For the most part, you’ve seen CBS’ prime time rendition of Sherlock Holmes before. “I don’t guess,” Johnny Lee Miller’s Holmes delivers in the first ten minutes of “Elementary,” “I observe, and once I observe, I deduce.”
“Elementary” bills itself as an American adaptation of Holmes that still maintains the authenticity of the great British detective. Ironically, the latest Holmes does manage a unique cachet, but for none of the reasons the show intended.
The Americanization feels funny largely because “Elementary” doesn’t completely commit to it. A sore-thumb British transplant in Manhattan played by an actual British transplant in an otherwise American cast, Miller’s Holmes runs around New York griping about “rubbish barristers” and calling out “bollocks.”
You hear a passing reference to September 11th. Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn), of the New York police force, met Holmes while observing a counterterrorism unit in Scotland Yard after the attacks.
The final scene of the pilot has Holmes watching the all-American pastime of baseball with his post-rehab sponsor Joan Watson, played by a sincere Lucy Liu. In a double-whammy twist on tradition, Dr. Watson becomes a female Asian-American.
All of these twists feel like gimmicks sprinkled on top of the murder mystery plot, merely to differentiate this Sherlock from the rest. The true genius in “Elementary” comes from allowing Holmes a believable vulnerability as he bonds with Watson as early as the first episode.
The Holmes of “Elementary” doesn’t always speak through inches of sarcastic varnish like Robert Downey Jr., in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock movies, or Hugh Laurie, as the Sherlock character in “House.” Lucy Liu’s Watson pushes back more than Jude Law’s, but carries with her a damaged past reminiscent of Martin Freeman’s military-veteran trauma in the BBC’s “Sherlock.”
Holmes’ personality in “Elementary” includes a decidedly modern obsession: cell phones. The BBC’s “Sherlock” dabbles with cell phones; Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes sends blast text messages to subvert the police’s assumptions during news conferences. But never before has a Holmes relied on cell phones more completely than Miller’s in “Elementary.”
First thing when Holmes gets to a murder scene, he asks for a victim’s cell phone. In showing how many little clues we keep about ourselves on our modern devices, the showrunners of “Elementary” prove Holmes ripe for the modern age.
Robert Doherty, the creator and pilot writer for “Elementary,” uses Holmes’ methods to drive the central duo. Doherty writes a volleying fight between Watson and Holmes that sets them up for a well-earned catharsis. A quick study of Holmes’ observational methods, Watson ends the fight by noting that Holmes has no mirrors in his apartment. “That tells me you know a lost cause when you see one,” she says.
Later, when Holmes apologizes to Watson for goading her with deductions of her past, he halts on the apology for a beat that betrays a sincerity of feeling toward Watson. More than a mathematical exterior hiding drug-addled insanity, Miller demonstrates a complete personality for Holmes, who shines in dramatic moments.