How CBS' 'Elementary' Will Ruin Sherlock Holmes


I know, I know – commenting on how British shows are undermined by their American spinoffs is a tired subject. It’s an age-old sin of the American TV industry: taking hilarious, risqué or in-depth programming ideas from Mother England and turning them into watered-down remakes.

Now CBS is set to repeat the exercise with a modern-day Sherlock Holmes series called Elementary (set in New York). We shouldn’t be surprised that CBS is ripping off the stellar BBC series Sherlock, but I’m afraid of the damage Elementary will do to the public perception of Sherlock Holmes. Even worse, what if North American audiences like the American Holmes better? Which beloved British character gets Americanized next?

I don’t need to refresh you on Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic characters. Even if you haven’t read the original stories or seen any of the dramatized versions, on stage, film and TV, the presence of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson is an essential part of our pop culture. Between the colourful case names, famous quotes and the deerstalker hat, Holmes is instantly recognizable.

Bearing that in mind, consider what we know about CBS’ Elementary. Jonny Lee Miller (ironically, a British actor) will play a 21st-century Holmes in New York, backed up by Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson. At the moment, we've only seen a few scattered set photos, like the one above. But even those preliminary details are enough to condemn this project.

Let’s break it down. First, the New York setting. To put Sherlock Holmes in the Big Apple might be a fun idea for an episode of a British adaptation. But to base a decidedly British character in a city that’s had dozens of cop shows and detective dramas play out in its streets strikes me as uninspired. Apparently, no effort was made to explore other towns that might provide a new backdrop, places that don't see much screen time. Fox’s Fringe, for example, is fun because it’s set in Boston, a fresh alternative to the barrage of New York crime scenes.

The 21st-century period is, of course, an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of BBC’s Sherlock. Sherlock has built up a sizable audience in North America through simulcasts on PBS and BBC Canada. Part of the warm reception has to do with the effective, subtle uses of modern technology on the show. Texting and blogging figure in most episodes, and it’s clear that CBS wants to sell Elementary based on a similar premise, as if to say, “Hey! Remember that smart geezer in a funny hat? Now he’s cool!”

So we have a show that’s based on an over-used setting and copied concepts. Add to that the casting decision we heard about this week: that Dr. Watson will be a female character on Elementary, played by Lucy Liu. Despite what the producers at CBS might think, this isn’t novel or charming.

Instead, it’s boring and obvious. By making Watson into a woman, CBS is telegraphing their punches. They’re going to set up sexual tension between Holmes and Watson from the get go, and we’re all supposed to squirm and wonder, “Will they or won’t they?” There'll be electric gazes, stolen kisses and likely a scene where Holmes walks in on Watson while she's naked. It’s like a pitch for a horrible romantic comedy, only it’s exploiting characters that are already doing so well in other works.

That’s what really bothers me about Elementary. Looking at NBC’s The Office , I know American remakes of British TV can do really well with audiences. I have visions of Elementary pulling in similar ratings, and ballooning to multiple seasons of Sherlock “lite”, all because it panders to a general audience with its simplistic set-up.

Assuming Elementary does well with audiences, we’re looking at a future where people know the American Sherlock better than the original one. In the case of The Office, perhaps it wasn’t such a loss, because the characters, while funny, didn’t have the same beloved history. To have the respected image of Sherlock Holmes be watered down by an American knockoff would be a terrible shame. What’s next – an American Doctor Who? Oh wait – they’re already pushing for that, too.


What do you think of the CBS show Elementary? Are you condemning the project like I am? Or are you curious to see an American Sherlock Holmes? Am I being alarmist about a character who can survive any mud thrown at his legacy? Sound off in the comments section, and browse through my recent TV-related articles:

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