Elementary: The First Season

Posted on August 16, 2014 at 4:25 am

With Hollywood scrambling to turn anything they believe has a built-in audience into new grist for films and TV, it’s unsurprising that Sherlock Holmes has seen a massive resurgence in the last 5 years. First there was the BBC’s “Sherlock”, which moved the story to contemporary times for mini-series seasons divided up into two feature-length episodes. This was followed by the major motion pictures Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, set in the original time period and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the world’s greatest detective. Most recently, “Elementary” joined the fray, a US TV show starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as a gender-swapped Joan Watson.

Like the BBC show, this Sherlock is set in modern times. Sherlock was once employed by Scotland Yard as a consultant, who used his incredible powers of deduction to help solve murder cases. He was booted from the force when a drug addiction consumed him. Some two years later, he’s landed on his feet in New York City, ready to pick up the consulting mantle again with the NYPD following a stint in rehab. Joan is assigned to Sherlock as his sober companion, a live-in associate who helps him maintain his drug-free lifestyle. She accompanies him to work and quickly becomes wrapped up in the experience of visiting crime scenes and solving mysteries, discovering almost instantly that Sherlock’s ability to notice and dissect every detail is much more interesting than helping the average alcoholic stay on the wagon.

Compared to feature-length episodes or a massive film production, the first inclination is to call “Elementary” a bit simplistic. The pilot episode makes the mistake of using Sherlock’s eccentricities and immutable eye for detail as the source of cutesy comedy. It’s not the worst “Brits are witty” / “funny because he’s crazy” routine I’ve seen in American entertainment, but it’s mildly grating. Additionally, the “murder-of-the-week” nature of the show can end up feeling a little perfunctory; it would be nice to see the show attempt some more mysteries of varying lengths. However, as the season progresses, “Elementary” starts gaining traction thanks to sharp casting and the nice development of a male-female relationship that’s purely platonic.

The secret to this success is the character of Joan, a former surgeon who ended up sliding into sober companionship after a personal tragedy. Joan chose to retreat into a simpler career, where she could still help people, but even if she never says it out loud, the routine of sober companionship is frustrating for her. When she meets Sherlock, she not only finds someone who has swiftly and thoroughly defeated their own troubled past, but also a new way to help people that’s much more interesting. The developing partnership between Sherlock and Watson forms the backbone of “Elementary” — even when individual stories are somewhat repetitive, they provide the set up for new developments in Joan’s immersion into Sherlock’s work. Liu and Miller play this relationship with just the right amount of weight and sincerity. Meanwhile, Aidan Quinn plays Captain Gregson and Jon Michael Hill is his top detective Marcus Bell, completing an admirably unusual ensemble. Each of these roles is well-rounded and brings a specific tone or flavor to the piece, which is nice.

The battle at the heart of “Elementary” is between the skilled and engaging cast and the middle-of-the-road writing and direction. It’s not that any one of these episodes is boring or bad, but very few of them stand out, either. It’s got to be a challenge, writing 22 increasingly clever mysteries, especially when your protagonist is a genius: the stories must strike the perfect balance between being simple enough that the audience can follow Sherlock’s eventual explanation, while also being too smart for the answers to be obvious the moment the audience learns the facts. For the most part, the writers succeed, but not without the show settling into a familiar pattern (Sherlock hits a roadblock, Joan sees something minor he missed). Additionally, the show is crammed with exposition, because Sherlock is a naturally expository character, arriving at a conclusion and then explaining it to those who can’t see it. Sometimes, these spiels are on-the-nose, blatantly for the audience’s benefit rather than the characters.

Mostly, though, the direction is the disappointing angle. “Elementary” not only has no real stylistic personality (potentially refreshing), but even lacks a visual personality. Each episode looks the same and moves in basically the same fashion, which makes for sort of a bland marathon experience. The most lazy aspect of the show is the flashback sequences that pop up when Sherlock has unraveled a bit of information, which are quite generic and mostly unnecessary. It’s hard to come up with a visual way to convey Sherlock’s power of deduction, but there must be a more unique and interesting way to depict his ability to zero in on details. The show has a very interesting title sequence involving a marble rolling into a revolver, setting off some sort of Mouse Trap-style Rube Goldberg contraption, and it only becomes more abstract as the show reveals itself as directorially standard.

