It's Elementary, my dear Watson - but why?
I really enjoyed the first episode of Elementary, which started on Prime TV last night - Jonny Lee Miller seems a good choice to play Sherlock Holmes in this modernised (and heavily changed) version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's seminal detective, and the case of the week made for an entertaining introduction to the world in which this show is set. But I can't help but wonder: why Holmes?
(Warning: spoilers from last night's Elementary pilot follow.)
It seems to me that making Holmes the central character of a pretty standard American* crime procedural is just a little on the nose. The brilliant (albeit socially awkward) investigator has informed and inspired so many successful characters in recent years, and the BBC recently succeeded in modernising Holmes for a youthful audience. Wouldn't it make sense to just make the show with a more generic character based on Holmes and avoid the inevitable comparisons?
For the record, the Holmes of Elementary has little in common with the Holmes of Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes is a recluse, incapable of normal social interaction and almost inhuman in his capacity for things such as compassion and honesty. Miller's Holmes is just a quirky guy, different from everyone around him but able to fit in to the world. He apologises for his actions and he considers how his words or actions might affect others. Miller's Holmes is, for all intents, a normal human being recovering from a drug habit.
Sure, the two are similar inasmuch as both have great powers of deduction (even if Miller's Holmes admits to using Google occasionally), but the popularity of Holmes-ian characters like Dr Gregory House, Gil Grissom and Adrian Monk prove that viewer fascination with that form of investigation isn't reliant on the name.
As a character, Holmes comes with a series of known stories and characteristic foibles. The Holmes of Elementary is, at his core, a different character from that of Holmes canon, and he appears to have a different back story, even if nods to the traditional Holmes are part of the plan further down the road**. This show just seems to ask "what if Sherlock Holmes was the main character on CSI?" I'm not sure anyone was asking, though.
Then there is the casting of Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson. I like this decision, I like the idea of bucking tradition in the name of gender balance and modernisation. But the fact that Liu's Watson remains heavily subservient to Holmes - she spends most of the first episode chasing him around and looking at him admiringly - makes me suspect that the decision was made only because some executive said "what if we made Watson a girl" after looking around to see Castle & Beckett, Bones & Booth, and Jane & Lisbon dominating the ratings, and not because of some larger social statement.
Look, I liked the show. It was fun. I'll probably tune in again next week. But I won't be tuning in because it's a version of Sherlock Holmes and I'm interested in that particular character. Elementary would be just as good, and I would have enjoyed it just as much, if Miller was playing a slightly awkward NYPD consultant (and recovering drug addict) named Jordan Chase, and Liu was his friend (and sober companion) Mia Mason.
It's no more than a solidly entertaining police procedural that only slightly adjusts (maybe improves on) the established formula of its peers, and that might be enough to make me switch off something like The Mentalist or Criminal Minds. But that would be the only reason to change channels, because this is not a great version of Sherlock Holmes.
What did you think of Elementary's premiere? Does it bother you that this Sherlock is so different from the Sherlock we know and love? Do you think it'll become less of a problem as the series moves along?
(*) I say "American" because, despite the British star, this is exactly the kind of show that a USA-based network would air, and that British channels would shoot down in a matter of seconds.
(**) Discussions around copyright infringement of, and similarities to, the BBC production were in the news before the American launch of Elementary, which indicates that some of the most famous Holmes tales - The Reichenbach Fall, The Hound of the Baskervilles - will be sorely missing.