Rob Doherty, the creator of the new CBS Sherlock Holmes drama “Elementary,” noted of his main character, “Because Sherlock lives in the public domain, he’s been through many hands. And I think that if so many people couldn’t put their spins on it, I don’t know that he exists in the popular culture the way he does.”
There have, indeed, been over 200 films based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the great detective and his partner, Dr. Watson. But there’s one filmed adaptation in particular that has been dogging “Elementary” a bit leading up to its premiere: the BBC’s “Sherlock.”
Both series put Holmes and Watson into the present day – though this isn’t new, as “Sherlock” creator Steven Moffat has acknowledged that he took inspiration from the Basil Rathbone films that put Holmes into what was then the present day – and CBS had even reached out to Moffat about doing an American “Sherlock.” He turned them down, and then Doherty (a longtime Holmes fan himself) came in to pitch “Elementary,” which stars Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as the first female Dr. Watson.
Because of the timing and CBS’ earlier overtures to Moffat, many “Sherlock” fans have come out against “Elementary” as a watered-down imitation. I’ve seen both, and the similarities are few and far between, other than the bits each borrow from the original stories. “Elementary” takes place in New York City, and Holmes and Watson come together because he requires a sober companion after a stint in rehab. (In the books, Holmes occasionally used cocaine.)
I asked Doherty what he would say to devotees of “Sherlock” – which he described as an “incredible” series – who were predisposed to dislike (or simply not watch) “Elementary.”
“I would say give us a chance,” he said. “I feel like anyone who feels that way is absolutely entitled to that opinion. But I feel it’s a little silly to decide that without seeing what we’ve done. I don’t know whether the (Robert Downey Jr.) movie series came first, or the BBC series, but one obviously did not stop the other. Sherlock has been done many times very successfully by many smart people. I think at the end of the day, what matter is whether it’s being done by somebody who has a respect and passion for the character and the mythology. I feel we have that, the BBC series has that and the movie series has that.”
Beyond the locale and Watson’s gender, Doherty feels the biggest difference – not only between “Elementary” and “Sherlock,” but between “Elementary” and most Holmes adaptations – is its conception of Holmes as a more broken figure, whose obsession with puzzle-solving got the best of him until he wound up in rehab, and then in America.
“I’ve always described him as someone for whom the world and life came so easily,” Doherty said, “because he could see so many things that makes not just investigation relatively simple, but living your life and navigating this world simple. Obviously, something happened that told him, to his great surprise, the world’s not as easy as he thought. Something terrible happened to him in London. Our Sherlock has emerged with what I think is at his core, just a tiny kernel of self-doubt where one previously never existed. It’s not one we’re going to speak to very often, but it’s one that drives him.”
As a former writer on “The Mentalist,” Doherty is aware that, “When I turn the dial on my television, I feel like I see Sherlock everywhere. I see his fingerprints on every procedural show. Most shows have a Sherlock in them; they just happen to be called something else. What we have is a name that means something, and a franchise that means something, and a mythology that people value and treasure. There’s a lot that comes along with the character, and it seems foolish to not take advantage of the relationship that was built in the books, and the spirit of the source material.”
To that end, Doherty has plans for his take on Moriarty, who will appear later this season. When asked later about Holmes’ brother Mycroft, he said he didn’t expect to get around to him in the first season. (Holmes’ mysterious father will be the more important family member in the early going.)
And the goal in making Watson a woman isn’t to add a will-they-or-won’t-they component to the mythology, but to amplify another side of the character from the original texts.
Lucy Liu suggested that Doherty “could have made Watson a man, that’s kind of a given, and the only reason he didn’t is because in the stories themselves, you’ll see that Sherlock has a bit of an awkward relationship with the other gender. Bringing that into play is a constant reminder of the awkwardness.”
Doherty added later, as he has throughout promoting the series, that he has no interest in Holmes and Watson hooking up, or even pining for each other.
“For me, it’s completely off the table,” he said. “I don’t feel like that’s a part of the show. To me, it’s trying to honor the spirit of the original partnership and the original relationship. The original Holmes, to the best of my knowledge, never slept with the original Watson.”
When a reporter noted that CBS has been running promos trying to play up sexual tension between the two, Doherty acknowledged, “I get it. They have to use every arrow in their quiver, and we have a mind-bogglingly attractive pair in Jonny and Lucy. That’s frankly one of the reasons I don’t feel we the writers have to write to it. There’s a very natural sexual tension when you put them in a room. You’re just going to feel it. Are we going to write to it? No. Are they going to act to it? No. But there are people who are going to ask us about it every week.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com