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Friday, September 28, 2012

DAMN Good Television -- ELEMENTARY: "Pilot"


It's a pretty interesting time to be a Sherlock Holmes fan.

For what seemed forever, followers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective have contented themselves reading (and rereading) various Holmes tales and watching (and rewatching) old movies and British television shows starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing and others.  That changed in 2009 with Holmes' return to mainstream movies with Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law.  A year later, Holmes returned to television in the popular BBC series Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman setting Holmes in the present day.

As a result of Holmes' resurgence into pop culture, American television network CBS decided that having their own Sherlock Holmes TV show set in the modern day might be a good idea, so they picked up Elementary for the fall 2012 season.  Some accusations of ripping off Sherlock were made, pretty understandably, but it's not like CBS didn't have some history in this regard.  Back in 1987, they gave us a failed TV pilot called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which brought a cryogenically-frozen Holmes (Michael Pennington) into 1987 Boston and paired him with a female descendant of Dr. John Watson named Jane.  Seven years later, CBS aired a TV movie titled Sherlock Holmes Returns, which brought another Holmes (Anthony Higgins) out of suspended animation into 1994 San Francisco and paired him with a female partner named Amy Winslow.

So in order to distinguish Elementary from Sherlock, it's no surprise that series creator and showrunner Rob Doherty went with another female Dr. Watson, this one called Joan and even cast Asian actress Lucy Liu in the role.  Holmes, thankfully, is still British and played by English actor Jonny Lee Miller, but this version is tattooed, fresh out of rehab, and now resides in Brooklyn, New York.  As Holmes' new "sober companion," Watson is brought into the consulting detective's world just tagging along, but her medical background provides the necessary character interplay that fans expect.

Right from the start, Miller attempts to make his own mark on the role but ends up combining different traits from other actors in the process.  He brings the manic, eccentric energy of Downey's performance, adds a good dose of Cumberbatch's arrogance and wraps it all up in the damaged brilliance of Hugh Laurie's Holmesesque Dr. Gregory House.  Liu is much more subdued as Watson, trading in the character's traditional military veteran background for her own troubled past involving the death of one of her patients.  It feels like Elementary's Holmes/Watson dynamic has the potential for the kind of romance that makes fan fiction forums on the internet explode, only without the more socially awkward bromance depicted on Sherlock.

The other character of note is Aidan Quinn as Captain Tobias Gregson, based on the more obscure Inspector Gregson from Doyle's Holmes tales that typically gets ignored in favor of Inspector Lestrade.  Gregson serves the story role of giving Holmes access to crime scenes, but the character's past when Holmes consulted with Scotland Yard sets him up for male bonding scenes traditionally served by Watson.

This first story by Doherty involving a murdered woman found in a panic room was essentially a standard police procedural that CBS loves so much, only with the difference of Sherlock Holmes solving it.  It wasn't terrible, mind you, just not especially complex and certainly not up to the typical Doyle story.  However, because this is the pilot designed to sell the series to the suits at CBS, the focus is on introducing the characters, so I can give Doherty a pass here somewhat.  And at least he's adding little Sherlockian touches, such as giving Holmes an interest in beekeeping.

All in all, Elementary (so far) isn't on the quality level of Sherlock, but the BBC series only has three double-length episodes per season and Series Three will probably be its last.  Elementary's expected 22-episode season (or more, depending on the ratings) should help fill Sherlock's void, so let's hope the mysteries become more substantive and challenging to keep viewers' interest.  The game, once again, is afoot...so let's see how this new one plays out.

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