In 2011, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller split the top billing in Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London. One night, one actor would step into the role of Victor Frankenstein, and the other would have the meatier part of his Creature; the following night, they’d switch.
They embodied these roles differently, of course. When it came to the good doctor, “Cumberbatch had the edge in that he offered clearer hints of the scientist’s cold-hearted single-mindedness,” Michael Billington wrote in his review in The Guardian. “Miller’s strength, in contrast, lies in his menace. Stockier than Cumberbatch, his Creature makes you believe in the character’s Satanic impulse and in his capacity for murder:”
Now, the two actors find themselves sharing a role again, as both take on Sherlock Holmes. This time though, they’re not appearing on the same stage or sharing a bill: Cumberbatch plays the master detective in BBC One’s Sherlock (the third season of which will air in the fall of 2013), while Miller is doing the same in CBS’ Elementary, premiering 27 September. As it happens, Billington’s comparison of the two actors is still apt. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more cerebral, and he’s frequently sprawled on his couch or playing his violin, hopped up on Nicotine patches and lost in thought, trying to work out a problem in his mind. Miller’s Holmes — now sober and living in New York City — is more of a physical presence. He darts around, crawls on the floor, even his eyes seem a little restless. Like the two Dr. Frankensteins, both performances are strong, and also very different from each other.
They also have very different Dr. Watsons — or at least that’s what you’d think, based on appearances. While the British version has Martin Freeman as a military veteran, Elementary transforms Watson into Holmes’ “sober companion,” played by Lucy Liu. It’s telling, though, that the shift doesn’t do much to change the Sherlock Holmes story or the doctor’s dynamic with her employer. Liu, like all Watsons, is mainly on hand to behave sensibly and feel put upon by the edgy Holmes.
However, moving the story to the States and changing Watson’s gender seem to be where the creativity ends for Elementary. Through the rest of the premiere, the show is intent on hitting all of the typical Sherlock Holmes beats. There’s a scene where he rattles off a list of personal details about someone he’s just met based on a few quick observations. There’s another where he leaves veteran police detectives flabbergasted by making headway in a case through a small detail they all overlooked. And there are many, many moments where Holmes acts rudely or inappropriately, ignoring social norms. These moments are necessary for Sherlock Holmes stories, but with each Holmes adaptation, they become a little less novel.
That lack of originality spills over into Elementary‘s visual style. Too often, it feels like it’s been run through the network TV cop-procedural grinder. The premiere’s New York City location, shaky-camera aesthetic, and easily digestible one-hour mystery made Holmes less a creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and more like any number of damaged investigators with superb mental powers, from The Mentalist‘s Patrick Jane to Unforgettable‘s Carrie Wells. (It doesn’t help that Aiden Quinn is cast as the show’s NYPD captain, recalling his earlier stint as Lieutenant Kevin Sweeney on another British import, Prime Suspect.) At least Holmes spares us the seemingly unsolvable mystery from his own past that haunts him in the present, the only touchstone of these formulaic dramas that seems to be missing — so far.
But if Elementary is a standard detective procedural, it is at least well done. This is largely based on the strength of Miller, who brings a rejuvenating energy to a genre full of morose investigators. He has an easy rapport with Liu, even if it’s sometimes used in an antagonizing way. He may not be the best Sherlock out there, but he’s perfect proof of why people still feel the need to tell Sherlock Holmes stories 85 years after Arthur Conan Doyle.