CBS' modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes and his trusted partner-in-crime-solving Watson premieres tonight, joining the network's Thursday night line-up. BBC's Sherlock set the bar high for a series like this, but what I've deduced, having thoroughly observed the pilot episode of Elementary, is that there's no reason to compare the two shows beyond noting that both celebrate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved detective in their own way.
Executive produced by Rob Doherty, Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly, Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller as detective Sherlock Holmes, a former London resident now living in New York and recovering from a stint in rehab while helping the NYPD crack tough-to-solve cases. Lucy Liu's Dr. Joan Watson is brought into the picture as Holmes' "sober companion." We soon learn that she was once a surgeon, but lost her medical license. Of course, there's a story to tell there. In fact, both characters have histories they'd rather not brag about, and that's part of what makes the pilot episode so interesting.
The premiere episode has Holmes working to solve a murder, with Watson at his side. The murder mystery works the standard procedural format. There's the crime, the crime scene, the suspects and all the usual trappings, which allow us to try to figure out whodunnit before Sherlock beats us to it. That part works well enough that those looking for another CBS crime investigation procedural should be happy with what Elementary has to offer. The added element is the dynamic between Holmes and Watson. Yes, they're a man and a woman, and that might offer the opportunity to explore a different kind of relationship between these two classic characters, however the first episode actually does well to ignore the very notion of sexual tension between these two… apart from Holmes' introduction to Watson, which has him shirtless.
I actually liked that there doesn't seem to be any hint that Sherlock and Joan are destined to fall for one another. Sure, that might happen at some point down the line, should the show live on for seasons, but based on the pilot episode, there appears to be other angles to explore, like both of their pasts and how their involvement in each others' lives might actually help them overcome their personal demons. The chemistry between Miller and Liu is there and it works. With the right development, these two could be one of TV's more intriguing duos, especially if they remain friends.
I said there was no reason to compare Sherlock with Elementary and I'm standing by that, but having seen some of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis' series, it's impossible not to note some of the differences. Based on the first episode alone, CBS' series seems to be veering more toward the hour-long procedural format, while the BBC series, with its shorter seasons and longer episodes, digs a bit more deeply into each mystery arc. That, added to Elementary's New York setting offer enough of a difference for CBS' drama to be its own take on Arthur Conan Doyle's characters.
There's also no comparing Miller to Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch. Like the shows themselves, each offers their own take on the observant sleuth. Cumberbatch is fantastic, but Miller plays the role well too. The last time we saw him in a major role in American TV, he was playing the villainous Jordan Chase in Dexter. By contrast, his portrayal of Sherlock certainly shows his range. His Sherlock is occasionally charming but also occasionally blunt with his observations, making up for in wit what he sometimes lacks in sensitivity. And Liu plays off of that just as easily as a woman who's trying to understand the man she's been assigned to work with, and who has her own personal issues to sort through.
I was among those skeptically raising an eyebrow when I first heard CBS was moving forward with a series that sounded very similar to Sherlock, but Elementary works. It's smart, dryly funny and by the first episode, it looks like it should appeal to those who are looking for another engaging mystery series.
Elementary premieres tonight (Thursday, Sept. 27) at 10:00 p.m. ET on CBS.