Critic's Notebook: CBS at TCA: It's Elementary
Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller
CBS rarely stirs the prime-time pot. It doesn't need to. Monkeying around is for other, more desperate networks — a point CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler underscored when she took the stage Sunday for CBS' presentations at the annual TCA press tour carrying a large stuffed monkey. A not-so-subtle slap at NBC for having brought along an actual monkey — the breakout scene-stealer of its silly new sitcom Animal Practice — to pose with and otherwise try to distract the press from the peacock's dismal new lineup of shows.
The CBS monkey (wearing a copy of How I Met Your Mother's "ducky tie") didn't stick around long, because Tassler was determined to focus on her menagerie of hits. "I have a very familiar story to tell," she conceded. And in this case, familiarity breeds contentment: A stable lineup of shows that fit and rarely vary far from the CBS brand, drawing tons of viewers while selling well (and often early) in syndication, all adding to the healthy bottom line. Having established two new hits last season — the moody Person of Interest in drama, the tawdry 2 Broke Girls in comedy — and with few holes on the schedule, CBS only has four new fall shows to promote this year, and two of them are just different enough in their tweaking of the network's established procedural formula to suggest they may be around for a while.
Primary case (of the week) in point: Elementary, which inherits The Mentalist's Thursday time period (10/9c), a contemporary spin on Sherlock Holmes (played with great verve and charismatic nervous energy by Jonny Lee Miller), now transplanted to modern-day New York and put in the care of "sober companion" Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu, fresh from her impressive season on cable's Southland) as they solve cases. "It was immediately a show that we gravitated towards," said Tassler, also a fan of the "extraordinary" BBC/Masterpiece Sherlock miniseries that just reaped 13 Emmy nominations. Calling the creation of a female Watson "a very forward-thinking way of doing the show," among other differences from the British Sherlock, plus noting how many incarnations (including the ongoing film franchise) there have been over the decades, Tassler figures "there's plenty of room for another Holmes in the world." Given how much larger CBS' core audience is than PBS', and the funkier vibe of this damaged-goods twist on the iconic character, she's probably right. It's one of the fall's best pilots, even if it won't win points for an original premise.
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Another fan of Sherlock is Jonny Lee Miller himself, who finally gets to use his own accent in a U.S. series (unlike on Eli Stone and Dexter) and flash his real tattoos for the role. In a much-remarked-upon irony, he co-starred with Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch in an acclaimed London stage version of Frankenstein (where they switched off playing monster and doctor), and during the panel on Elementary, Miller said he would call Cumberbatch after every Sherlock episode "like a groupie." They've since discussed this new treatment: "I wanted to reassure him how different this script and project was."
Series creator Rob Doherty (The Mentalist, Medium) says he sees "[Sherlock's] fingerprints on almost every procedural show," but the twist in Elementary is that "our Sherlock hit a serious wall" with his addictions, and "has emerged with ... at his core just a tiny kernel of self-doubt where one previously never existed." It's a tour de force, and not such a stretch to imagine both Sherlocks being nominated for Emmys a year from now (albeit in separate categories for series and miniseries).
Another show stretching the procedural formula: Vegas, airing Tuesdays at 10/9c, which brings Dennis Quaid (who has "CBS star" written in his DNA) to series TV as the real-life character of Ralph Lamb, former sheriff of Las Vegas. Set in the early '60s, Vegas depicts Sheriff Lamb as a reluctant law enforcer who'd just as soon tend to his ranch, but with the desert town growing into a glittering mecca for gambling and corruption, he finds himself clashing with a Chicago mobster (Michael Chiklis in a composite fictional role), newly arrived to cash in on the town's transformation.
Executive producer Cathy Konrad said the network and Tassler immediately saw this as "an epic story" that would "paint a broader palette [than a weekly procedural]." Mixing elements of a modern Western with gangland intrigue — and, of course, weekly criminal investigations — Vegas may be able to avoid the trap of being seduced by the '60s period trappings, which brought down The Playboy Club and Pan Am a year ago. "The aspiration obviously is to be a kind of hybrid broadcast/cable show," said executive producer Greg Walker (Without a Trace). "We're not really promoting a tail fin of a Cadillac or a club or an airline, it's really about an era, and we get to play with a lot of those kind of mores that push the edge of 10 o'clock. So we're dealing with the kind of violence of the era, the sex of the era, the fun that is Vegas in 1960. ... The rule in the writers' room is if it looks familiar, rethink it."
A show that looked a bit too familiar for many critics' taste is CBS' sole new fall comedy, Partners, a buddy comedy about best friends, one straight and one gay, based on the real-life collaboration and friendship of Will & Grace creators David Kohan (straight) and Max Mutchnick (gay). Numb3rs' David Krumholtz and Ugly Betty's Michael Urie play their fictional counterparts, here portrayed as architects, whose bond is tested when the straight guy gets engaged. This very premise, including the architect angle (but minus the gay element), fueled a short-lived Fox rom-com sitcom titled Partners in the mid-'90s, with the added wrinkle that it was co-created by Jeff Greenstein, who worked with Kohan and Mutchnick on Will & Grace.
Mutchnick shrugged it off as an "unfortunate coincidence," which few in the TCA room were buying, but what's truly unfortunate is how Partners fails to capture the authentic dynamic of their relationship, which Krumholtz called "almost vaudevillian in its lunacy." While Urie walks away with the pilot as a gay version of Grace (if that's not redundant), Krumholtz fails to find the humor in the uptight literal straight man of the duo, and their romantic partners — Sophia Bush for Krumholtz, and a tragically miscast Brandon Routh for Urie — are awfully bland. Doesn't really matter what the show's called when it's such a disappointment.
And then there's Made in Jersey — or as I like to think of it, Made For Fridays — a USA Network-lite dramedy (airing Fridays at 9/8c) about a working-class Jersey girl who puts herself through law school and ends up at a posh Manhattan firm, where she naturally shows up the snooty blue bloods (no relation to the CBS series) with her street smarts. All while humoring her loud, large Italian family of brash stereotypes. The appealing star, Janet Montgomery, is actually British, and studied Mira Sorvino's speech patterns among other sources to nail her interpretation. She's fine at it, but as if often the case, she's way more beguiling when speaking in her real voice, as the TCA panel repeatedly proved.
Series creator Dana Calvo says Made in Jersey was inspired by a scene in the movie The Fighter in which the main character's gaggle of noisy sisters sits on a couch horsing around. Calvo found herself wondering: "What if one of those gals had the audacity to go beyond what was expected of her?" High Concept Alert! And that, TV fans, is how shows like Jersey get made.
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