It’s a great time to be a Sherlock Holmes fan. First we got Benedict Cumberbatch in the dizzying modernizations of classic Holmes tales airing on PBS. Now comes Elementary, starring another Brit, Jonny Lee Miller, in a clever, if occasionally absurd, version of the Holmes ethos.
The primary pleasure of Elementary on Thursday night was the performance of Miller as a Holmes for our present day: a brilliant, jumpy, self-described “recovering addict” fresh out of rehab. (I didn’t catch his particular addiction, did you? Cocaine, in the Holmsian tradition, perhaps?) Part of his recovery program is to keep himself distracted with work, which for Holmes means, of course, solving crimes. He does this by the methods laid out in the venerable stories written in the late-19th/early 20th centuries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Holmes uses acute observation, an omnivore’s knowledge, and leaps of logic to arrive at conclusions while others around him stand scratching their chins.
The canny commercial aspect of Elementary is that Holmes is given the CBS treatment, by which I mean placed in an hour-long, case-of-the-week procedural with just enough tantalizing suggestions about the history of Holmes.2012 to get viewers hooked without miring them in the gummy mythologies that make other networks’ attempts to lure a mass cult audience so risky.
Indeed, Elementary is the closest thing to a new fall season sure-thing hit. Programmed after the increasingly big-ratings Person of Interest, and opposite ABC’s goofy Scandal and NBC’s wan Rock Center, Elementary is positioned for long-term viability. Miller, who made his initial impact in films such as Trainspotting, and acquired a cult following for his American role as the title character of the short-lived Eli Stone, gives off an infectious enthusiasm in this new role. Indeed, Miller and show creator Rob Doherty bring something new to the Holmes mythos: A sense of joy that shows in the quick grins and avid glances this Holmes gives to anyone he can draw into his life.
The series recycles co-stars well. Lucy Liu, fresh off a superb guest arc on Southland, makes for a fine Watson – a “sober companion” hired by Holmes’ father who inevitably hops aboard the Great Detective’s chugging trains of thought. (The network has already said we should not expect this Holmes and Watson to develop a romantic relationship, and that’s smart. Liu’s Watson deserves to thrive as her own, independent neurotic, one with a murkily troubled past as a former physician.) And Aiden Quinn moved smoothly from his New York cop role on last season’s underrated-in-every-way Prime Suspect to his NYPD captain role here.
What’s working against the series? Its plotting. Elementary doesn’t go in for cleverly re-worked versions of Conan Doyle stories (yet, at least), but that doesn’t make the BBC/PBS series automatically superior to the CBS show. I’d say Miller has a good chance of working up a performance that’s equal to Cumberbatch’s laser-intense interpretation. But the writing staff has a formidable challenge: Coming up with puzzles and cases that are worthy of Holmes, and not just variations on CSI or (to cite a series heavily indebted to Sherlock Holmes) House mysteries. Still, I saw the bag o’ rice crime solution coming a mile away, and as I’ve written often, I’m rarely very good at solving mysteries.
Right now, this is Miller’s show, his showcase. “I observe, and once I have observe, I deduct,” his Holmes announced on Thursday night. He has already found a way of making such florid arrogance alluring.