Elementary preview – “Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is a cross between Withnail and Rainman”

Paul Jones gives his (spoiler-free) verdict on the US Sherlock Holmes update starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu

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Elementary is a modern-day update of Sherlock Holmes. It’s set in New York, not London. It has a female Watson (Lucy Liu). It stars Benedict Cumberbatch’s friend and Frankenstein co-star Jonny Lee Miller. You can see why both Holmes purists and fans of Sherlock might be a bit suspicious.

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Ok, so the BBC1 series remixes the stories, borrowing bits from here and there, but it stays faithful to the spirit of the original, right? It has a Mrs Hudson and an Inspector Lestrade, a Moriarty and even an Irene Adler. It has London, with London cabs (if not horse-drawn hansoms) and London landmarks (albeit some Arthur Conan Doyle wouldn’t recognise).

Elementary has New York, with its Yellow Cabs and Brownstone buildings. The only Hudson is the river (although it does provide a sparkling backdrop to Sherlock and Joan Watson’s night-time communions on their massive roof terrace) and there’s no Lestrade. There is a Captain Tobias Gregson (a nod to one of the few Scotland Yard detectives who ever impressed Sherlock Holmes) but he’s, well, American.

But Elementary also has Sherlock Holmes, the superhero of the piece. The character with the special powers you’re waiting to see unleashed, in the same way you wait for Batman to appear and start taking out the bad guys. Maybe Elementary is Jonny Lee Miller’s chance to show America what a British superhero looks like…

Miller’s Holmes sounds very British, and a little bit camp with it, like a tipsy Withnail. Certain mannerisms – the occasional Rainman shuffle in his walk, for instance – suggest an idiot savant element to the “high-functioning sociopath” so often used to describe Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. His frenetic deductions are as swift and smart as expected – even if the procedural plots he works on make CSI:NY look conservative.

He’s definitely a man – he has tattoos and sex and used to be a drug addict – but there’s also something endearingly childlike about him, a little-boy-lost quality (probably accentuated by the fact that he’s constantly receiving ultimatums from his unseen father and being forced to submit to drug swab tests by his “sober companion” Dr Watson).

Lucy Liu makes a perfectly decent Watson – far less bland and stilted than the trailers (and the posters) made her appear – and the dynamic between them is promising without (in the first two episodes, at least) resorting to any will-they/won’t-they undertones.

I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan who used to bridle at the slightest deviation from Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. I was highly sceptical when Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss announced their updated version, Sherlock. But it turned out to be the thin end of the wedge. It was good, and I mellowed, and now look what’s happened – I like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation set in New York, with a female Watson. For that, I blame Moffat and Gatiss – and Jonny Lee Miller.

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Elementary starts at 9pm tonight on Sky Living