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Monday, December 17, 2012

Elementary not a "Leviathan" to crack

Elementary - "The Leviathan"
Grade: 82%

In my review of the first episode of CBS's freshman drama Elementary, I had more than a few complaints. Chief among them, CBS will be watering the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes down by making him fit into a very neat box, solving one case per week, following in the footsteps of the far-too-common crime procedural. These particular fears have not been eased, but much of the rest of my concerns no longer seem valid.

For one thing, I complained that I wasn't sure Lucy Liu was up to the task of playing Joan Watson, a female version of John Watson. I was especially worried about a romantic tension between Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller) and Watson, something that would ruin the dynamic of the duo, as well as the fact that Liu, while capable, just did not feel like a Watson-esque character to me.

I still don't see Liu's Watson the same way I see most other variations of the character. That ceases to matter, though, when one considers what Liu brings to the part. She plays in Elementary a vulnerable, intelligent, sidekick, one who lends valuable assistance, and isn't just there to carry his bags. She has her own personality and her own past that define her, meaning she is her own character, as well as Sherlock's assistant. She meets the very talented Miller head on, and proves a more than capable acting partner, having great chemistry with the lead.

For instance, in this week's installment, "The Leviathan," a key clue to finding the killer deals with a medical situation. Sherlock misses it, not being highly attuned to this area of specialty, but Watson doesn't, helping them find the culprit far quicker than they would have otherwise. Sure, Sherlock probably would have eventually solved the case, but Watson added real value to the process.

This is how their partnership has slowly progressed. Sherlock sees within her someone he can count on, and whose sensibilities echo his own. He says that he likes to collect experts, using their knowledge to supplement his own skills, a sensible thing to do. Sherlock has an ego, but part of that ego lets him know exactly who to go to for help. Watson is yet another card in his desk, but one that he, thankfully, enjoys being around in way he doesn't most other people, upping her importance.

Part of the conceit of bringing the two characters together is that Watson is assigned as Sherlock's sober companion for a set period of time. As season one plays out, the ending date of her assignment looms closer. Instead of waiting until the last minute, though, or coming up with some contrivance to temporarily extend Watson's tenure, the seeds are carefully being planted for her to leave her career and become Sherlock's full-time helper. Watson's mother, Mary (Freda Foh Shen), points out this week that Watson is happy working with Sherlock in a way she hasn't been for some time.

Now, that's not to say that Elementary will overcome the CBS procedural curse. Despite some wonderful characters, the majority of each episode is still focused on the case of the week. However, the scenes that do extend the mythology and the continuity are extremely good, enough to keep even this cynical viewer tuning in week after week.

"The Leviathan" disappoints in playing to the larger arcs, giving only a little bit of Watson's family life, and little else. But it does have one amazing scene where Sherlock tells Watson that they are both attracted to the bizarre, something most people don't understand. It's a telling insight into each of their personalities, and provides a reason why Sherlock would want Watson to stay on with him, even though he has a hard time expressing his emotions, or giving them importance in his decisions.

The safe cracking crime in "The Leviathan" is interesting, but like in most episodes of Elementary, it fails to feel fresh. The same drama could happen on any one of CBS's other series, and not much would change. This is unfortunate, because the characters here have the potential to tackle some truly interesting mysteries, rather than be stuck on dreary tasks. The writers seem to be doing their best to keep things exciting within the framework, but the show will never really be free to soar until it leaves those conventions behind, at least some of the time, something it isn't likely to do. The best we can hope for is that it soon enough earns the right to make "special episodes" that are artistically original, and do something memorable. Like House succeeded in doing.

Elementary is far better than I expected it to be, owing mostly to two incredible performers, and the characters they inhabit. But it still falls short of what it could be.

Elementary airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.

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Article first published on TheTVKing

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