I must have been in a pilot-binge stupor when I put Elementary (CBS, Thursdays, 9 p.m.) on my “See It” list. It should have gone on the “Wait and See” list, reluctantly. After re-watching the first episode this morning with a clearer head, I’m having trouble remembering what I liked about it. I won’t retract my assertion that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are so innately appealing that it’s hard to mess things up too badly; this is a slight but watchable show, yet more brain candy from CBS’s vending machine. But it’s not special. Executive producer Rob Doherty (Medium) and his collaborators must have been under a mandate to make this adaptation conform to CBS’s established crime-thriller brand. The network’s proven formula mixes big-city scenery, gory violence, glossy photography, and scenes in which a savant/burnout sleuth pontificates while colleagues marvel at his brilliance. Check, check, check, and check.
Elementary’s pontificator is Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), pictured here as a genius man-child with daddy issues. The buff, tattooed son of a real estate magnate, he is a man with preternatural detection skills. He’s also a recovering substance abuser who busted out of a rehab facility on the same day that he was scheduled for release. (“I was bored,” Holmes explains.) Miller is a fine Holmes, if a tad too “intense” in that actor-y way, but he’s not a patch on Benedict Cumberbatch, whose incarnation in the BBC’s vastly superior Sherlock obscures this Americanized version like London fog.
Lucy Liu plays Watson, who’s assigned to live with Holmes during the first six weeks of his recovery. Liu is a reliably steely screen presence — she was terrific as a beat cop on Southland last season — but she’s not asked to do anything here that a zillion other actresses couldn’t have accomplished without breaking a sweat. Watson has a colorful backstory — she was a surgeon until a traumatic event ended her career — but it’s not enough to breathe life into a character that’s more reactive than most Watsons, and nowhere near as quirky and appealing as Martin Freeman’s Watson on Sherlock. (Sorry to bring that BBC series up again, but damn it’s fun.) The character spends much of her time standing around watching Holmes be weird and amazing, occasionally exchanging glances with the sleuth that suggest a burgeoning bond. “A glorified helper monkey,” Holmes calls his new partner, not inaccurately. At least she has more to do than Captain Tobias "Toby" Gregson, the duo’s NYPD contact, and a reluctant admirer of Holmes since his sojourn in England after 9/11. (Yes, 9/11, again.) Gregson is played by Aidan Quinn. His listless performance is indistinguishable from his work on NBC’s doomed Prime Suspect remake, but in fairness, there must be informercials that offer more dramatic meat than this role.
As for the case, yadda yadda. A woman is murdered. Police don’t know who did it. Holmes gets closer to the truth by studying the incline of an apartment floor, the layout and frame shape of personal photos, and the contours of the victim’s face, which was reshaped by plastic surgery. It’s Criminal Minds/CSI/SVU stuff, distressingly rote. I like Miller’s dour, loopy energy and Liu’s deadpan; that and the built-in appeal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters might be enough to bring me back for another look. Maybe. Like so much of CBS’s primetime schedule, this is lie-back-on-the-couch-and-half-watch TV. The producers of Sherlock were outraged when the Eye network announced its own American update, but they needn’t have worried. Elementary is elementary.