Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu star in "Elementary." (Giovanni Rufino / CBS )
How many Sherlocks can dance on the head of a pin? At least one more, as it turns out.
On paper, Thursday's launch of "Elementary," CBS' update of the world's first and most famous consulting detective, seems absurd. Robert Downey Jr. has given Holmes an ironic, rakish twist and action-figure potential on the big screen, while Benedict Cumberbatch dials him down to icy and vulnerable brilliance on the BBC's "Sherlock."
But David Shore's "House," which started the whole Holmesian renaissance, is notable in its absence this fall, leaving space for a straightforward police procedural accessorized with characters that evoke familiarity while projecting a thoroughly modern, and American look. Victoriana by way of J. Crew, savant-like deduction as another form of mind-rattling compulsion.
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In this version, created by Rob Doherty, Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a pale, twitchy yet highly articulate mess, recently released from rehab into the care of Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), a surgeon turned sober companion. Hired by Holmes' rich father, she represents the detective's Last Chance — if he screws up on this side of the pond as he apparently has done in his native London, Sherlock will be cut off from the family fortune, which includes a very nice apartment in Brooklyn.
To keep himself busy and sober, he restarts his career as a consulting detective, reporting to New York police Capt. Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn), who has worked with Sherlock in London and understands the value of this particular irritant. The initial infantilizing of a character whose No. 1 characteristic was extreme and utter independence is a bit alarming. Between the rumpled shirts and perpetually pained, plaintive eyes, Miller gives us the most man-boyish Sherlock to date (although surely he owes his carefully groomed stubble to "House's" Hugh Laurie.)
Fortunately, the brain and the underlying confidence are still intact, and though undeniably sexy in his save-me-I'm-too-brilliant-for-my-own-good way, Miller manages to camouflage his appeal with the grimy emotional film of the newly sober and determinedly isolated, allowing Liu's Joan Watson to approach him with something besides the inevitable roiling, but vehemently denied passion.
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All modern retellings of Sherlock involve a bromance with Watson and a re-imagining of the detective as a tortured romantic hero, falling somewhere between "Jane Eyre's" Mr. Rochester and "Twilight's" Edward Cullen. "Elementary" manages to do both with the same relationship, which begins in true rom-com fashion with the requisite prickly banter and disbelief at each other's failings.
But this Watson is granted a personal back story deeper than the usual postwar trauma or attempt to juggle a normal life with the detecting one assigned her. That, more than the uneasy friendship that may eventually lead to love, thus fulfilling the romantic and sexual fantasies of over-educated female Sherlock Holmes fans (including this one), is what gives "Elementary" promise.
Although inarguably going for House-lite, Miller is certainly competent and even compelling as this round of newly imagined Sherlock Holmes, but it's Watson who's brand new. Not just because he's a she, but because she seems to be operating, for the first time, in her own parallel narrative.
Liu gives her Watson the perfect blend of wariness and admiration — she is clearly brilliant in her own right and while she may be his keeper, she is not his chronicler. And her journey may turn out to be just as interesting as his.
Directed by "Homeland's" Michael Cuesta, the pilot neatly balances crime solving and character development and quickly drapes "Elementary" in a nice New York moodiness that instantly sets it apart from its progenitors. It's not as clever as "Sherlock," or as deep as "House" and it certainly doesn't have the action scenes of the new round of films, but it's not difficult to imagine it becoming a successful thread in "The Adventures of the Endlessly Replicating Detective."
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)