Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller in ‘Elementary’/Image © 2012 CBS
Seconds before the series premiere of “Elementary,” CBS ran a bumper for the just-ended “Person of Interest,” which featured the line “He built a machine to stop crime before it happens.” Which, given the general skepticism about the show about to debut, seemed to be setting up an unfortunate punchline.
When “Elementary” — a modern take on Sherlock Holmes based in New York — was announced in January, the knives came out for what seemed an unoriginal American remake of the BBC’s “Sherlock,” an acclaimed series set in contemporary London starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Steven Moffat, the creator of “Sherlock,” revealed that CBS had developed the show after he turned down an offer to bring his version to the network. Then, after his friend and recent co-star Jonny Lee Miller was cast in the lead role, Cumberbatch engaged in and then backtracked on a bit of candid Sherlock cock-blocking (Sherlock-blocking? cock-Sherlocking?), a much-publicized story that drew even more attention to the situation.
With this history, it’s almost impossible not to constantly compare it to its still-breathing predecessor, but, evaluated on its own merits, “Elementary” is no crime, but a promising work-in-progress. While last night’s “case of the week” felt long and formulaic (whether future episodes will adapt Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or create new ones is unknown), procedurals are generally less about plot and more about demonstrating the deductive process. In Sherlock Holmes, they have the ultimate personification of detection and reasoning, but, unlike “Sherlock” or even Guy Ritchie’s movies, the show doesn’t always illustrate or adequately explain the detective’s thinking, so that it’s just as mysterious to us as it sometimes is to Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), which makes the case seem even less important to the episode.
Luckily, the solid character work and chemistry of Miller and Liu, two actors long deserving of better and more regular roles, keep things moving. Miller’s Holmes, a recovering drug addict who escapes from rehab, is sharp and arrogant, but vulnerable. (Hilariously, he’s a Brooklyn trust fund hipster: ironic t-shirts, works as a consultant, keeps bees — a nice reference to the canon — on the roof of his father’s brownstone. Future mystery: Will he start a band called The Seven Percent Solution?) Liu’s surgeon-turned-sober companion is a formidable (and enjoyable) match, far more of an equal partner than previous interpretations. You almost want her to switch parts with Miller and have a crack at playing Sherlock. (Strangely, their Holmes and Watson feel like natural evolutions of their most famous roles: Miller’s calculating junkie in “Trainspotting” and Liu’s tough lawyer in “Ally McBeal” and skilled agent in “Charlie’s Angels.”) And though their relationship feels rushed in the pilot, the show, to its credit, doesn’t burden the characters’ interactions with questions of romantic tension; it’s simply partnership.
So, for the sake of your valuable DVR space, is “Elementary” worth watching? As a crime drama, it doesn’t feel much different from the many procedurals in CBS’s programming block, but Miller and Liu’s dynamic has potential and we’ll check out at least the next few episodes to see where the show takes it. Yes, it’s no “Sherlock,” but the show knows it and is okay with that; as Watson says with tart meta-commentary in the final scene, “Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.” Fair enough.