Elementary Sees an All-new Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

With Elementary, Sherlock Holmes fans get a version of the famous sleuth they've never seen before

Credit: CBS

Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller are an updated version of Holmes and Watson in Elementary

Elementary finds a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson using the power of perception in the CSI era

Deductive skills aren’t required to determine CBS’s rationale in giving the green light to Elementary, a new take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson, as there are few fictional detectives with a profile as high as that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth.

But given that the series arrives hot on the heels of a Robert Downey Jr. film franchise and the BBC’s modern-day twist on the character in Sherlock, it’s hard to avoid asking the question, “Do we really need another version of Sherlock Holmes?”

It’s a question that individual viewers will have to answer for themselves, of course, but at the very least, executive producer Rob Doherty (Medium) — who co-created Elementary with fellow EP Carl Beverly (Justified) — is doing his best to make sure that this version of Holmes stands out amongst his high-profile peers.

“You have so many of the pieces in place, because the mechanics of the original stories and characters work so well, that you really have to sit down and make sure that you’ve got your own spin,” says Doherty. “So much of the work is done for you by Conan Doyle that you really want to make sure that you’re adding something to the lexicon.”

Elementary: The New Sherlock Holmes

In the case of Elementary, three major changes have been made to the traditional Sherlock Holmes stories: Holmes is based in New York City rather than London; his trusty companion, John Watson, is now his “sober companion” Joan Watson; and, although he’s still as brilliant as ever, Holmes is lacking a certain amount of the confidence he’s been instilled with in past incarnations.

Doherty credits Beverly with coming up with the one-liner “Sherlock Holmes in New York,” but the concept of flip-flopping Watson’s gender came from Doherty stumbling upon some psychological assessments of Holmes written by real doctors.

“One of the doctors described Holmes as a gynophobe, or at least somebody who had sort of an aversion or a discomfort when it came to the fairer sex, and I thought, ‘Well, geez, then what would make Holmes more insane than a female Watson?’ You take his rock in John Watson and change his gender,” says Doherty.

Elementary Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu

The male/female dynamic is one of the many tweaks to the classic Sherlock Holmes dynamic that makes Elementary interesting (Images: CBS)

“It was really just sort of a fleeting silly thought, and yet I kept coming back to it as I continued to hammer out a pitch. I started to wonder, ‘What would it change? Would it change anything? Would it matter? Should it matter?’ And the more I thought about it and the more questions followed the initial question, the more inclined I was to give it a shot and see what happened.”

Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson

The dynamic is decidedly different with Lucy Liu stepping into Watson’s shoes, but neither she nor Miller is anticipating any sort of will-they-or-won’t-they vibe. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Miller had a laugh over how much viewers “love their sexual tension” but underlined that there was no indication that the storyline would head in that direction, adding, “That’s not what Holmes and Watson are about, and it would be inappropriate, really, to go that way.”

Miller’s feelings on the matter aren’t likely to stop CBS from trying to paint a different picture in promos for the show, however — a fact that Doherty acknowledged after the Elementary panel at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills.

“I get that they have to use every arrow in their quiver, and we have a mind-bogglingly attractive pair in Jonny and Lucy,” said Doherty, laughing. “There’s a very natural sexual tension when you put them in a room, let alone living in a house together and dealing with cases. You’re gonna feel it. Are we gonna write to it? No. Are they gonna act to it? No. But it’ll be there. And there will be people that’ll ask us every week, there’ll be people who want to see it happen. I don’t want to break any hearts, but it’s just not in our plans.”

As for Holmes’ lack of confidence, Doherty originally pitched the premise to CBS by describing his version of the character as “a Sherlock in repair.” The establishment of the concept begins with Holmes’ first appearance in the pilot, which occurs on the heels of his escape from the rehab facility in which he’d been ensconced.

“There’s always been this notion that Holmes is always so far ahead of everyone, and I liked the idea that he’d been pushed backwards a few steps, that he’d been through a personal trauma that didn’t quite hit the ‘reset’ button but had forced him to see the world in a slightly different way,” said Doherty.

