Despite my best efforts to stay above the fray, I must now admit that I'm actually becoming a fan of CBS's new 'Sherlock Holmes in New York' crime drama Elementary. I know I'm supposed to take pot-shots at the show and blab about how it's a shameless attempt to cash in on the success of BBC's Sherlock. But the show has, if anything, gone out of its way to differentiate itself from the brooding series that turned Benedict Cumberbatch into a mega-star/sex-symbol. I remarked back when the first extended trailer appeared that the show felt less like a riff on Sherlock and more like a rip-off of Tony Shalhoub's Monk. That's still the case, but it's quickly become an arguably superior version of the briefly great but mostly terrible USA comedy. Loyal viewers will recall that the show's first two seasons were delightful until the writers/producers amped up the farce and started treating Monk like a man-child who was completely unfamiliar with how the outside world actually functions. The key to the show's appeal is two things it shares with the title character: a genuine intelligence and a general lack of unnecessary sentiment.
The show is written at a relatively adult level. But what's most important is how often the adult characters actually act like adults. This concerns both the investigations themselves and the leads' personal "B stories". I love that the show's third episode, arguably its best, concerned a pedophiliac child murder without drowning in 'this isn't just any other case!' melodrama. There was next to no hand-wringing as Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller), Watston (Lucy Liu) went about trying to discover who was kidnapping and murdering young children, and the episode gave way to two genuinely compelling twists, climaxing in the reveal that a seemingly kidnapped young boy was actually the psychopathic 'leader' who was orchestrating the murders. I love that the next episode, which revolved around Sherlock and Watson's concerns that he might relapse into drug addiction were handled with simple conversation and honest insights. The episode again ended strongly with Sherlock finally confessing his former drug use to Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn, never forced to play the fool). This conversation basically amounted to Gregson telling Holmes that he knew about his friend's problems, didn't care, and figured he'd talk to him when he was ready. Again, intelligent adults acting like intelligent adults. As a bonus, since the format of the show revolves around us discovering information at the same time (or slightly after) Holmes does, the show contains almost no onscreen violence, which is a nice change of pace from the more gruesome procedurals like CSI or Criminal Minds.
I'm not pretending that Elementary is high art. But if Sherlock is often art than Elementary is at least high quality craft (I'd argue that third episode flirted with greatness). And the show strives to differentiate itself from the BBC series and manages to avoid the token gender issues that occasionally drag the BBC show down a token peg (kudos to making Watson's medical background for more relevant than her gender). Ironically, it is arguably less explicit about the whole 'look, Sherlock Holmes is sending text messages!' shtick than the BBC version, something I appreciate. The scripts are mostly compelling, the acting is solid across-the-board, and the show even made room for inexplicably the underemployed Roger Rees during its most recent episode, although I was fooled by his appearance in the credits into thinking I'd solved the plane crash-murder mystery right away (he actually played an old friend of Holmes's who ended up sharing worthwhile insights with Watson). I first sampled the pilot out of morbid curiosity and found myself hooked by the above-noted third episode. I've long said that one can like both the BBC Sherlock and the Guy Ritchie film franchise. And thus it is possible to enjoy both Sherlock and Elementary. I was wrong to mock, this is indeed a superior version of Monk, a show I was quite fond of in its early days. It may eventually rise to the level of House, especially if it remains free of that show's melodramatic distractions.
The key to the show's success is quite simple (elementary even): Nearly every major character is at least as smart as Joan Watson and nearly every major character is almost as clinically objective as Sherlock Holmes. The world may not need a US-set 'modern day Sherlock Holmes', but Elementary is a pretty darn good one.