Elementary: TV Review

Jonny Lee Miller is a superb Sherlock in what should be yet another hit crime procedural for CBS.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu bring Sherlock  Holmes and Watson to New York City in CBS’ modern-day take.

There was every reason to believe that a disaster was in the making when CBS decided to do an American version of Sherlock Holmes, especially after the modern-day British Sherlock had been so acclaimed. And yet -- super-simple deduction -- there also was every reason to believe that the franchise would be perfect on CBS, home to television’s best procedurals.

A worrisome idea became a wonderful idea after CBS sent out the pilot of Elementary, one of the most promising dramas this fall season. It’s different enough from Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, despite also using a modern-day setting. The obvious difference is making Watson female — in this case, casting Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. But even more important, CBS let Brit actor Jonny Lee Miller keep his accent and created a convincing backstory for him that keeps him damaged but no less brilliant at what he does.

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Miller is superb and compelling as Sherlock, sent to New York City by his father after falling out of favor as a consultant for Scotland Yard and also needing a stint in rehab.

When he arrives in New York, Holmes is disappointed to see that his father has hired a “sober companion” to watch over him. That would be Watson, who suffers the torment of Holmes’ fast and stinging barbs about being a baby-sitter, etc. Although Watson has the resolve to do the “sober companion” job, she can’t control Holmes when he’s drawn in to work for the NYPD, at the authorization of Capt. Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn), who had worked with Holmes on a case with Scotland Yard and believes highly in his skills as an investigator (if not as a well-balanced man with manners, which neurotic and cocky Holmes could never be).

Liu’s calm mannerisms play well with Holmes’ more outlandish stunts, and instead of screaming and going into hysterics about his behavior, she demands access to his process and respect in the relationship. That’s a lot more difficult to pull off because the chemistry between the two is hard-earned (and should be), and there’s no inkling of any of it being sexual. In fact, the producers have gone out of their way to thankfully confirm Elementary won’t be a will-they-or-won’t-they situation. They won’t, period, no matter how much eventual tension there might be.

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That’s an excellent decision because it makes Elementary focus not just on what CBS does best -- hourlong procedurals in which a mystery is solved and the execution of it is done with minimum cliche -- but also on the character-driven aspect of the show. Now that’s what’s going to make Elementary eventually become an excellent drama.

Holmes is the perfect character. He’s a name brand but he can be played as damaged, as opposed to a perfect hero. And Miller’s force as an actor wrings everything out of the script. He’s someone you want to watch in a role that’s tailor-made to the whodunit procedural.

Liu looks to be giving Miller plenty of room in the pilot but also makes clear that her character is not going to be lost. And that’s essential because the interplay between Holmes and Watson really is what drives the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Toss in Quinn, and you’ve got a trifecta of accomplished actors giving a real boost to a respected franchise. Hopefully future episodes will get into Holmes’ darker flaws, particularly his addiction.

Along the way, Elementary should prove rather conclusively that it’s a solid cousin to Sherlock and will give fans of the character more chances to see him solve crimes. In the end, that’s all anyone wants.

Email: Tim.Goodman@thr.com