Want a First Look at the Elementary Pilot? Read on for an Early Review

CBS held a preview screening and cast Q&A with the stars and writers of their new modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation Elementary at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. Several thousand of us all got to watch the pilot together and then listen to folks behind the scenes talk about their new project.

Given that I have previously expressed more than a few varied and detailed issues with the fact that this CBS Holmes adaptation exists at all, you may be surprised by what I’m about to say here. Which is, basically, that Elementary – or the pilot at least – is not nearly as bad as I expected. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable.

The pilot isn’t perfect, and it seems apparent that this show will never hit anywhere close to the same level of quality as the BBC Sherlock that’s currently all the rage on both sides of the pond. That said, it’s very watchable, thanks in large part to the great cast. It’s enjoyable enough even that I’m going to give it a couple of episodes to see how it goes instead of just immediately writing it off. (Trust me, I’m as surprised as any of you about this fact.)

It’s taken me a tremendously long time to get my Elementary thoughts on paper, so to speak, because despite the fact that there are several things about this adaptation that are either dull or pedestrian, there are several that are quite intriguing. It’s been over two weeks and I still can’t entirely decide how to feel. Though, given the fact that I walked into Ballroom 20 in San Diego expecting an epic trainwreck, that is actually a pretty big move of the needle in a positive direction for the CBS procedural.

I’ll bullet the big points for you.

The best part of Elementary is Jonny Lee Miller. I’ve enjoyed Miller’s work since Hackers, thought Eli Stone was an underrated gem and all-caps LOVED his performance opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s recent production of Frankenstein. He doesn’t disappoint here. While I cannot say his Holmes is the equal of Cumberbatch’s interpretation, Miller is successful in both making a very different sort of Sherlock and making his version of the character interesting in an almost entirely different way. Miller’s Holmes reads more as ADD than sociopathic, doesn’t seem to sit still for more than three minutes at a stretch and comes complete with a bunch of tattoos and a sort of rock ‘n roll attitude. He also doesn’t seem to like interacting with people very often, yet is very concerned (anxious, even?) about his father’s opinion, capable of kindness to total strangers  and at one point even apologizes to Watson for something directly (as in actually saying the words I’m sorry, not making drugged coffee and saying things like “you’re a conductor of light”). He even at one moment, memorably, admits to being wrong – basically,  I can picture BBC’s Sherlock shouting at his television as we speak. 

It’s easy to warm to Miller’s Holmes – I imagine this Sherlock will be a good fit for viewers who find Cumberbatch’s version too heartless or mean. Yes, Miller’s interpretation is also an insufferable genius who is often a jerk to others, but Elementary’s Holmes doesn’t really creep into really uncomfortable territory very often, and certainly not to the same degree that Sherlock’s lead does. It’s early days, though. We’ll have to see how the character develops in this regard, but, I can’t really imagine that’s not a conscious choice on CBS’s part.

Interestingly enough, Miller’s performance also manages to read “addict” almost all the time, which is very, very intriguing and a rather bold interpretation in a lot of ways. His body language is very abrupt and twitchy, and his desire for a constant stream of stimulation and/or information transposes well onto their whole addict motif. It should be interesting to see how they decide to explore this aspect of the Holmes character, as to my knowledge the Holmes-as-addict thing has only ever really been used as a passing descriptor of the character, not a real bedrock of who he is.

The Mystery is Okay. No, there aren’t Steven Moffat-level plot twists happening in the Elementary pilot, but the episode hangs together well and is basically a step above a basic TV procedural. It’s engaging enough that my attention didn’t wander too much and no giant plot holes leaped out at me, and that’s generally as much as you can expect from a major network pilot these days.

There Won’t Be Canon Mysteries, Though. During the post-screening Q&A, executive producer Robert Doherty straight out said that Elementary won’t be adapting much, if anything at all, from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle canon for their plots. They’re planning on creating their own stories and playing up Homles in a new city with new people and I guess on paper that sounds lovely, but it’s kind of anxiety inducing for me. Granted, it’s probably for the best, as I don’t know that I wouldn’t lose my voice shouting down all the ways their inevitable adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles didn’t compare to Mark Gatiss’ version anyway. But still, it’s enough to make one a bit apprehensive about the likely quality of story to come (I’ve seen CSI before, CBS). We’ll have to wait and see. Doherty also implied that some version of Moriarty is likely to appear within the Elementary-verse, but that we’re unlikely to see other well-known Conan Doyle characters like Holmes’ brother Mycroft. Instead, it sounds as though Holmes is set to have a lot of daddy-issues related to his overly controlling father. Which I guess sounds sort of interesting in a sense, but I adore Mycroft, so his omission would make me very sad – and what of Mrs. Hudson?   

Lucy Liu’s Watson is a Problem. Notice that doesn’t say Lucy Liu is the problem, because she isn’t. Liu is actually thoroughly charming in this and plays an appealing character. However, that character seems to me to bear little to no resemblance to “John Watson,” female or otherwise. Joan Watson is no longer a soldier, apparently is a less than entirely competent doctor (I really hope they edit the bit out where she shies away from a dead body), and meets Holmes because she’s assigned to his case as a “sober companion” to make sure that he stays clean. The much ballyhooed gender swap isn’t much of an issue, as yet, because this character isn’t incredibly defined, except in all the ways that she is not very much like the John of the stories. Her being a woman doesn’t really add anything exceptionally interesting to her character as yet, but that may just be because this character seems firmly stuck in the “sidekick” role. In fact, the only really distinctive thing I remember about Joan is that she is a Mets fan.

Hopefully, this will be rectified in later episodes but Joan in the pilot isn’t given much to do and it’s clearly the Sherlock Holmes show. One of my favorite things about the BBC Sherlock is that John is presented as such an equal in his own way, and that it’s so obvious Holmes and Watson work because they balance one another out. Liu herself had some really fantastic things to say gender and television during the cast panel – she seems quite fired up to really make a character that’s pushing boundaries. I hope she gets a chance to do so; I’m quite curious to see what that would look like. As it stands now, Joan sits very firmly in the shadow of Sherlock, and that’s a bit unfortunate.

Also, as an observation from the shallow end, I have to wonder what Liu did to anger the wardrobe department, because goodness, but they dress her poorly here.

The Elephant in the Room. One of the main worries that has been put forward about this adaptation is whether Elementary will inevitably devolve into a will-they-won’t-they mess of relationship drama and unresolved sexual tension, as most procedurals of this type tend to do. To be perfectly honest, it’s certainly a worry that I share. And while there’s no way to tell where the series will go by the end of the season, I can tell you to at least breathe easy about the first episode. There’s no hint that there’s any of that sort of thing going on and, to be quite honest, Miller and Liu are surprisingly chemistry free. Their friendship vibe isn’t as instantaneous as that between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman – nor, frankly, as strong – but it’s decent enough, and it’s something of a relief that at least there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of romance or tension or longing looks happening at all. Let’s hope it stays that way.

So, yes. Surprising as it may seem, Elementary will at least get a couple week’s worth of time on my DVR. It’s much better than I expected, and Miller’s performance alone is worth a second look.