such as Trainspotting and Hackers and acquired a following as the title character of ABC’s short-lived Eli Stone, gives off an infectious enthusiasm in this new role. Indeed, Miller and show creator Rob Doherty bring something fresh to the Holmes mythos: a sense of joy that shows in the quick grins and avid glances this Holmes gives to anyone he can draw into his life.
No doubt Elementary will be compared with the British Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Elementary doesn’t go in for cleverly reworked versions of classic Doyle stories (yet, at least), but that doesn’t make the BBC/PBS series automatically superior to the CBS show. I’d say Miller has a good chance of working up a performance that’s equal to Cumberbatch’s laser-intense interpretation.
The series utilizes its two main costars well. The aforementioned Lucy Liu, coming off a superb guest arc on Southland, makes for a fine Watson — a ”sober companion” hired by Holmes’ father who inevitably hops aboard the Great Detective’s chugging trains of thought. (The network has already said we should not expect this Holmes and Watson to develop a romantic relationship, and that’s smart. Liu’s Watson, a former physician with a murkily troubled past, deserves to thrive as her own independent, neurotic character.) And Aidan Quinn moves smoothly from his New York cop role on last season’s underrated-in-every-way Prime Suspect to his NYPD captain role here.
But still, this is Miller’s show. ”I observe, and once I have observed, I deduce,” his Holmes proclaimed in the pilot. The star has found a way of making such arrogance alluring. B+