I'm a big fan of the Moffat and Gatiss series Sherlock, so when CBS announced they were doing their own version of a 21st Century Sherlock Holmes with the title Elementary I was both skeptical and interested at the same time. Interested because, frankly, I love Sherlock Holmes -- skeptical because I knew CBS had been turned down when they tried to acquire the rights to adapt Sherlock itself.
And last night Elementary hit the American air waves, sending Jonny Lee Miller's incarnation of the character out into the world.
To his credit, "Zero Cool" did not disappoint in his performance. While his interpretation varies greatly from Cumberbatch's in Sherlock, I found it to be an equally valid interpretation of the character. Channeling something halfway between Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Brett, Jonny Lee Miller manages to be both grungy and aloof. Cumberbatch's sharp edged version may remain my favorite onscreen interpretation of Holmes, but I can accept Jonny Lee Miller into my pantheon of Sherlocks.
I honestly don't have a lot to critique here, because Jonny Lee Miller frankly does a good job in the part.
But we all know a good Holmes is only half of the equation - the rest of the weight falls on our Watson. Casting a woman as Watson seemed like a deliberate attempt to distance Elementary from Sherlock, but Joan Watson's gender isn't the biggest change to the character. Rather than a former member of the military, our new Watson is a surgeon who lost her medical license, hired to look after Sherlock by Sherlock's father.
Honestly, Joan Watson feels light years away from John Watson. It's near impossible to compare Martin Freeman's performance in the part to Lucy Liu's because of it. They really are two completely different characters, whose only thing in common are the name and being companion to a man named Holmes.
That isn't to say she isn't good. Liu's performance as Watson (at least in the first episode) is interesting and likable. She's no Martin Freeman, but honestly... who is?
Moving beyond the lead actors, there are a few important things to note. Elementary deviates from the standard Holmes story greatly beyond setting it in New York. As stated before, Watson has been hired by Holmes's father to watch him. That in itself alters the dynamic greatly. It's hard to tell how old our Holmes is supposed to be because of this, as he must be younger than the 39 year old Jonny Lee Miller. This version of Holmes is a recovering addict (which makes perfect sense in a modern interpretation of the character), but being financially reliant on a rich father? That's new. Frankly, Holmes's parentage is never really talked about in the original texts.
The visual tone of Elementary is very different than Sherlock, trading the stark contrasts of the BBC series for a warmer palette. The story of the first episode, being set in the standard 40-something minute episode length of American Television, felt a little more formulaic - but that is frankly fine. I like a good American crime show, and putting Sherlock Holmes into it can only improve the genre. Frankly, if I were to compare it to another series, Castle would come to mind long before Sherlock.
But again, I like Castle, so that's not a bad thing.
In the end, Elementary isn't my favorite interpretation of Holmes, but it's not a bad one -- and I'm more than happy to use it to fill my time waiting for Series 3 of Sherlock.