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New interpretation of the Sherlock trope makes 'Elementary' a worthy venture

CBS

By Radhika Menon, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 3, 2012

The entertainment industry works in trends — year after year, networks and studios dictate what type of movies and shows we’ll get this year and then overproduce. While cosmic worlds and action heroes are staples, eccentric characters arrive onscreen every so often. The past few years have showcased Sherlock Holmes, with two blockbuster movies featuring Robert Downey Jr. as well as the BBC series “Sherlock.” So we can all ask ourselves, “Do we really need another Sherlock-based program?” Simply put, no. But CBS’s “Elementary” manages to make the simplistic, well-known plot work in the overcrowded environment.

In this modern take on the story, Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller, “Trainspotting”), a recovering drug addict gifted with powerful skills of observation, works day-to-day alongside the New York police to solve murder mysteries. After a stint in rehab, Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu, “Kill Bill Vol. 1”) is assigned to him as a “companion” — basically a glorified babysitter. Watson shows uncertainty in stepping in as Holmes’s sidekick at work, but begins to show promise after learning some tricks of the trade.

“Elementary” ’s procedural format allows us various opportunities to see Holmes at work. But it would arguably be more interesting to see him chip away at a highly complex, season-long arc. The pilot’s case itself is a complex murder mystery that allows Holmes to showcase his agility and attention to detail. The minor points of the case are slightly hazy due to the fast pace of the pilot. But even though we don’t follow every facet perfectly, Holmes threads the needle for us.

The show ventures into uncommon storytelling by clearly illustrating the culprit’s motives and execution of the crime; at the outset of the hour, it’s obvious who committed the murder. But it’s how “Elementary” crafts the crime and then connects the dots for us as Sherlock pieces it together that really makes it work.

That the show takes two established literary characters and adds new depth to them is an accomplishment. There is a background story worth exploring for both characters that challenges each of them as they begin to get to know each other. However, though Miller’s Holmes is sharp and witty, there lacks the bite to his approach that Downey Jr. perfected in the films. Liu brings a different look — both inward and outward — to her portrayal of Watson that makes it intriguing, though her performance is far from extraordinary.

A female Watson makes “Elementary” ’s interpretation all the more interesting. Watson is also shown to be a reliable and intelligent partner — a strong female character instead of falling into old stereotypical television tropes. For now, Holmes and Watson’s relationship is strictly platonic, but the premise of an attractive man and woman living together without blurring the lines is tough to pull off. Hopefully the showrunners keep their bond strictly professional without delving too much into personal relations.

“Elementary” manages to take a somewhat overdone concept and make it work for primetime television. There’s nothing revolutionary about the approach to a classic story, but it does intrigue us enough to slip away into this world for an hour each week. It’s fast-paced and entertaining without trying to do too much on a week-to-week basis. Though you can surely get your Sherlock fix in a variety of other places, CBS’s “Elementary” could prove to be worth the time.


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