Jonny Lee Miller doesn't just have a boyish face. His is lost-boyish, vulnerable and eager for approval, even when he is irritating the people around him.
It's that look that is as central to the appeal of "Elementary" as Simon Baker's seeming openness is to "The Mentalist," or Hugh Laurie's intermittently bared neediness was to "House." It's a look that says, no matter how smart the character may be, no matter how insensitively he treats others, he is still, if not huggable, at least deserving a little compassion and concern.
Miller brings his look to a modern Sherlock Holmes residing in New York City in "Elementary," which premieres at 8 p.m. MDT Thursday on CBS. As you would expect, Holmes is brilliant, emotionally distant for the most part and often unaware of social niceties as he tries to solve difficult cases. In the premiere, he is also tattooed, a bit kinky, from wealth, recently moved from London to New York City, and fresh out of rehab.
Because of the problems that led him to rehab, Holmes' father (unseen in the premiere) has hired Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) to be Holmes' "addict sitter" and keep him sober. Of course, the best way to keep any Holmes sober is to keep him from being bored, and it's no different for this one. Having been a consulting detective in London, he resumes that practice in New York with help from a police captain, Toby Gregson (Aidan Quinn), who knows how very skilled Holmes is.
But Holmes and Watson require some warming up. As he plunges headlong into a case, she not only wants to steady him but also to overcome her own emotional damage (which Holmes detects soon enough). And there's the question of what her role will be in Holmes' cases, to which she is inevitably drawn, and where her own abilities are better than Holmes'.
The problem is that this is just a recalibration of things we have seen before; writing in the Guardian newspaper, Stephen Kelly contended that the success of "House" had led to the brilliant misfits of "The Mentalist," "Lie to Me" and the recent British reboot of "Holmes." Only the original Holmes inspired Gregory House, so the creativity in these shows has circled back on itself, and the familiarity of "Elementary's" twists, turns and character quirks make it slow going.
The key for viewers, then, may not be in the story as much as the characters. Is Miller's Holmes indeed lost enough that you might care about him? Is Liu's Watson an able companion? That's the mystery the show's makers must solve, and the premiere suggests they have not yet done it.