ELEMENTARY: First Thoughts on CBS’ Totally Not Like The BBC’s Sherlock Show At All


Elementary (2012) – Season 1, Episode 1 – “Pilot” – Written by Robert Doherty; Directed by Michael Cuesta – Starring Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, and Aidan Quinn.

Has there been any show in recent memory where more people had made up their mind before an episode had even aired than CBS’ Sherlock Holmes in New York detective show, ELEMENTARY?

While you were busy decrying the show as a ripoff of the certain-to-be superior SHERLOCK from the BBC, your parents were busy deciding they loved it. It’s a natural fit for CBS to fold the world’s most famous detective into their cop show revue, which is probably why they had discussions with the BBC about adapting their show before they decided to just do their own show. Accusations have been flying from those in and the know and those who simply have an internet connection over how much ELEMENTARY was going to be a ripoff of Sherlock that I’m not sure if it’s more unbelievable that the show is finally here or that a grand total of one episode has been broadcast.

To be clear on where I stand, I am mostly of the feeling that there have been 8 billion Sherlock Holmes adaptations, which makes me initially think the makers of Sherlock should get over it. But the fact that they met with CBS makes me think that the American network is guilty of some creative thievery. I’m not going to go into a point-by-point breakdown of how the two shows compare to one another because that’s for the Beeb and CSI: CBS to fight out in court. All I really care about is this:

Sherlock is one of the best shows on television.

ELEMENTARY is also on television.

But before I get into that, there’s another issue I want to address and that is the overwhelming amount of suckage that is CBS.com. I realize that I’m spoiled by Hulu, but CBS.com is one of the most mindbogglingly inane websites I’ve come across because instead of their playback capabilities marking the site as an alternative to Hulu and Netflix – which is what a network website should be, CBS.com struggles to compare favorably to Daily Motion and their fan-uploaded videos. It’s stunning to me, literally and absolutely stunning to me that CBS.com has such a crappy steaming operation. I don’t have the strongest computer in the world, but I routinely stream shows on Hulu, movies on Netflix, and sports on ESPN3 and I almost never have a pixelated image, yet the strength of the ELEMENTARY stream was constantly changing. If you watch the program full screen, you can not get rid of the timeline at the bottom of the screen. Why do they think I want to look at that blue line creeping from left to right for the entire show? When they go to commercial, they often force you out of your full screen viewing mode to look at a smaller screen, and then KEEP you in the smaller screen when your show restarts, meaning you have to go click the button to go full screen again. Maddening.

And it gets worse.

There are ads during CBS.com streams, which is understandable. There are a LOT of ads during CBS.com streams, which is annoying. But neither of those facts would get me to not watch a show I wanted to watch there. What I don’t understand, what truly drives me bonkers, what clearly demonstrates that CBS.com simply does not give a f*ck about you or their shows is this:

They run commercials IN THE MIDDLE OF SCENES!

Yeah, you’d think they’d simply wait for the, you know, commercial breaks to lay their commercials in, but they don’t. Commercials seem to run on some kind of pre-determined schedule, and if the clock says it’s time to go to commercial, then the stream cuts to commercial, even if the episode is knee deep in a scene.

What the f*ck, CBS?

Honestly, WHAT. THE. F*CK?

What is the point of cutting to commercial right in the middle of a scene? Is that supposed to make me go, “Oh, this sucks, I guess I’ll watch the show on TV, instead?” Stupid. Utterly stupid. Is it this way for every single show they stream? Or is this just a special thing because this is the first episode of a new show and they want to annoy you?

Dear Whomever Runs CBS.com,

You suck at your job.

Signed,
Internet Programmers From 1996

As for ELEMENTARY itself, it’s a highly predictable formula show that almost no one who loves Sherlock is going to turn into every week, yet will probably be a massive hit. Honestly, how many people out there in America Land have ever even seen an episode of Sherlock? And of those, how many will not watch ELEMENTARY simply because PBS runs a British show featuring Sherlock Holmes?

The two big “changes” here are that Watson is a woman and that it takes place in New York, but neither of them amount to anything. The show could be taking place anywhere, and Watson’s switch in gender doesn’t have any immediate effect on the narrative.

