Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Elementary: Pilot Review

A Holmes in New York

Elementary, for better or worse, will suffer in comparisons to the BBC television series Sherlock.  Both are modern retellings of the Conan Doyle stories, using the names but not necessarily keeping with The Canon. 

Now I admit to being prejudiced in favor of the Jeremy Brett Granada Television series, which I think are the Citizen Kane of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.  I have not been able to bring myself to watch Sherlock as of yet because the idea of updating my beloved Holmes tears at my heart.  Furthermore, given that my antipathy towards Sherlock creator Steven Moffat (whom I think is destroying Doctor Who, Chris Hardwick be damned) makes me highly suspicious that he will turn my cold, logical, thinking machine into the Hottie of the Month (he took away his pipe to give him nicotine patches...I'm already pissed off).  I have decided, however, to watch Sherlock: A Study in Pink once I finish re-reading A Study in Scarlet

Yet I digress.

The fact that I struggle with Sherlock doesn't necessarily warrant that I will find myself enthralled with Elementary.  After all, my fear is that we will move away from the Conan Doyle stories and get a routine procedural no different than C.S.I. or even Diagnosis: Murder or Murder, She Wrote.   I worry that with the changing of Holmes' Number Two from John to Joan Watson (a rather unoriginal name change, but at least one that appears to show they want to stay close to the source material) will take us down roads I'd rather not go as a Holmesian. 

Still, this shouldn't be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so I go into Elementary the same way I will go into Sherlock: with an open mind but a slightly fearful heart.  Now that the pilot episode of Elementary is before us, I will say that it was as I thought: a procedural with the Conan Doyle characters. 

However, that doesn't mean I didn't like it.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is the scion of a wealthy father who has been exiled to New York to go into rehab.  Now out (a day early) he is paired with his "sober Companion" Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).  Holmes was a 'consulting detective' for Scotland Yard and now has decided to occupy his time (and avoid temptation) by doing the same in NYC.  Helpfully, he has an old friend, Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) on the force, so that makes it easier.  Gregson's partner, Detective Abreo, isn't too keen on Holmes but by the end of the episode at least recognizes his abilities.

Holmes all but throws himself into his first case (and throws Watson into it).  A woman first is missing, but then by visiting the crime scene Holmes deduces that she has not only been murdered but that her body is still there, in a secret panic room.  The main suspect is her husband, Dr. Manlow, but he is too small to have committed the crime.

Holmes deduces that the theft of a jewelry case leads to a serial killer, and he finds parallels to another unsolved crime: another red-headed woman who had been similarly attacked (only she survived...wonder if The Red-Headed League served as partial inspiration).   Holmes browbeats the victim, but Watson's bedside manner gets her to name the attacker.  Unfortunately, the attacker, who we find did kill the woman, is now dead, a suicide.

Or is it?  Something's still off for Holmes, who deduces that the killer had been manipulated via his mental state into murder, by none other than his second (and secret) psychiatrist...one Dr. Manlow.  Of course, he can't prove it, and in a moment of rage takes Watson's car and slams it into Manlow's.  While locked up, Holmes comes as close as he's ever come to being vulnerable and Watson starts being able to figure him out.  She also, using her medical training, comes upon a valuable clue.

Gregson is visited by Manlow, but to the latter's surprise Holmes shows up, accompanied by Watson and Abreo.  Holmes then manages to put the pieces together AND present Manlow with the key piece of evidence.  We end Elementary with Holmes and Watson (who has decided to stay) enjoying a baseball 'match' as Holmes calls it, with Holmes accurately calling the game much to Mets fan Watson's irritation.

Robert Doherty's script has some good nods to The Canon.  The first one is the addiction angle.  I can't say for certain if they mentioned what exactly Holmes was addicted to (since he meets Gregson at a bar, I don't think it is alcohol), but the Holmesians know that Holmes would indulge in cocaine when his mind lacked the stimulation of investigation.  As has been explained to me, the true dangers of cocaine were not fully known or understood when Conan Doyle wrote his stories.  Nowadays, we do, so it's a nice touch to make Holmes a recovering addict.

Let's face it: it's also a nice way to get Holmes out of the U.K. and into the U.S.

Another nice touch is in the Captain's name.  The more well-known Inspector Lestrade would have been the name people might have expected, but instead, he went with Tobias Gregson.  As preparation for reviewing A Study in Pink (the BBC version of Doyle's A Study in Scarlet), I began rereading that, the first Sherlock Holmes story.  There, we find that while Lestrade is there, the chief investigator is...you guessed it, TOBIAS GREGSON. 

Finally, we get Holmes' bee-keeping.  This might seem a most curious hobby, especially in New York.  Why bees?  However, it all makes sense when you literally go back to the source (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).  Those of us with some knowledge of our detective know that in His Last Bow the great detective  'retired to raise bees'.  In fact, he even wrote a book on it: The Practical Handbook of Bee Culture With Observations Upon the Segregation of The Queen.

The fact that Elementary addresses Holmes' addiction (although I don't think cocaine was mentioned), had Captain Tobias Gregson, AND brought in the bees all show that the series will draw inspiration and winks to Holmesians.  Therefore, as someone who made it a point to visit 221 B Baker Street when in London, I can rest that Elementary will make efforts to have a version of Sherlock Holmes we've all known and loved.

I say 'version' of Holmes because obviously Elementary has to both do its best to be separate from Sherlock and adapt to the standards of not American series television, but the CBS-style of procedural: victim (usually a woman) is killed, detective solves, move on.  Elementary fulfills this standard, and the pilot does what it's suppose to do: introduce our characters, give us little hints abobut their private lives, and delve into crime.

