May 17, 2013



ELEMENTARY is a very classy, enjoyable network procedural that has the misfortune of existing at the same time as the altogether more dazzling BBC/PBS Sherlock, which has the same premise:  Sherlock Holmes as a modern-day detective.  Both the strengths and weaknesses of the CBS approach were evident in last night’s 2-hour season finale.

What works very well in Elementary is the part that was initially controversial:  the idea of making Dr. Watson a woman, played by Lucy Liu.  The fear was that this would become another will-they-or-won’t-they romance, but so far series creator Robert Doherty has developed their relationship as a deepening professional friendship, with a tenderness that isn’t sexual but brings something new to the iconic duo.  Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is the showier part, and Miller does a entertaining job with it, but since he’s presented as having limited emotional range, it falls to Liu to draw us in to the characters, and she’s done a fine, low-key job.  (Liu also has the benefit of being compared to the merely-excellent Martin Freeman as Sherlock‘s Watson, while Miller has to stand next to Benedict Cumberbatch’s truly spectacular Holmes.)

Elementary falters, especially as compared to Sherlock, in the plotting.  Sherlock brilliantly re-interprets the original Arthur Conan Doyle tales with modern zing and daring.  Elementary‘s storylines are often perfunctory and predictable, murders that could just as well have been solved by a CSI team or any of television’s other eccentric detectives–in fact, the stories emphasize the fact that many of TV’s current detectives are just variations on Holmes in the first place.  Most of what surrounds the characters of Holmes and Watson on the show is second-rate, and that includes the merely functional roles for other series regulars, the cops Gregson (a very underused Aidan Quinn) and Bell (Jon Michael Hall).

The finale marked Elementary at its most ambitious, which turned out not to be very ambitious at all.  Part of the series premise is that Holmes lapsed into heroin addiction three years earlier in London, after his lover Irene Adler was murdered by arch-villain Moriarity; his (as yet unseen) father hired a sober companion to stay with him after he finished rehab, and that was Watson.  (As the season went on and the presence of a sober companion in Holmes’s life became increasingly attentuated, Watson segued into being his detective protege.)  Through the course of the season, there has also been mention of the legendary Moriarity, including a period where Holmes believed that Moran (Vinnie Jones) was the master criminal (he turned out to be only a henchman, eventually forced into suicide by Moriarity).  At the end of last week’s episode, a series of clues from Moriarity led to the discovery that Irene Adler was still alive (played by the very busy Natalie Dormer, also Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones), apparently released from her captivity by Moriarity’s minions.

The finale, written by Doherty and fellow Executive Producer Craig Sweeny, and directed by (Hour 1) Seith Mann and (Hour 2) John Polson, spent its first half arriving at the fairly obvious conclusion that Irene was lying about being held hostage, and indeed it turned out that she’d been lying to Holmes since they met 3 years earlier.  She was, in fact, Moriarity, and their relationship existed so she could study her adversary at close quarters.  The second hour concerned her scheme to raise the value of Macedonian currency by having a Greek shipping tycoon murder a Macedonian diplomat, an obscure motive but not a particularly remarkable crime.  The ending was one of those situations where you could understand why the show chose to go in the direction it did, but that didn’t keep it from being a bad idea, as Moriarity/Irene was captured and arrested when Holmes pretended to fall back into addiction and she cared enough to visit him at the hospital, a plan cooked up not by Holmes, but by Watson (whom Moriarity had previously dismissed as Holmes’s “mascot”).  The idea was plain:  having Watson be the one to catch Moriarity built up Watson as someone who could function at Holmes’s level, and also reminded us that her understanding of emotions brought something to the partnership that neither Holmes nor Moriarity, with their more cerebral genius, could match.  But since, really, Watson’s plan was one that’s been used on a thousand other TV shows to catch a thousand other master criminals, it just served to devalue both the detective and his nemesis, and although we’ll probably see more from Moriarity before the series is done (she’s just in jail, not dead), it’ll be hard to take her seriously again as a supervillain after she fell for this tired con.

Elementary is fine; it’s just not special.  That gradual realization has been reflected in the ratings, which started in the heady neighborhood of a 3, but have been increasingly flattened by the surging Scandal, until for the past several weeks the show has been lucky to hit a 2.  Things aren’t getting any easier when both shows return to their current slots next season.  CBS, of course, has a strong appetite for steady if unspectacular performance, so there’s no reason to think Elementary will be in any trouble.  But if it ever means to stand out, it has to demonstrate some of the imagination and risk-taking of its cousin across the pond.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."