In the last three episodes, an arc begins that plays with key aspects of the modern Holmes mythos. Although it inspires some excellent dramatic moments from Miller and aims to put a distinctive new stamp on the show, it naturally pushes the limits of believability and can’t quite live up to certain expectations that the show itself inevitably sets up. Regardless, even when a given episode of “Elementary” can’t quite hold my attention (I started to have a problem with pausing it to take care of random chores), the strength of the characters kept me coming back to the show. “Elementary” has been renewed for a second season, giving them the freedom to shake things up — hopefully, the show is just beginning to hit its stride.

The artwork for “Elementary”: The First Season is a bit underwhelming, considering the oddball and stylish opening credit sequence for the show. There must’ve been something more creative to do than simply slap a promo photo on the front, something with a bit more emphasis on the city of New York, which gives “Elementary” much of its personality. Oh, well. This 6-disc set is packed into a transparent, single-width plastic Amaray case with two double-sided flap trays. The case art is double-sided, displaying disc breakdowns with episode summaries on the inside, and the whole package slides into an embossed matte slipcover with identical artwork.

The Video and Audio
For some reason, Paramount and CBS have opted not to issue “Elementary” on Blu-Ray, which is not only disappointing because it ought to be on both formats, but also because this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is pretty underwhelming. Spread across 6 discs with 3 hours of content per disc, it seems like the show should look all right, but these episodes look digitally mushy. The episode-specific credits (after the intro) are surrounded with a noticeable cluster of noise and artifacting, as well around repetitive patterns, such as thin black lines on one of Sherlock’s shirts, or the bars of an iron gate. Black levels are not particularly deep, although thankfully banding is not an issue, that I noticed, aside from one shot on the last disc. Fine details, such as the individual bars of a Venetian blind in a scene from Episode 5 where Sherlock is standing in the back of a shot, are sometimes lost. Compression-based haloes can appear around faces and figures when a lighter color serves as a backdrop, like the sky or a white wall. What is probably a fine grain in HD is just a faintly blocky softness on DVD. On the whole, the picture quality is serviceable, and those with average-size TV sets will probably not notice most of these issues even if the picture doesn’t pop off the screen, but this is more in line with what I would’ve expected a TV show to look like on DVD roughly a decade ago, not a 2013 release of a brand new show.

Thankfully, the audio is much better. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track included on these discs is robust and lively, capturing the jaunty dance of the show’s musical score and theme song with a pleasing enthusiasm. Dialogue is always clear, surround activity is nicely balanced in sets both cramped and spacious, and the occasional action beat is on-par with a low-budget feature film. Audio-wise, no complaints. An English 2.0 track, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
“Elementary” gets a very basic supplementary package, made up entirely of EPK-style behind-the-scenes clips, which are fairly perfunctory and not particularly interesting. Two of the featurettes appear on Disc 1. “A Holmes of Their Own” (11:52) sits down with executive producer / creator Robert Doherty and executive producer Carl Beverly to discuss their attempt to distinguish their version of the character from all of the others throughout history, then steps back for a more general look at the cast and characters. “In Liu of Watson” (9:45) unsurprisingly focuses a little more on Joan and what the gender-swap means for the show. Beverly has some slightly silly comments about the need to justify writing a character as a woman (even one with 100 years of history), but Doherty, Liu, and the writers steer the piece back on track. Of the two, this is the more interesting.

The rest of the material is on Disc 6. “Holmes Sweet Holmes” (17:56) is a discussion of the writing process and how the crew has chosen to develop the character and those around him over the course of the season. Next, Lucy Liu leads the viewer on a quick, amped up set tour (3:19), pointing out some of the details that can’t be spotted during the episodes, and finally, we have a series of shorter featurettes under the heading “The Power of Observation”: “Seeing is Believing” (3:01) is a very brief look at the visual effects for the series; “Devil in the Details” (3:43) examines the set decoration and props; and Watson yet again in “My Dear Watson” (3:53). These shorter bits are actually slightly more interesting than the longer featurettes; they feel as if they contain more information in less time (or perhaps, the same amount of information in less time).

The set is rounded out with a reel of promos (8:06) for the series, which unsurprisingly focus on the more eccentric elements of the pilot.

Although the market is slightly crowded in terms of Holmes adaptations, “Elementary” holds its own thanks to its twist on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Despite some the occasional trip and stumble, Miller and Liu guarantee that “Elementary” stays engaging. It’s disappointing the show didn’t get a high-def release, and the bonuses are pretty perfunctory, but this season still comes recommended.

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