Like many people who’d embraced Sherlock I was prepared to dislike CBS’s Elementary just on principle, but I don’t. The Brooligan household watched the pilot and we decided, after some discussion, that it maybe wasn’t for us; based on that first viewing it felt less than fresh, and the mystery element was weak. Subsequent episodes lurked around on the PVR until I came home late one night with a yen for something entertaining to unwind with. Elementary and I had found each other’s level.
Here’s the thing about American TV shows. Where British series can start out strongly and lose oomph as their overloaded creators run out of steam – witness the quality arc of Jonathan Creek, a Sherlock of the ’90s – US series tend to find their feet as the team comes together. Much like the British Sherlock, the show’s strength arises from a lead role played as a character part with all the stops out; though unlike the British version, Lucy Liu’s Watson seems to be fading into the background with very little to do.
Comparisons are inevitable my sense is that Elementary‘s driven, dysfunctional take on a modern Sherlock owes more than a little to its British antecedent. Only a career-best performance from Jonny Lee Miller makes you rise above the thought that it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s character with the serial numbers filed off. In fact you could pretty much swap the leads of the two versions, as Miller and Cumberbatch did nightly in the National Theatre’s Frankenstein.
But the point was well made by a fan of both shows. With Sherlock, it’s three a year. Fewer, if you average it out. Though it lost a couple of million viewers after the pilot, Elementary quickly got its ‘back nine’ pickup, extending the series order from thirteen episodes to a full season of twenty-two. CBS has since ordered a further two episodes to extend the season to twenty-four. It’s a mass product for a mass market, and a successful one of its kind. And the more I see of it, the better it seems to get.
If we disdain something just because we think it’s derivative, where will that leave us? Smug and pure, but with no popular culture and nothing to watch, that’s where. You can have a preference, but it’s still OK to see both. Life may be short, but it’s not that short.
When I looked up Elementary‘s numbers, I was surprised to see how they compared to Eleventh Hour‘s in the same Thursday 10pm CBS slot. We got cancellation with a season’s average of 12.15 million; Elementary‘s weekly average so far is 11.12 and they get a champagne party (as a continuing average that figure will reduce until the season’s end, unless the lost 2 million from the pilot come back and rebalance it).
Here’s the difference; Eleventh Hour was made for CBS by the Warner Bros studio. Elementary is made for CBS by CBS Studios. When the network pays its own studio for the show, the money stays in the family.
It’s always about the numbers, but not necessarily about the numbers you think.