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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Shrouded in controversy, ‘Elementary’ Soldiers on

Published: September 21, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

America, it seems, has gone mad for Sherlock Holmes. Since 2009, two films starring Robert Downey Jr. have been released to great success, and the British BBC’s “Sherlock” has a strong American fan base. Now, the United States is to get a television Sherlock of our own: “Elementary,” a similarly modernized take on the classic detective story, set in New York, premieres Sept. 27. Though the pilot will not officially air until that date, it has been pre-released on DVD to a number of watchers in order to influence conversation about the show.

Though Sherlock Holmes adaptations, commonly set in the modern day have become commonplace, “Elementary” has found definite ways to stand-out through their characterization. Sherlock Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) enters the series as a recovering drug addict, in keeping with Conan Doyle’s original canon for the character, and progressively gets more interesting. This is a very modern, tattooed Sherlock who finds sex repulsive. Yet he spends his first scene implying that in order to quite his body’s desires and better utilize his mind, he could thoroughly enjoy a BDSM-flavored romp with a young woman. He has all the classic, cold and intellectual snark of a classic Holmes, but has a strong emotional grounding: He hates to admit that he’s wrong but would rather give in to admitting failure then watch the people he cares about get hurt. He is certainly a Sherlock with a heart, and the duality between the cold, crime-solving machine and the man the audience is shown is bound to create an interesting set of internal conflicts for our protagonist.

Watson, meanwhile, has all the underpinnings of a classic Watson portrayal. There is, of course, one major obvious change: Watson is played by Lucy Liu and her name is Joan. Joan Watson presents an equally loyal and determined sidekick, a companion who sticks with her admittedly difficult charge, keeping him grounded in the human world that he so often forgets about. She is a tough New Yorker with a tougher past and should prove to portray a very interesting adaptation of the original character.

In addition to the unusual choices made about characters, “Elementary” stands out in other ways. Both the main actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, have strongly taken on the personas of their characters. Both are multi-faceted and complex, presenting real people with often contradicting sides of their personalities. Miller’s emotive ability is particularly noteworthy, showing a mastery over his expressions with great variety. The show’s cinematography was also particularly impressive, highlighting the architecture and the busy environment of the city in which it is set.

Though clearly very well made, “Elementary” is not without its flaws. The plot of the first episode was of course a classic, formulaic Sherlock Holmes story: Holmes finds a case, thinks he’s solved it, discovers a twist with the help of Watson and eventually brings the unexpected and unsuspected perpetrator to justice. The plot focused on highlighting and establishing the personalities of Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson but seemed to have made some sacrifices in order to hone in on this characterization. As a result, the story became predictable where it was clearly meant to be twisting and shocking. The twist was easy to guess with even a small amount of effort, taking away from the mysterious and surprising tone that has classically given Sherlock Holmes stories their lasting appeal.

“Elementary” has also been shrouded in a great deal of controversy. It was released on the heels of the British “Sherlock,” a similarly modern and technology-heavy Sherlock Holmes that appears on the BBC. As a result, there has been an outcry against “Elementary” from “Sherlock” fans, who accuse it of attempting to ride the wave of “Sherlock’s” success. “Sherlock” producer Sue Vertue told fans in an interview with The Independent that CBS had in fact initially approached the BBC, asking to make an adaption of their hit “Sherlock,” which is still on the air. They also promised that should the details of “Elementary” prove too close to those of “Sherlock” legal action would be taken. As of yet, many of the parties (including actors) seem unbothered by the similarities between the two shows. Further conflict between the two camps remains to be seen.

Despite the copyright-based troubles that have so far dogged “Elementary,” the pilot shows great promise as a successful show. The overall production quality is clearly at a high standard and features two talented, invested actors in the iconic lead roles. As an adaptation of an already well-loved story, “Elementary” shows great potential to become a lasting member, even a staple of American television. Though the pilot was certainly flawed, this can be attributed to a desire to set up characters that would make it more challenging, given time and production limitations, to present a perfectly compelling plot. “Elementary” officially premieres Sept. 27 on CBS.