Posted Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, at 3:18 PM
Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller on Elementary (CBS)
Time-shifting, binge-viewing, and cord-cutting have transformed not just the rules for spoilers, but the job of the TV programmer. In every time slot, networks are now competing with the entire world of recorded entertainment rather than against three or four rival broadcasters, as used to be the case. But on Super Bowl Sunday, one network’s schedulers get the chance to deliver 100 million viewers to the show of their choice. This year, CBS has filled the post-game slot with an episode of its new Sherlock Holmes procedural, Elementary.
When CBS announced its selection for the post-Super Bowl slot, Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein declared it “a fumble.” Wallenstein pointed out that competitions like Survivor and reality shows like Undercover Boss have historically gotten the biggest boost from post-game exposure, and that those scripted dramas that have benefitted—Grey’s Anatomy in 2006, Criminal Minds in 2007—were already in their second-season stride when they got the nod.
All this is true, but since most of CBS’s comedies, procedurals, and competitions are already well-established—or, like How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men, well past their primes—the only real contenders were 2 Broke Girls, Vegas, Person of Interest, and Elementary. I watch and like all of those shows, but I’m convinced Elementary was the right choice.
I hated the Elementary pilot, and not because I’m a Sherlockian purist or a BBC partisan. Right from the start, Lucy Liu brought a bracing freshness to the role of Joan Watson, and Jonny Lee Miller was enthralling as a tattooed Holmes whose demons are close to the surface. The problem was that the mystery element stank up the joint.
Since then, I’ve come around a little bit. Unlike many procedurals, Elementary has shown it can shift tones from week to week—sometimes deadly serious, as in Jan. 10’s “M”; sometimes a bit daft, like Jan. 3’s “Dirty Laundry.” The lead characters met cold in the pilot, when Watson became Holmes’ “sober companion.” They had great chemistry together from the start, but their relationship has become more interesting and nuanced as they’ve gotten to know each other. Many procedurals stumble when it comes to showing the characters’ lives “off the clock,” but since Holmes and Watson share a home—for now, at least, it’s still a temporary arrangement—they’ve learned to solve crimes and live together. And while this Holmes is still the smug, self-centered putz that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created, Watson is shown to be better than him at certain tasks, such as hailing cabs or getting information from the recently bereaved. Their relationship is still a professional one, but they’re learning to like each other.
Thirteen episodes into the first season, plotting is still the show’s weak link, but that is less important than ever this Sunday. After three hours of football, commercials, drinks, and seven-layer-dip, viewers’ deductive skills are likely to be duller than usual. For once it’s OK to overlook the mystery’s shortcomings and enjoy the real strengths of this improving show.