Friday, March 1, 2013


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, not to bother with the series; based on that 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 but not too challenging, to unwind with before sleeping. 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 and deny it though the makers might, it's pretty obvious that Elementary's driven, dysfunctional take on a modern Sherlock owes more than a little to its British antecedent. Only a career-best turn 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. Despite shedding 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. It'll do until Sherlock comes around again.

I'd have to agree. 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 at the time of writing is 11.12 and they get a champagne party.

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.


  1. Also, CBS was doing much better on Thursdays then. But in-mansion (as opposed to in-house) production does definitely count for something, particularly with all the subsidiary (repeats/syndication/export/home video) money to be picked up...

  2. That was also the year that NBC cancelled the CBS Studios-produced MEDIUM, and CBS picked it up and ran it for a further season.

  3. Actually, with the L+7 viewers thrown into the ratings mix "Elementary" is doing much better than 11.12. According to a article "Harder and harder to measure TV viewership": "CBS considers its freshman drama “Elementary” a case of public perception not matching reality. Last fall, the show averaged 9.7 million viewers – respectable, but hardly a sensation. But between video on demand, DVRs and streaming, CBS said an average of 13 million people watched each episode within a week of its airing.

    “If the number the press had seen was 13 million instead of 9.7 million, it would have been seen as a huge hit,” said David Poltrack, CBS chief researcher." Viewership increases 57% when the L+7 numbers are factored in. I will grant the fact that it's produced by CBS Studios is a factor, but it is doing quite well and has a consistent 10 million live viewers. Even the February 28 Super Bowl episode rerun won the 10:00 pm time slot with 7.9 million viewers.

  4. I am one of the few who liked Elementary from the very first episode. But in my opinion it devolved into the regular type of crime show fare we get in the US: serial killer of the week. Last week's episode was a step up, but not by much. Now that my guilty pleasure show 666 Park Avenue is cancelled and The Mentalist has moved to Sunday I watch that regularly. I'm impressed with its plots as being some of the more original in crime TV this season. I especially liked the one with Mariette Hartley. Now if only Elementary could borrow a few writers from The Mentalist we'd have a chance for a second season of Miller and Liu doing their updated Holmes and Watson.

  5. The Cumberbatch version was decent, although half the fun was watching the screenwriters shoehorn all the names and places from the Holmes stories into it. But it was obviously science fiction, I mean, a world where there are cars and cellphones and no one has heard of Sherlock Holmes? It was well-done, and I'm not going to watch someone else's diluted and Americanised take on it unless I am forced at gunpoint.