28
Sep
2012
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1
Pilot
Jordan
It would be very fair of me to review Elementary with no eye towards its British precursor, Sherlock. It owuld be kind to judge the show on its own merits. And I promise, we'll get to that. But first, let me be catty for a minute. Sherlock is the television adaptation fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories have been waiting for their whole lives without ever really knowing it. The show adapts the best Holmes stories to a modern setting without missing a beat, and more importantly, captures the character dynamics at the heart of perhaps the most important "buddy-cop" relationship in pop culture near-perfectly. Additionally, Sherlock expands the mythology of the stories without losing what made them great. Long time Holmes fans were never going to complain about an expanded role for Mycroft Holmes or a greater arc dedicated to the relationship between Holmes and his greatest nemesis Moriarty. In short, Sherlock is great, inventive television. So much so that CBS tried to buy the show so as to do an American adaptation. When Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, Sherlock creators and Doctor Who writers, refused, CBS decided that Holmes was in the public domain, and they would just do their own modern day take on the character.

Hence, Elementary. I would love to write a full review on how terrible Elementary is, on how it tarnishes Sherlock's brilliance and indicates all the lessons American television refuses to learn from our counterparts across the pond. But none of that is true, at least not really. Fans of Sherlock aren't likely to love Elementary, but then the show isn't being aimed at them. This is another CBS crime procedural, aimed at CBS' fairly aged audience, and will likely be viewed almost entirely by people who aren't even aware Sherlock is a thing.

If there is anything truly disappointing about Elementary, a thoroughly mediocre pilot likely to grow into a thoroughly mediocre show, its that the show never for a moment feels like a Sherlock Holmes story. Sure, it has characters named Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), but otherwise, this could be the pilot of any crime procedural on television. This may be a bad thing for any super-Holmes fans out there, but for most viewers, this is unlikely to make a difference. Anyone looking for a well made, by-the-numbers crime show may walk away from Elementary satisfied. Miller's Holmes is twitchy and caustic, sure, but he could be replaced with any Holmes-lite TV character in recent memory (see, e.g. Gregory House, that guy on The Mentalist), or really any slightly odd crime solving prodigy pop culture has come up with since Holmes started the trend. Nothing about his performance, nor about the show's writing, indicates that this is the Sherlock Holmes. This is a man who solves crimes well, in a televised sea of crime solving prodigies.

As for Liu, her Joan Watson is at least a slightly more defined character, though not defined in a way that makes her a reasonable Watson adaptation. She is an angry ex-surgeon who let a patient die on her table and was forced out due to the malpractice. She's someone who hates her current job, but finds some joy in helping Holmes solve mysteries. This isn't John Watson, nor anything like him, really, but it is a character angle, and it might develop into an interesting Holmes/Watson dynamic, if the show goes that way.

Then there is the plot of the episode itself, which is the sort of boring, obvious murder story one could find anywhere else on TV (in fact, it has a few things in common with the other CBS procedural I reviewed this week, Vegas), the sort of story the real Holmes, or any adaptation of him dedicated to veracity in its portrayal of the character, would solve in mere seconds. A woman is murdered in what appears to be a forced entry, but of course was not. It is obvious from the first that her husband killed her, a fact that eludes Sherlock and his police friends for a while, until it doesn't. There is a slightly interesting twist in the way he killed her (seeing as, really, he just arranged for her to die in an incredibly convoluted way), but honestly it beggars belief to the point I rolled my eyes during the reveal.

One thing this pilot does have going for it is the direction, done by Homeland's Michael Cuesta. This is a smartly shot, great looking pilot, and one that likely won't have problems (like Vegas might) keeping this "house style" without Cuesta or the extra budget that pilots tend to have. This is a great looking show, and continues a trend we've been seeing this season of pilots that have at least taken some lessons from the great cable television shows that outpace them every year at the Emmys. Network dramas may not be catching up from a story perspective as quickly as we'd like, but at least they are beginning to take on some of the cinematic visuals that shows like Breaking Bad have been honing for seasons.

Ultimately, Elementary is not a bad television show, just an inconsequential one. There is no reason this show has to be about Sherlock Holmes to do exactly what its doing, and in fact, if the pilot is any indication, most of the crimes he will be solving here are far beneath the character's abilities. A middling crime procedural is nothing new, but its also the sort of thing that millions of people tend to watch on a regular basis, and a genre that has made CBS incredibly successful over the past decade. What's impressive isn't the quality of these shows, but the sheer quantity of them. One imagines it has to get difficult to write new murders each week that no one else has covered already, which makes creating a great crime procedural very difficult work. Elementary was never aiming for greatness, however, and in that respect at least, it succeeds. This is a by-the-numbers show for people who want to shut off their brains for an hour a week and just watch a weird guy run circles around the cops. And there is nothing wrong with that. If you're looking for a new procedural, and nothing more, Elementary is the show for you. Just don't get your hopes up about anything more than the basics.

Grade: B-

Notes:

-I do hope Elementary kicks it up a notch in terms of the difficulty of the cases it has Holmes and Watson solving, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And anyway, I won't be watching to find out.

-"Not everything is deducible." Except in this pilot, when each twist can be seen from about a mile away.

-There are a few touches here that make me think someone on the writing staff has at least picked up a Holmes story at some point. Holmes is a recovering addict, and is writing a book on bee keeping, both of which bear some resemblance to character traits from the stories.

-Sherlock's father is mentioned so often in this pilot, I wonder if they plan to introduce Ian McKellan as his dad next week. Come to think of it, I would watch that...

-The episode ends to Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives." Get it?
Tags: Elementary
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