Seeing the posters around New York had been vaguely depressing: Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson in the new CBS series Elementary. The casting seemed obnoxious, not just for Watson-as-a-lady but for Miller, an actor not wholly rehabilitated from his association with the Sadie Frost-Jude Law Primrose Hill mafia of the mid-1990s and with a permanently petulant look on his face.
The idea of Lucy Liu, meanwhile, riled the purists as much for Americanizing as for feminizing Watson, particularly after the recent failure of another Scotland Yard to NYPD transplant, Prime Suspect. For sheer wrongness, it’d take the BBC casting Nigel Havers in a remake of Columbo to even begin to get back at the Americans.
The set-up for the show sounded tortuous, too: Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is a modern-day Londoner living in New York, fresh out of rehab and acting as a “consultant” to the NYPD. Watson is a former surgeon kicked out of medicine after a malpractice suit and employed as Holmes’ full-time sponsor by his wealthy father. They live together in an adorable brownstone and skip around town solving crimes.
It shouldn’t work, it really shouldn’t. But on the evidence of the first two shows – the third airs on Thursday night – it is one of the best things on network TV.
This is in large part down to Miller, who plays Holmes as an Aspergic genius, jittery with post addiction, rude, resentful, with the original’s clairvoyance for overlooked details. There was some horrified speculation about a romantic sub-plot between the leads, but thankfully so far there’s no sign of it.
It’s a buddy show – one of the only mixed sex pairings I can think of on TV – and Liu is as good as Miller: acerbic and funny, registering her partner’s eccentricities on a sliding scale from mild scepticism to outrage. (She grew up in Queens, the child of immigrant parents working multiple jobs and won a scholarship to one of the best public schools in New York, where she spent her teens looking at the other girls and worrying she didn’t have enough hair on her arms. I interviewed her earlier this year; she is excellent.)
Together, they solve the usual cop show cases, very primetime, slightly Scooby Doo, lots of scheming and mistaken identity. But the plots are as twisty as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, and Holmes’ powers of deduction inventively tested. Miller, released from the need to be cool, romantic, or even particularly likeable, is suddenly that thing he could never pull off before: a charming lead.
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