Elementary debuts at 10 p.m. Eastern tonight on CBS.
Myles McNutt: When critics sit down to write pre-air reviews, it’s often hard to avoid talking about specific plot details or character reveals that are best experienced fresh. However, when I finished watching Elementary, I realized there’s honestly nothing to be spoiled. Aside from some smaller details about Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes or Lucy Liu’s Jane Watson revealed throughout the hour, the Elementary pilot is honestly as simple as “A murder takes place, a murder is investigated, and a murder is solved.” There’s no serialized arc or sudden twists or elaborate action sequences the show could never afford beyond its pilot. Instead, this is the story of two people with complicated pasts coming together and solving a mystery.
The simplicity is likely going to work against the show in some circles, circles that continue to value serial programming and look down on the crime procedural, but Elementary makes a good case for the charms of old-fashioned storytelling. While recent CBS procedurals like The Mentalist or Person Of Interest kowtow to the prevailing winds of serialization with mysteries and mythologies, Elementary is more concerned with histories. It depicts two characters at a particular point in their lives, and provides—as opposed to obscures—details from their pasts to help viewers understand how they came to be here, and where they might be headed in the future. By allowing the characters themselves to discover these histories, with Holmes and Watson’s nascent partnership giving them plenty of opportunities to dig into one another’s pasts, the pilot foregrounds the fact that this isn’t a show about two pre-established literary characters bouncing words off one another. Rather, it’s a show about a relationship between two characters similar to but distinct from Arthur Conan Doyle’s, a relationship that serves as a solid foundation for a 21st-century crime procedural.
One imagines that “solid” is a word that will recur within reviews of the series, as Elementary doesn’t aspire to do much more. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu give good performances, but not great ones, and have a compelling—non-romantic—chemistry as opposed to a groundbreaking one. The case itself is ultimately nondescript, but its twists and turns are well-suited to Holmes’ deduction, and it offers some valuable resistance to Holmes’ “genius.” The supporting players are generally well-cast, but they’re so marginalized here that any kind of larger group dynamic—like that on shows like The Mentalist, for example—remains absent.
Accordingly, Elementary can seem somewhat unassuming, as evidenced by CBS largely promoting it based on the pre-existing appeal of Sherlock Holmes as a character and the novelty of a female Watson. However, watching the pilot, I was struck by how the show seemed less concerned with those bells and whistles, and more concerned with building a pair of characters that people will want to tune into see solve mysteries every week for the foreseeable future.
I’m interested in how this approach appealed to you, Todd: Is it the kind of show you’d actively seek out week-to-week, or do the limited aspirations of the series make it more likely that you’d drift in and out as your schedule accommodated?
Todd VanDerWerff: I’ll be honest, here: I don’t watch a lot of procedurals regularly. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a well-done show of this type—The Mentalist is tons of fun when it’s in its groove, and the original C.S.I.was one of my favorite shows on TV for a few seasons—but I tend to be drawn into larger storylines and plots, and it’s often hard to do these sorts of things under the auspices of a Criminal Minds or NCIS. Plus, the genre has an unfortunate relationship with women, more often than not. Some of these shows have solid female regular characters, but they also resort to the time-worn tropes of putting women in danger to boost the audience’s feelings of suspense. What’s more, that danger often has a sexual tinge that these shows’ male victims never are subjected to. It all leaves a creepy, off-putting tone that CBS was memorably blasé about several years ago when asked about it by critics.
That said, the network has gotten better. It realized a few years ago—probably when the Criminal Minds spinoff sputtered and failed—that it couldn’t just slap the name of one of its franchises on a show and hope to have success anymore. The crime procedural may be the dominant form of storytelling at CBS, but the network has quietly been taking chances within that form, as Vegas showed on Tuesday and as Elementary shows now. I’d argue that, in its own way, this is as radical a break from form for CBS as that earlier show was, even if the network’s house style essentially forces the whole thing into a neat little box by the end.
Let me try and spell this out in a way that might make sense. The CBS formula has, for years, been about detectives chasing around bits and pieces of physical evidence that they use as clues to track down suspects. They talk to one person, then another, then another, and it’s usually the first person who did it. (If it’s not the first person, it’s usually the guest star with the biggest name.) There’s a comfort to this formula, and a predictability to it, but it’s also grown increasingly hidebound.
I don’t want to say Elementary is unpredictable. If you’ve seen a procedural before, you’ll know immediately who the culprit is in tonight’s episode. But the method by which the culprit committed the murder is interesting, and the way in which Holmes solves the case feels new within this format. Elementary is much more interested in character interaction—particularly between the two leads—than the average CBS procedural. The crime-solving method is much more about Holmes’ powers of deduction (which are already well-nigh supernatural) and about really getting to know the suspects and victims involved in the crime. This is much less about a trail of evidence and much more about puzzling out a real mystery. Whether that will last for a whole season of 22 episodes is anybody’s guess, but I liked the focus on people over evidence.
This character-based approach extends to the leads. Holmes and Watson are damaged people here, and both Miller and Liu depict those bruises beautifully. Liu’s performance is a point of contention for other critics, but I think it’s revelatory from an actress I haven’t liked all that much in the past. She makes the choice to go very, very small, and it can read as if she’s phoning the performance in, yet the more you watch and the closer you watch, the more you see that she’s carrying around a lot of psychological damage she’s not even prepared to deal with. She’s put the other pieces of herself in little boxes and is functioning at only about five percent capacity. It’s an interesting choice, performance-wise, and I hope the show’s writers don’t just turn her into a wise-cracking sidekick.
