TV review: Elementary

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From the September 27, 2012 edition

There have been many incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character over the years, so it shouldn’t be a surprise two television shows about the Baker Street sleuth are currently on the airwaves. There’s the incredible BBC series “Sherlock” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which has two seasons in the books — the second having just become available on Netflix streaming — and the new venture from CBS starring Jonny Lee Miller.

Why CBS decided to create its own version of Holmes could have something to do with the critical acclaim and popularity of the BBC series, but that doesn’t really matter. There’s room for both shows, and even if “Elementary” is nowhere near as good as “Sherlock,” it’s not half bad and is clearly directed at a different audience.

The main difference between “Elementary” and “Sherlock” conceptually is Lucy Liu playing the Watson role. As Joan Watson, she’s been hired by Sherlock’s father to babysit him after his recent release from rehab. (CBS has decided to remove Holmes’ addiction to tobacco from the novels in lieu of some nondescript narcotics.) Watson is charged with making sure Holmes doesn’t relapse, but she eventually finds duty and excitement in his investigations while forming a (nonsexual, for now) bond with the manic detective.

Miller does quite well with his interpretation of Sherlock, and I like Liu as Watson, but I can’t help but compare both the performances and the stylistic choices of “Elementary” to “Sherlock.” I don’t think Miller is full-on aping Cumberbatch’s performance, but you can see similarities. It’s more likely both actors chose similar interpretations of the character, but Cumberbatch still outclasses the good work done by Miller. Liu is also solid, but can’t hold a candle to Martin Freeman’s Watson on “Sherlock.” It’s apparent CBS wants to have a will-they-won’t-they aspect to the Holmes Watson relationship — ‘shippers rejoice. “Elementary” also feels like “Sherlock” Lite with its similar narrative format and general style.

If you’ve seen “Sherlock” it’s hard not to compare “Elementary” to it, but I can’t wholly condemn the CBS version. It’s entertaining and well-acted, and if you’ve never seen “Sherlock” this will feel like a strong modernization of Holmes. (I suspect CBS has a massive hit on their hands with “Elementary.”) I recommend “Elementary” for anyone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes, crime procedurals or Jonny Lee Miller — he was awesome as Sick Boy in “Trainspotting.” But if you’ve seen the far superior “Sherlock” you may be disappointed.