Elementary: Pilot Review

Sherlock Holmes in modern day New York. Holmes is a recovering drug addict, Watson is a girl.

It’s impossible to write a review of this without tripping over comparisons to the BBC’s Sherlock. I tried very hard to review it in isolation, but every attempt left me frustrated. The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that it wasn’t entirely unfair of me, if the producers wanted their show to be judged on its own merits, then they should have given their lead characters different names. After all, once you’ve changed the histories of characters, moved them to a different time period and a different continent, and even changed their gender… is there anything that’s really Sherlock Holmes about it beyond the name? The “Holmes Method” has been used in plenty of other shows (House and The Mentalist off the top of my head) and they could very easily have made a procedural about a hyper-observant, socially awkward genius and his unlikely companion solving crime without incurring any of the fuss. So given that the producers have chosen not to avoid the comparison, I don’t see why I shouldn’t either.

That said, it turns out it doesn’t really matter, because even without comparison to Sherlock, I don’t think Elementary is particularly good. It’s not as offensively bad as many pilots are, but there’s just nothing special about it, and a few too many frustrations to make me want to tune in each week.

Maybe if Sherlock didn’t exist (or for that matter the Robert Downie Jr films), Johnny Lee Miller’s take on Holmes would be more interesting, but as it was he was just a bit unremarkable, a bit… safe. He didn’t have the spark of unpredictable danger, or even the humour that Downie had, or the curiosity or otherworldliness of Cumberbatch. He just felt like a bit of a weak impression of someone else’s character. However he wasn’t anywhere near as disappointing as Lucy Liu as Watson. I know there’s been comment on Watson being a woman, or being a struck-off doctor, but either of those would have been ok if the character was actually likeable. I’ve never really been a fan of Lucy Liu, her characters are always a bit emotionless, distant and aloof, making them extremely hard to engage with. With that flatness the relationship element also fails to work, I just didn’t feel there was much of a click between Watson and Holmes. Martin Freeman set a very high benchmark for Watson and there’s just no comparison here.

So the characters are a bit of a letdown, and sadly the plot was as well, it just felt like a perfectly ordinary murder with some clumsy contrivances added over the top just to make it seem more interesting than it was. I can come up with at least a dozen ways the murderer could have got rid of his victim more simply. Meanwhile the clues that Holmes uncovered through his miraculous intelligence were ridiculously telegraphed leaving their eventual reveal rather anti-climactic.

The biggest difference between Elementary and Sherlock however is in the pure quality of the production. Every frame of Sherlock is absolutely gorgeous, everything is framed creatively, every transition carefully plotted out, the lighting is incredible, and every episode is littered with little tricks and motifs that leave the whole thing seemingly effortlessly oozing style. Comparatively Elementary is just dull. There’s some nice usage of the New York location, and I liked the use of music (both popular songs and original violin pieces) but there’s no design to it, it looks like every other procedural in the world.

Of course this highlights one of the reasons that it’s not fair to compare the two. Sherlock is just 3 episodes every year or so, while Elementary will (they hope) be a 20+ episode season. The amount of time and attention that can be slathered on every second of Sherlock will be an order of magnitude greater than that of Elementary. That too is why comparison of the two is pointless. You don’t have to pick one show or the other, there won’t be any more episodes of Sherlock until well after the season of Elementary has finished. Given that my biggest complaint about Sherlock is that there isn’t enough of it, maybe Elementary can fill the gap. In that regards, the pilot was sufficient, but I can’t really claim that “good enough to tide you over if you’re desperate” is a ringing endorsement.

Elementary starts on Sky Living on Tuesday 23rd October.

Other Reviews
Guardian – Elementary does Sherlock right as series surprises as one of the best on TV. The set-up and the cast had me fearing the show would be wholly annoying, but this Sherlock revamp somehow works

CliqueClack – I wanted to like CBS’ “Elementary,” really I did. But, it’s pure and utter tripe. It has the framework of the Sherlock Holmes novels, but the acting and speedball pacing of a high-energy sugar addict.

Huffington Post – the two leads lack any kind of chemistry, platonic or otherwise, and the storytelling lacks the smarts and insight of one of TV’s best Sherlockian creations, “House.”

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