New Holmes. New Watson. New York.
The BBC’s Sherlock became an international sensation after taking classic Sherlock Holmes characters and tales and cleverly placing them in the modern day. In the U.S., producers smelled a profit, so now we have our own version, Elementary, in which Holmes is not just in the modern day, but in New York City and with a female Watson. Does Elementary: The First Season crack the case, or is it best left in the unsolved files?
Joan Watson (Lucy Liu, Kill Bill: Volume 1), a former surgeon, has been hired to be a caretaker for consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller, Dark Shadows). Holmes is a recovering addict, and Watson’s job is to watch him 24/7 so he doesn’t start using again, so she follows him to various crime scenes and onto his many cases, awed by his amazing deductive skills and flustered by his abrasive personality.
The character might be named “Sherlock Holmes,” but it’s so far removed from anything Holmesian that we might as well call him “Eccentric TV Detective #7,384.” Yes, the original stories did reference Holmes’s drug use, but these mentions were fleeting. In Elementary, the substance abuse angle is front and center. It’s the reason Holmes and Watson are working together, and every episode gives it a mention to keep new viewers up to speed. Holmes’s famous deductive skills are less about finding the small details no one else would notice, and more about reading people -their reactions, their facial expressions, and so on. This will remind viewers more of House, M.D. and maybe The Mentalist than Sherlock Holmes. We get an ongoing subplot about Holmes’s father and a completely different background and motivation for Watson. Old standbys such as Moriarty and Irene Adler are mentioned as episodes progress, but their introductions and backstories are completely different from…
Ok, stop. STOP! No more playing the comparison game. We’ve got to forget all the decades of history surrounding the Sherlock Holmes character, and instead view this show on its merits, nothing more. From that perspective, Elementary is nothing you haven’t seen a couple hundred other detective shows. Episodes follow the stock formula of crime scene to interviewing suspects to surprise plot twist to second surprise plot twist to the big reveal at the end. It’s all so ordinary. I find myself not invested in the murders at all. They seem entirely secondary to Holmes and his issues. In addition to the lingering temptation to return to substance abuse—which comes and goes depending on each episode’s storyline—Holmes also keeps bees (why?) and seems interested in starting an aviary in his apartment (again, why?). The thought seems to be, “He’s an eccentric detective, so we better give him lots of eccentricities.”
Watson’s arc throughout this season is more interesting. She clearly wants to go back to being a surgeon, and hopes this gig as Sherlock’s caretaker won’t be permanent. Through her experiences with him, though, she shows an interest in crime solving, and we see the first seeds of her wanting to become an investigator. Lucy Liu plays the character as cold and steely, which is how she plays a lot of characters, but she gets some chances to open up emotionally, usually in scenes where she’s separated from Holmes, interestingly. There doesn’t seem to be a “will they/won’t they” set up between her and Holmes, but this is only the first season, so maybe they’re hoping to build to that over time.
At around the halfway point in the season, we start learning more and more about Holmes, such as why he turned to drugs and why he left London for the United States. The revelations aren’t terribly surprising, but they do show that the creators have a bigger picture in mind. This is best seen in the multi-episode hunt for Moriarty in the last few episodes, building up to the big season finale. Still, the head games Holmes and Moriarty play with one another lack intensity, often depicted as little more than a mysterious voice on the other end of a phone call, taunting our hero.
All twenty-four episodes of Elementary: The First Season are included on this six-disc set. Picture and audio and sharp and vivid, as expected for a recently made big-budget network show. For extras, we get a behind-the-scenes featurette, a photo gallery, and cast bios.
The real Sherlock Holmes would’ve been displeased with such mediocrity.