What ELEMENTARY does well is operate inside the CBS crime show bubble (and this is a backhanded compliment, if ever there was one), offering a bit of something slightly different yet not really different at all. This is a safe show from start to finish. Oh yeah, sure, they intimate that Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) likes his sex BDSM style and they keep saying he had a drug problem, but they don’t show any of it actually happening. Even when Sherlock visits Captain Tobias “Not Lestrade” Gregson (Aidan Quinn) at a bar and leaves Sherlock to watch his coat, there’s no sense that Sherlock might be tempted to down Gregson’s drink. No, Sherlock has said that he’s done with drugs and, apparently, he means it. When Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) gives him a drug test, it’s because he unplugged her alarm clock and not because there’s any actual belief he took something. The audience is never invited to think Holmes might fall back into old habits. In other words, this show decides to tell us that Sherlock had a drug problem severe enough he needs his daddy to hire a babysitter for him, and it does nothing with it. It’s like telling us that Sherlock once had a sandwich for lunch.

Where this show fails is that it is not very smart, nor can it fake the appearance of being smart. Miller does his best to talk fast and play slightly off-center, but that can’t hide the fact that his big insights aren’t really all that impressive. ELEMENTARY tries to make a big deal out of the fact that he looks at glass on the floor and can instantly tell there’s enough shards there for two glasses, instead of the one glass the cops think has been smashed. Sherlock proves how smart he is by laying down on the floor and looking under the refrigerator and finding the second, unbroken glass bottom.

Thrilling stuff.

He also notices there’s a box missing because the owner of this apartment likes symmetry.

What a f*cking genius.

The only way Sherlock really comes off as particularly smart is due to the cops he’s working with being complete morons. Aidan Quinn’s Gregson just kinda stands around with hunched shoulders, grunting and looking confounded. And his main investigator makes the depiction of security guards at malls look like Detective Frank Pembleton. If the Pilot is any indication, the cases Holmes and Watson will be solving are cases that every other detective on TV would be able to solve in an hour, too. This episode’s mystery of a dead woman and her manipulative husband was as generic as any other mystery you’d find on any other network cop show.

Where ELEMENTARY does have a chance to be mildly entertaining is in the chemistry between Holmes and Watson. It’s not there, yet, but there are moments when Miller and Liu show a spark, such as at the end of the episode when he wants to go to dinner but she wants to watch the end of the Mets game. He does a bit of a “this will happen, then this, then this” routine and stomps off to wait in the hall. The game unfolds exactly as Holmes said it would because of course it would, but what’s important here isn’t that he’s right as much as how it lets the two protagonists interact with one another, and if ELEMENTARY is going to succeed, it’s going to be because Miller and Liu are worth watching. They’re not, yet, but as they find their characters, they might become a fun pair to watch.

ELEMENTARY is not an awful show, but it isn’t a good show, either. like nearly everything CBS puts on the air, it is an entirely forgettable show. CBS makes its bread being the Microwave Dinner Network, the place where you go to watch TV shows because you think you have to watch TV shows and you can’t be bothered to change the channel. Miller and Liu are trying, but they’ve got such a stupid script to work with here that there’s only so much they can do. As it stands, I don’t see any reason why I should come back and watch the next episode, and that’s not even because CBS.com is so overwhelmingly stupid.

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One thought on “ELEMENTARY: First Thoughts on CBS’ Totally Not Like The BBC’s Sherlock Show At All

  1. I think the issues with the show, and with CBS.com probably stem from the same taproot. That being, the target demo for CBS in general for the past… oh, I don’t know… 20 years at least, has skewed almost two decades older than the rest of the television world. They know their viewers.

    These are people (and I know I’m generalizing here, but I really think this is how the programming and marketing calculus over there works) who are set in their ways. These are people who like predicable formulas, are more easily put off by change, and generally do not want a lot of surprises and curve balls thrown at them.

    They are also not people who are going to be streaming a lot of their programming online. Thus, CBS doesn’t need to give more than the quarter of a shit they already do about the quality of their online product. It’s an afterthought to them so long as the Boomers they have been relying on for ratings don’t all die off at once. Until that day they have very little reason to deviate from the formula that has made them the most commercially successful network in North America.

    As for the show itself, I’m willing to give it another episode or two to see where it’s headed (if anywhere). So far I’m not buying what they’re selling. I like the BBC show, and more than that Robert Downey Jr. in the recent films. I enjoy Holmes as the Puckish, ether-snorting, ‘mad genius’ and so far it doesn’t look like that is remotely what we’re going to get.

    Eh, they can’t all be winners.

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