I also say 'version' because there are certain things I can't quite wrap my head around.  Holmes has tats and a rich father are things I can't comprehend.  Television has gotten so strict that Holmes ever smoking might be verboten: we can see killing, but not lighting up.  Also, given that Sherlock Holmes was remarkably sexless one wonders how to make him into someone with a healthy (and perhaps kinky) sex life. 

In the scene where Holmes is behind bars, we get hints that part of the reason for his breakdown involved a woman.  Does anyone suspect Irene Adler to pop into the picture?  Also, I get the sense that his father WILL eventually pop in, which will be interesting in that with the exception of his older brother Mycroft, we've never delved into his family life.  In fact, I do wonder why they didn't start out by saying his brother sent him away to New York.  Perhaps that might have been seen as too bizarre: father sounds more sensible.   

I turn to the performances.  Miller does a great job as Holmes: in the beginning he genuinely looked as someone who is haunted by something.  I could do without the rapid-fire manner to which he explains how he reached the conclusions he did (which are invariably correct) but I figure this is how many people see Sherlock Holmes.  Still, Miller does a good job at adding a lightness to his Holmes without being camp or making Holmes into a parody.

As a side note, I hope we see in future episodes a Sherlock Holmes who grows to allow some vulnerability and even humor.  Also, it would be nice if he slows down when he speaks. 

We have some good signs in the last few minutes between Miller and Liu.  Here, we can see a remarkably human, almost friendly side to their budding relationship (we've been assured there will not be any romance between Sherlock and Joan, which is nice...and curiously something that from I understand we can't be guaranteed with the Cumberbatch/Freeman pairing in Sherlock.  Curious that).  There, in that last scene, both Watson and Holmes can relax without a sense of danger or having to solve crimes. 

It's even amusing to hear Holmes brag to his baseball-loving 'sober companion' that he's well acquainted with baseball 'matches'.  Liu/Watson all but blows him off, telling him they're 'games', not 'matches'.  It's a nod to Holmes/Miller's British background, which could provide moments of lightness.

I was concerned that casting a woman as his partner in solving crimes might be a gimmick, but Liu did a great job as Elementary progressed.  At first she started off by being a bit behind of Holmes and his ability to get at the truth, but as the story progressed it was clear she could provide not just the heart of the show but also give as good as she gets.  When her secrets start revealign themselves, she is able to let Holmes know that he has issues of his own.  She tells him at one point that he doesn't have any mirrors in the house, suggesting that he can't look at himself with the same perception he can see everyone else. 

At least twice she is able to stand up to Holmes, and ultimately she knows she has power over him.  However, when in a comic moment Holmes all but crashes the opera Watson is enjoying he asks (as nicely as he could) for her to join him in catching Manlow, the look she gives him tells us that for Joan Watson, the game is equally afoot.

By the end of Elementary, I confess to having all but forgotten that Watson was being played by a woman.  Instead, I saw two people beginning a genuine partnership, even friendship, which bodes well for the series.

I want to finally acknowledge Quinn, an actor who simply does not work enough for my satisfaction.  He's going to play the thankless role of introducing the crime to Holmes & Watson, and I hope Elementary will allow for greater interaction to where he's an equal partner in solving the crimes, even perhaps get involved in Holmes' home life.

Elementary is a strong start to what I hope will not just be an update to the Sherlock Holmes mythology but an interesting series in its own right.  Miller has been able in his debut to make him the insightful man he is, but add a lightness.

"I don't guess.  I observe.  And once I've observed, I deduce," he tells Watson when she asks how he is able to 'guess' things.  Here, Holmes shows his bright, almost arrogant side.  When Watson asks how he knew her father had had an affair, Holmes almost sheepishly replies, "Google.  Not everything is deducable."  At first I thought it undercut his powers of deduction, but then I lightened up and found it funny. 

If we can keep this balance between the crime and the investigators' lives, and between the serious and comic, Elementary may bring more people into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  I expect over the course of the season we'll see more 'crime-of-the-week' scenarios, and slowly peeling away the layers of the lives of both Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson, maybe even Captain Gregson.  I also hope that Detective Abreo won't be put in the background, because it could be a strong foursome. 

Elementary, if it manages to keep this balance, will be dear all its viewers.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship...


Next Episode: While You Were Sleeping


  1. Nice post.

    I liked the pilot episode as well. Lucy Liu was surprisingly good as Watson. Miller though was not that convincing as Holmes.


  2. I'm letting Miller work his way through a season before deciding. I think he did a good job w/the script & direction given. I also have to keep in the back of my mind Holmes has to conform to what is a CBS procedural program. I could do w/o the rapid-fire delivery Miller/Holmes had.

    We've had Holmeses come and go. No one will ever replace Brett in my heart, and while I consider him the Gold Standard of Sherlock Holmes actors, who could be second?

    Rathbone would be my choice for Num. 2. Cumberbatch? Perhaps but hard since I STILL haven't seen Sherlock. Downey's a good actor stuck in lousy Holmes. Miller? Agreed--not among the greats but not embarrassing himself either.

  3. Terrific post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on Holmes? I’d be very grateful if you could discuss a little bit more. Many thanks!

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    1. For more Sherlock Holmes posts, select the "Sherlock Holmes" tag.

      On my sister site The Index of Forbidden Books (you can find the link at the top of the page) I wrote a review for A Study in Scarlet, in part to prepare for when I watch A Study in Pink from Sherlock.

      Also, I have written two Personal Reflections on the character of Holmes and the actors who've played him as well as views on the winners of the Best Sherlock and Watson Polls (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jude Law).


Views are always welcome, but I would ask that no vulgarity be used. Any posts that contain foul language or are bigoted in any way will not be posted.
Thank you.