Another key attribute of Elementary is Holmes’ relationship with NYPD Capt. Tobias Gregson, played by Aidan Quinn, landing on his feet after the cancellation of NBC’s Prime Suspect last season. While perhaps not as well known to casual fans, the character of Gregson is also taken from the original Sherlock Holmes tales, although Quinn admits that Elementary’s version of Gregson is already taking a different path than his literary counterpart.

“The back story is that Holmes and Gregson worked together post-9/11 when Gregson went to work on an anti-terrorism task force thing in England, and Sherlock Holmes was at Scotland Yard,” explains Quinn. “That’s where we crossed paths, and that’s where I became aware of his astounding ability. There are a lot of fractious elements to their relationship, but there’s some fodder for some very dark humour, too, which is fun to work with.”

The opportunity to join the cast of Elementary landed in Quinn’s lap while he was in the midst of working in Canada.

“I was doing a movie in Calgary — The Horses of McBride — when I got the call,” says Quinn. “The series was going to start shooting the day before I finished, but they said they’d work around me. It was a whirlwind. I got off a plane, went straight to the hotel in New York, and had about three hours to rest before having to be on the set at 6 a.m. and start shooting the next morning.”

During the TCA panel for Elementary, Liu revealed that she’d been offered the role of Watson before Miller had joined the series but was initially uncertain about taking the plunge. “When Jonny came on, which was really an exciting idea for the part, I thought it was really brilliant, and it changed the entire colour of the project for me,” she said.

Elementary vs Sherlock

Elementary Sherlock Holmes, Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu
Elementary promises this isn’t your
father’s Sherlock Holmes

Interestingly enough, Miller recently worked with Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays the titular character in BBC’s Sherlock) in Danny Boyle’s London stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Although Miller noted during the TCA panel that he had discussed Elementary with Cumberbatch (“I wanted to reassure him about how different this script was”) and found him very supportive of the endeavour, an interview with Cumberbatch in ShortList Magazine painted his position rather differently, inspiring other media outlets to offer headlines about how Cumberbatch had asked Miller not to take the job and that he believed Miller had signed on strictly for the paycheque.

“What I said is I would have preferred not to be in the situation where we will again be compared, because we are friends,” Cumberbatch clarified in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “I know for a fact that his motivations were to do with the quality of the script and the challenges of his exceptional role.”

Although Doherty can’t help but be aware of the various comments made by Cumberbatch, Sherlock executive producer Steven Moffat and various others involved in the BBC program, he’s done his best to ignore the slings and arrows and simply make Elementary its own entity, which was his intent from the beginning.

“I think it’s difficult for anyone in the Sherlock Holmes business to be too defensive of their product, given that we’re all standing on the shoulders of this giant in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” said Doherty. “Ultimately, I think the only thing anyone involved in the BBC show has done is take pride in the great work they’ve done, which they should. They’ve got a remarkable product. For our part, it’s daunting to sort of jump into this particular franchise, and it’s only inevitable that you’re going to be compared to something somewhere along the way. We knew that going in. But we felt we had a story to tell, and so far it’s gone pretty well.”

If there’s one famous element from the Sherlock Holmes mythos that may seem somewhat elusive in the early stages of Elementary, it’s the detective’s most infamous foe, Professor Moriarty. Indeed, the mere mention of the character’s name caused a smile to appear on Doherty’s lips even as he pointedly kept them tightly sealed.

“Wow, I’m trying to figure out what I can and cannot say about Moriarty at this point,” Doherty said in the waning moments of the TCA panel. “In so many of the books, he was such a shadowy figure — I think he was described as the spider at the centre of the web of crime in London — so quite often you’re dealing with his agents. You know, he has a finger in every pie. He’s the man behind the man behind the man. In other words, there are a few dominoes we knock over before we ultimately get to him.”

More recently, Doherty offered a bit more clarification on his TCA comments.

“The initial pitch for the series was designed to accommodate a Moriarty in the first year, [but] we absolutely don’t want to do it in this first batch,” he explains. “Our initial order is just the pilot, plus 12 more episodes, and there are no plans to see him in those. But if we are fortunate enough to move into a back nine, then, yes, there is a plan in place to start to bring Moriarty into our world.”

If that isn’t a good reason for Sherlock Holmes fans to keep watching Elementary, then what is?

Originally published in TVW. For daily programming updates and on-screen Entertainment news, subscribe to the free TVW e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.