Deducing “Elementary” – What the Latest Trailer Tells Us About Sherlock Holmes

With the release of this new “extended” trailer, it’s clear that CBS are really pushing Elementary. It’s their big gamble of the Fall 2012 season, not to mention its own publicity machine, so to see a new trailer so soon after the first one is perhaps not surprising. We’re certainly not being drip-fed information, so we might as well deduce it.

There’s enough in the released material to start building up a good picture. Our central characters have been sketched out enough that their personalities and dynamics already feel fully extant, which makes up for the unsteady footing the premise has been standing on. You cringe a little on hearing the line “I’ve decided to resume my work as a consultant here, in New York” – it feels a bit crowbarred, a reminder of everything going on off-screen, and its impossible to watch this without comparing it to the BBC adaptation.

The deductions in particular are something to be closely watched. You might call them a signifier, something to tell you that yes, what you’re watching is an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Adaptations of the canon can live and die by their deductions, and it’s interesting to see that this pilot has gone the route of reconstruction. In fact, it’s Guy Ritchie’s films that are called up here rather than the BBC’s text heavy, real time demonstrations, and CBS are trying to drawing originality from what looks like rewinding the action. It’s certainly a much-needed stamp of individuality, a statement that says, we’re going to do it this way.

The other rather obvious original choice is Watson. Joan instead of John, it’s Lucy Liu who takes on the role – and a hefty amount of the trailer’s screen time. Yes, the books are written as I, John Watson’s point of view, and yes, we followed him at the beginning of Sherlock too, but there’s something in this trailer that skews Elementary towards him – now her – rather more than other recent adaptations have. Perhaps it’s something in Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal – the bulk of it remains to be seen, though with such a complex character he’s hard to grasp in a four minute trailer, and there’s something bubbling underneth the surface that may well come to the fore – but Lucy Liu shines out amongst the rest of it, easily the strongest point. The exciting part is that this female lead looks to be just as complex herself. The dangerously-close-to-trope territory of Strong Female Character isn’t showing itself here – instead we look to have the potential for a Strong Character (Female). There’s a danger, prevalent in the history of adaptating Sherlock Holmes, of making Watson more stupid than he needs to be. If Elementary can be accused of anything, you can certainly say that it stole the BBC’s rebalancing of the relationship in Watson’s favour (and thank goodness it did). Her assessment of Holmes is an astute and self-knowing moment that strips frivolity away, leaving us with a scene between two emotionally wonky characters who both know it. It’s promising.

The graphics and music on display leave a little something to be desired, which is a real shame. The soundtrack feels like a second-cousin to both the TV series and the recent films but minus the heart, and the graphics are messy, with a rusty colour that might mean to call up blood but just looks brown. It lets the footage down hugely, boxing something good up in something else that’s second-rate. What’s kept and what goes remains to be seen.

The dialogue is also tricky. Excluding the previously-mentioned “New York” line, it’s just plain strange to hear such familiar words coming out of Jonny Lee Miller’s mouth. A shared source means shared dialogue, but the same sense of deja vu doesn’t occur between Sherlock and the Guy Ritchie films. It’s the setting that explains it, and perhaps also the close association between Miller and Cumberbatch. Some of the original lines are downright clunky – Gregson’s explanation for knowing Sherlock feels like the exposition it is, and it’s odd to see such galumphing stuff offset by moments of brilliance – Joan’s deduction of Holmes, his own deduction of the suspect.

Whatever happens, however successful (or unsuccessful) this show is, it feels very much like Joan Watson’s story. Lucy Liu is spectacular anyway but we see a striking range from her throughout. She’s not fighting people or firing a gun, but she’s obviously got a strength of character. She feels like a stronger Watson, even, than the canon; not just going with it – she confronts him, she talks to him. It feels like a friendship developing between two unlikely people, and that’s important.

Maybe it’s just a case of getting used to it – the more I watch it, the more I can believe it. And there’s much to deduce from the fact that by the end, I was smiling.