Take a Look at Elementary, CBS’ New Sherlock Holmes Series

Last week during CBS’s upfront Presentation, an annual tradition where the big networks share their slate of new and returning series for the Fall season, it was announced that the “modern day take” on Sherlock Holmes known as Elementary had been picked up as a new series.

CBS President Les Moonves offered up a preview of Elementary during the network’s presentation – it’s a bit of a trailer and a behind-the-scenes featurette mashed up in one – that gives us our first look at the show and its stars Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson. Personally, I’m not so crazy about the fact that this series exists, generally, but you never know, it could surprise me.

Click through and take a look at the promo for yourself and then let’s talk it out.

Presented without initial comment (that’s for later on!):

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To be honest, I’ve been apprehensive about the mere existence of this show ever since I heard the pilot had been ordered. It just seems like such an inevitable complete ripoff pale imitation of the fantastic BBC Sherlock series that I still can’t believe someone thought it would be a good idea to film. Has the trailer changed my mind at all? Not really.

To be fair, it does seem much less of a direct copy than many of us initially feared. On the flip side, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be very good either.


Jonny Lee Miller.  Johnny Lee Miller, current BBC Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch’s former Frankenstein co-star, actually appears to be quite good. This isn’t surprising: he’s a fantastic actor, just generally, and he’s certainly appealing here. While I can’t say that this brief view of performance has convinced me that his version of Sherlock is a particularly original take – my first read is a version that’s slightly less rude than Cumberbatch Holmes with the quirky eccentrics amped up to eleven – but it’s certainly not off-putting.  (But can you imagine Cumberbatch!Holmes saying “Sometimes I hate it when I’m right?” Nevvvvverrrrrr.) 

In this quick look Miller’s Sherlock seems to be more eccentric weirdo than outright scary sociopath – his is a Holmes that licks evidence and is occasionally socially awkward rather than someone who gets inappropriately excited about a triple homicide or skewers strangers on the street with rude deductions. From these brief clips his mannerisms are different enough from Cumberbatch’s that the performance doesn’t completely feel like a copy (though, occcasionally, it does feel a bit of a dialed down homage), which is something of a nice surprise. Going by the evidence presented here – and I do wish this was a proper trailer without these disjointed scene snippets – it seems as though Miller’s going for a Holmes who is certainly different/awkward/uncomfortable, but not nearly so outright unlikeable as his BBC counterpart. (I suppose network television isn’t going to be comfortable with a main character that you’re not always sure is a good person - I suspect CBS is going to like it's heroes a bit more clear-cut.) 

More Holmes is Always A Bit Very Good. It’s hard to completely detest this show, simply because it’s Sherlock Holmes, and having more Holmes out there in the world is always a good thing.  If someone who’s never read the original stories or watched Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett or even Cumberbatch play the great detective is drawn further into the “Holmes experience” by way of this series, then that’s awesome. (I suppose it’s possible that Miller will be someone’s “Sherlock” the way that Christopher Eccleston is “my” Doctor?).  The source material is strong enough – this is, of course, presuming they follow canon stories – that the mysteries in theory should be able to carry themselves. And who knows - it is possible that Elementary will grow into itself and surprise us all. 


Lucy Liu. Martin Freeman’s John is my favorite part of the BBC Sherlock, so Liu’s got some pretty big loafers to step into straight out of the gate. In theory, I’m not averse to gender swapping characters, but I am not convinced that Liu was the right choice for this part. She does tend to come off very cold, removed and standoffish as an actress. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in fact, I think she probably would have made a fantastic female Holmes – but it’s all wrong for Watson.

Watson is meant to be the audience’s avatar – the relatable, human everyman (or everywoman in this case) – that serves as our window into the weird and wonderful world of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, I don’t think Liu is proficient at playing that sort of role, so who knows what will become of her Joan.  Perhaps this is an overreaction and Joan will be a completely new spin on the Watson character and I’ll have to come back and eat crow over this paragraph. I sort of hope so.

The Premise. Holmes is fresh out of rehab in New York, and meets Watson because Joan is being paid to be a “sober companion” for him.  (I cannot possibly be the only one that thinks this set up is stupid, right?) This version of Watson is a doctor, but not a soldier or a war veteran, and has apparently lost her license for some reason. They investigate some crimes, Joan appears to be afraid of a dead body (I don’t even know), the two initially seem to start off in that pseudo-antagonistic “Let’s dislike each other for a bit until we become best friends” state that every comedy ever (buddy, romantic or otherwise) likes to do.

The producers and cast members have some lovely things to say in this clip about how they value the Holmes-Watson relationship in this series and how important it is b, etc. etc, but honestly in the brief few minutes we see here, I certainly don’t see much of a connection or chemistry between them. It’s hard not to look at this – though really I am trying – and not compare it to Freeman and Cumberbatch  “A Study in Pink” where you get a completely different vibe from the two leads almost instantly and whatever your definition of the elusive “It” is in entertainment, it’s clear that one set has it and the other does not.  I am such a huge, huge fan of the Holmes/Watson friendship in all incarnations (Hi, Jude Law, you’re adorable!) that I desperately would like to be wrong about these two being a lackluster addition to the long line of most excellent BFFs ever, but I don’t think I am. And that’s not even touching my secret inner fear, which is that – since this is CBS after all – we’re inevitably heading toward some sort of romantic will they/won’t they plot. (Shudder.)

There’s No “Wow” Factor. Other than John being Joan, there’s not a lot that’s attention grabbing about this preview package. Miller’s Holmes is certainly not very flashy or “out there,” unless we’re counting his terrible taste in plaid scarves and tattoos. He’s appealing, but not particularly attention grabbing. There are no rapid fire deduction sequences, no out of the order/shocking character moments, nothing that really stands up and demands we pay attention to this. To me, and I fear this is possibly mean, it reads as an average looking sort of procedural with a quirky lead – think Monk or The Mentalist with a British accent - that happens to have the Sherlock Holmes named attached to it. Maybe it would be more exciting if this was a full-on proper series trailer without the interruptions of cast and production folks talking, but as it is, its hard to get too into it before the scene cuts to something else.  But mostly it just feels a bit dull. (As much as that kills me to say about anything Sherlockian.)

Now that we can see Miller and Liu in action - what do you all think? Will you be trying Elementary out this Fall?

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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