CBS, home of the primetime police procedural, has created something of an anomaly in its fall lineup with Elementary. In many ways, the series follows the formula made successful by detective dramas like The Mentalist, CSI, and Criminal Minds that feature crime-solvers who are highly skilled at what they do, but sometimes barely functional as actual human beings. These characters are often misanthropic and intense, so deeply involved in the world of gory homicides and whodunits that they find themselves stumbling as parents, lovers, and friends. This, the viewer is encouraged to believe, is the very thing that makes them so interesting. But what’s sold as complexity in these idiosyncratic geniuses is sometimes really just a series of hollow quirks that mimic rather than build on character, entering realms of such exaggeration that the people in the stories become wholly secondary to the plots.
In Elementary, the idiosyncratic genius in question is actually the progenitor of so many similar characters we see today: Sherlock Holmes. In recent years, the pop-cultural landscape has been brimming with reiterations and reinterpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, most significantly in Guy Ritchie’s steam-punky movie adaptations and Steven Moffat’s fiercely loved BBC series Sherlock. In light of this, the Elementary pilot is faced with the somewhat daunting task of capturing the spirit of the original stories while still setting itself apart from the crowd. Showrunner Rob Doherty attempts to achieve this complicated alchemy through a collection of what-ifs. What if Sherlock Holmes lived in the present day? What if Sherlock Holmes solved crime not in London, but in New York City? And what if his trusty sidekick Watson was actually a woman?
These are hypotheticals that may strike a certain degree of terror into the hearts of Holmes purists. The setup sounds as potentially gimmicky as an American version of Doctor Who. But in the first minutes of Elementary, as a shirtless and tattooed Jonny Lee Miller gives a heartfelt declaration of love to Joan Watson, only to reveal he’s merely memorized the lines from a sappy soap opera, the series seems determined to turn any possible expectations or assumptions about the new duo on their head. Yes, Watson is played by a woman (Lucy Liu), but the dynamic between her and Holmes isn’t an overtly romantic one; each frame isn’t fraught with the forced crackle of sexual tension. And while the modern-day setting is reminiscent of Sherlock, that’s essentially where the similarities between the two versions end.
Here, Miller’s Holmes is a recovering drug addict freshly out of rehab. Former surgeon Watson, his sober companion, is assigned to live with him in a dusty Manhattan brownstone for six weeks as he transitions into a normal routine as consultant detective to the NYPD. There’s a vulnerability to Holmes that hasn’t been seen in the character before, a sensibility that teeters between restlessness and mania. Unlike past incarnations, this Holmes is socially awkward, but not socially obnoxious. He’s a genius, but not exceedingly pleased with that fact. He solves crimes not solely as a means to exercise his own brilliance, but because, as he tells the Watson early on, “I love what I do.” And yet, in spite of his good intentions, there are moments when he behaves like a petulant child, when he’s stubborn or at times just downright cruel.
Liu serves as a much-needed balance to Miller’s frenetic Holmes. Perhaps most refreshing about her casting isn’t only that the character is being played by a woman, an Asian-American one at that, but that she’s written without the sense of awe and lack of initiative that writers tend to give to audience surrogates. Holmes, with his ability to “observe and then deduce,” may think he has her pegged, but it’s soon clear that Watson has an intuition just as uncanny as his, picking up on cues that even he’s oblivious to. As Holmes says later in the episode, “I could have come to the truth some other way…But you got me there faster.”
The show’s first mystery, an original plot, isn’t as meaty as classic Doyle stories like A Study in Scarlet, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. A successful psychologist’s wife is murdered in a break-in, but Holmes is convinced that there’s more to the apparently straightforward crime. The solution comes with only a few surprising twists and turns, some of them a tad convenient, but what the plot may lack in the way of intricacies it more than makes up for through the surprisingly enjoyable dynamic between Holmes and Watson. In that way, the show differs from the typical procedural: The characters, more than the plot, are what drive the engine of the series. Elementary is a change of pace for CBS: It’s sleek, smart, but doesn’t take itself too seriously, managing to present what could have been a mere caricature wrapped up in the mythos of the Holmes character as a singular personality in his own right. There’s a rhythm to Liu and Miller’s rapport that usually takes actors several episodes to build, but it shines through from the first moments the pair are on screen together. It’s a dynamic that, if given the chance, promises the potential for the show to go well beyond what-ifs.