Pop Rocks: CBS Misses Its Chance With Elementary

That scarf looks familiar.
That scarf looks familiar.

When news came out that CBS was planning a show based on Sherlock Holmes, in the wake of the BBC's Sherlock specifically, it wasn't much of a surprise. The BBC had a huge hit on their hands, and we Americans are nothing if not consistent in ripping off our British friends.

Television-wise, that is.

But CBS couldn't avoid messing with the formula that made Sherlock - and the original A. Conan Doyle stories themselves - work. Which is why Elementary might run for several seasons, but will be otherwise unmemorable, and not really worthy of consideration as a "Sherlock Holmes" story.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first, because "Americanization" or not, some things are hard to overlook. For starters, Holmes would probably never get tattoos, unless they had some shamanistic significance. Certainly that approach doesn't apply to the regrettable dragon thing on Jonny Lee Miller's left shoulder. I also won't get into how Holmes' apartment on the show is - like his scarf - seemingly a direct lift from the BBC version.

More troublesome to me is the immediate assertion of Holmes' daddy issues. In Doyles' works as well as the BBC series, no mention is made of the consulting detective's parents, yet front and center in the pilot is the conflict between junior and senior Holmes (his father is the one who hires the former Doctor Watson to keep tabs on his rehabbed son).

What, brother Mycroft wasn't enough? Of course he wasn't. This is America, where neglectful parents and childhood trauma always explain our adult behavior. There's no way this show gets made in the United States without the Freudian angle. It was also likely the driver behind making Watson a female with a haunted past instead of an ex military doctor.

No, the real problems with Elementary are twofold. First, the crimes he's solving aren't particularly bizarre. The big revelation that the victim in the pilot let her killer in the apartment comes when he sees the amount of shards on the kitchen floor and deduces there were two glasses. Very well, but this is hardly The Speckled Band territory. Same for spotting the blood on the footprint (with his iPhone) or noticing the finger marks on the victim's neck don't match the original suspect's, something he freely admits the medical examiner would have discovered at autopsy.

Watching the detectives.
Watching the detectives.

And that's par for the course: "A parking ticket fell out of your purse." That's how he knows Watson has a car. This isn't deductive reasoning, because it could belong to Watson's husband, or maybe she picked it up off the street. It's likely that the ticket means Watson owns a car. This gets a little better as the show goes on, but his great leaps of mental prowess are generally reserved for personal observations about Watson and not the crime at hand.

And why's that? Because of the second problem, which is CBS' overwhelming desire to procedural-ize everything. Long years of rating success with the likes of C.S.I., The Mentalist and NCIS have rendered the network incapable of taking risk (never a strong suit of the major broadcast networks to begin with). There's nothing about CBS' version of Holmes that makes him distinctly Sherlock-ian (not even the scarf, a patently obvious swipe from Benedict Cumberbatch's version). The crimes we've seen thus far aren't exceptionally diabolical, and certainly nothing that couldn't be solved by Gil Grissom or some other CBS detective of above average intelligence.

Does this mean Elementary is doomed to fail? Hardly. There's a reason CBS keeps making this kind of show, and people miss House, MD, that other show about an irascible drug addict who solved mysteries. I actually don't think Miller is that bad (and I say this as a guy who really hated Eli Stone), and while I thought his chemistry with Lucy Liu is one of the few things that works on the show, the already present sexual tension had my eyes rolling audibly before the credits rolled on the first episode. That aside, Elementary is simply another by-the-numbers murder of the week drama that happens to have a character in it named after the most famous detective in history. It's disappointing the network didn't stick its neck out a little and try to make something worthy of its main character's pedigree.

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