I have a surprising amount to say about this series, but we might as well get the elephant in the room out of the way, Myles. How do you think this show compares to Sherlock? And did you find any drawbacks to its approach, particularly when compared to that show?
MM: I’ve made it my mission to avoid drawing the comparison between the two shows in any capacity, as I believe Elementary deserves a chance to be judged on its own merits. This is, of course, tremendously difficult. Not only do both shows move Holmes and Watson into a modern day setting, but the opening sequence of tonight’s première suggests pilot director Michael Cuesta is very aware of the visual signatures of the BBC series. It would be unfair to pretend Sherlock doesn’t exist, or to suggest that its success didn’t play some part in CBS ordering Elementary to series.
However, pursuing such a comparison in any depth seems like a critical dead end to me. Sherlock is a weird television model on a number of levels, given its 90-minute episode lengths and its three-episode seasons. I’d actually argue that both can work against the show given the flabby middle episodes that drag down both of its seasons, but there’s no question those choices also allow for the memorable highs and narrative gymnastics typically associated with Steven Moffat’s work. However, it’s also something that simply cannot be duplicated in a broadcast context (due to the economics of 22-episode orders and rigid timeslot expectations), and Elementary is smart to steer as far away from it as possible both legally and practically. It’s still an adaptation of the same material, but it’s not interested in adapting specific stories (or littering the scripts with references to those stories), and the absence of a Moriarty figure immediately puts the show into a different narrative space.
The challenge, of course, is that there’s not much for viewers to really sink their teeth into with Elementary. Whereas Sherlock has inspired a dedicated fandom invested in its ongoing mysteries, Elementary offers only the basic potential of seeing these characters interact with one another in the future. This comparison isn’t about the value in their respective approaches to these characters, as both shows have interesting perspectives supported by strong performances, and I’m happy to keep watching both. Better, then, to simply compare them as two television shows that are working to appeal to viewers, and using two very different strategies. I completely understand why someone would be more invested in Sherlock than Elementary, as the complete lack of narrative ambition with Elementary at this stage is a risk, given that CBS likely hopes this show will draw the kind of young viewers that Vegas didn’t draw on Tuesday (and that seem ripe for the taking after NBC has given up on the timeslot).
The question, then, becomes whether this is something we see changing for Elementary in the future. Do you think that the series is going to cave in and introduce Moriarty, and bring the two shows closer together over time? If this is the plan, is it a mistake to offer no foreshadowing in the pilot? And if the series isn’t, will that only feed the Sherlock-fueled skepticism surrounding the show (which could be keeping people who would enjoy the show from embracing it)?
TV: You’ve touched on two things I really wanted to talk about, and then I’ll shut up. The first is that you initially argued that Elementary has no mythology or large backstory. I’d say this isn’t the case, but the series gains the greatest benefit of a show without mythology—not having to service an increasingly cumbersome series of mysteries and clues—while still having big story twists the audience is waiting for. The reason this works is almost solely because this is an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s characters, even if it’s not an adaptation of the stories themselves. Therefore, it’s easy to sit and wait for, say, Moriarty to show up, or for Mycroft to hop across the pond to hang out with his brother in New York. By adapting without directly adapting, the series can use the audience’s cultural literacy to its benefit, so viewers are reading a mythology that doesn’t actually exist yet into the series. It also helps that the pilot drops some intriguing hints about dark backstories for both leads, hints that I hope it follows up on by November sweeps.
It’s also worth pointing out just how beautiful this pilot is. Cuesta, Emmy-nominated for his work on Homeland, brings all of his talents to bear on this show, and he turns the New York cityscape and streets into another character in the program. The visual style of CBS is a little underrated, to be honest, and this is a network that’s let The Good Wife get progressively visually inventive over its four seasons. To see Elementary starting in a place that’s already more visually sophisticated than the garden-variety drama is encouraging. Cuesta’s camera captures these locales in a way that suggests the demons and ghosts haunting them, and it’s not a look that’s going to be difficult for future episodes to pull off, as Vegas’ look is, for instance. (That so many pilots this year are going for broke on visuals is an encouraging sign. TV could use more directorial firepower.)
I don’t want to overstate how good this show is. It’s solid, yes, but it’s still basically a crime procedural, even if it’s one that does interesting things with the format. The crime is easily predictable, the pilot does very little to reorder CBS’ often-troubling relationship with women as victims (though the portrayal of Watson is very well done), and the episode’s final moments make Holmes seem a bit too superheroic. Those looking for an American adaptation of Sherlock’s narrative trickery will go away disappointed, though I agree the series made the right call in establishing itself as distinctive.Yet there’s nothing here that won’t be easy enough to calibrate in the weeks to come. This isn’t a perfect show, but it’s the best straight-up detective pilot CBS has had in ages. And that’s encouraging.
MM: Which is why I’m interested in seeing where the show lands by the end of the season. The Elementary pilot is designed so as to sit comfortably in the middle: It seems difficult to imagine someone believing it to be the greatest pilot of all time, but it’s equally difficult to imagine someone outright hating it (despite the dismissive response to the series’ existence as it was being developed). This leaves room for viewers to add their own mythology, and to luxuriate in Cuesta’s direction (which I agree is strong), but it also leaves room for the writers to move away from that middle; this potential could be more evident in the pilot, but in a perfect world that potential should be enough to get people to give the show a chance even if it’s “basically a crime procedural,” which we need to start treating like a solid foundation as opposed to a death sentence. Elementary seems as good a place as any to begin.
Todd’s grade: B+
Myles’ grade: B+