CBS’ Modern Sherlock Holmes Pilot “Elementary”: Great Idea or Hot Mess?

As you have probably heard in some way by now, CBS is currently developing a series called Elementary, described as a “modern-day take” on the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective Sherlock Holmes. In addition to the modern setting, the new CBS drama will transplant Holmes and Watson from London to New York City. And there are some, um, other terrible ideas big changes in the works, too.

The project is being helmed by former Medium producer/writer Rob Doherty, and the series pilot (all that has been approved at this point) will be directed by Homeland’s Michael Fuesta. Now that both Holmes and Watson have been cast, (though those particular bombshells are under the cut), it’s probably time to talk about it because, well, everyone else is, and I don’t think I can keep all the thoughts inside much longer.

I know the character of Sherlock Holmes is all kinds of trendy right now, what with the BBC’s popular Sherlock TV series and Guy Ritchie’s successful film franchise, but, CBS’s decision to move forward with this pilot just raises all kinds red flags for me. (And I don’t think I’m alone in this, given the general uproar that seems to be happening online.) So – is this show a worthwhile idea? Have we achieved Sherlock market saturation? Are there too many changes on the table? Most importantly, is this even going to be good television?

Full disclosure: I enjoy Sherlock Holmes in any and all incarnations, even thought the current BBC Sherlock is my favorite flavor of the moment. If this Elementary series makes it to air, I will watch for as long as it lasts. I will probably may mock it into the ground, but I’ll be watching it. But as it stands at the moment, I don’t think I’ll be enjoying it very much.  

To be fair, there’s no guarantee that Elementary will make it out of the pilot stage – and many series often don’t (anyone remember that ghastly Wonder Woman remake everyone was talking about last year?). But, as Holmes is such a hot property right now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this series on CBS’s schedule next Fall.  And why does that bother me? Well…

Do We Even Need This Show on TV Right Now? There’s already a pretty successful, high quality, modern-day Holmes adaptation on-air in BBC’s Sherlock, which has become something of a cult phenomenon in America and is wonderfully done besides. While this CBS series appears to be (a bit hamfistedly) attempting to bring something new to the table via one of its casting choices, it somehow still carries a sense of vague unease along with it – like we’re still talking about a rerun of something we’ve already seen. While the BBC certainly doesn’t own the rights to the idea of Sherlock Holmes – Conan Doyle’s works are in the public domain, after all, and every network could have a Holmes show of its own if they wanted to – it’s pretty hard to not to think of this series as a retread (at best) or an attempt to piggyback on the popularity of these other successful franchises (at worst).

I mean, I can’t be the only one who’s already mentally envisioning the approximately eleven thousand “Cumberbatch Comparison” articles that will explode all over the media this Fall, can I? (Heck, I’ll probably write one.) I adore all things Holmes, but this project might have been better served left on the shelf for a few more years. By that point, as sad as this makes me to say, the BBC series will likely have concluded its run, and there would be space for something like this to find an audience and convince naysayers that it has something original and worthwhile to say or, at the very least, is filling a void in their entertainment lives. At the moment, if I were a network executive, I would be a bit concerned that the same people who ought to theoretically comprise a significant portion of Elementary’s core fanbase are the very folks that are so loudly and vehemently protesting its existence.

Honestly: American Remakes of British Imports Rarely Work. As most dedicated anglophiles know, American adaptations of British programs tend to be popular during development season – and with good reason. They’re known quantities; they have recognizable names and, theoretically, they come with a built-in audience. And, of course, everyone always hopes that they can recreate the crossover success of NBC’s The Office remake. The fact that this has never happened to any significant degree outside of The Office always seems to be lost in that conversation, but that doesn’t seem to stop any major network from trying to create their own “Americanized” British hit – or pointing to the NBC comedy’s success as a reason to do so. (While it’s worth pointing out that many successful American reality shows have adapted the formats of British series – American Idol, The X-Factor, What Not to Wear, to name a few – reality  is a very different beast than a scripted series.) Last season alone we got American versions of Skins, Being Human, Prime Suspect and Free Agents. And only one of those series made it to a second season. This should probably tell people something. (And please don’t mention that rumored Misfits remake. Because I might cry.) 

CBS has been doing an admirable job of telling anyone and everyone that this series isn’t meant to be an American version of the current BBC drama and insists that they’ll be using Holmes and Watson in stories with new characters. There’s no reason not to believe them, but given the fact that the network did, originally, approach Auntie Beeb and attempt to remake their Sherlock with the network’s blessing, I can understand why some people don’t find their denials comforting and are viewing Elementary with trepidation at best.

Their Sherlock Casting: Interesting or Questionable? It’s been announced that Jonny Lee Miller has been tapped to play Holmes for CBS. Surprising? A bit. As many fans know, Miller recently shared the stage with BBC Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle’s fantastic Frankenstein, with the pair trading off the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature on alternating nights. They won some awards for it. On Miller’s casting, Sherlock executive producer Sue Vertue told The Independent, “Let's hope their pilot script has stayed further away from our Sherlock than their casting choice." A snarky response, yes, but her comment does feel very on the nose about the situation.

What's unfortunate about this news is that Miller really is a fantastic actor in his own right: he did wonderful work with Cumberbatch in Frankenstein (which is, apparently, offering encore cinema screenings this summer, so go see it!), Eli Stone was an underrated gem, and should he gain international stardom playing Holmes, it will be well deserved. Yet, this is such an awkward casting choice, and for reasons that have nothing to do with Miller or his talent. For me – and probably a lot of others who would theoretically comprise this show’s main fan base – this decision feels very like going with a Cumberbatch understudy, a sort of we can’t have him, but let’s see how close we can get in a six degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way.  It’s possible my feelings are an overreaction born of extreme fondness for Cumberbatch’s performance as Holmes, but surely there had to be some available, talented British actor out there who didn’t have any ties to anything connected to the BBC adaptation? I mean, I hear Hugh Laurie’s about to be looking for a job…

And Then There’s the Watson Thing. Just last week, it was also announced that Charlie’s Angels star Lucy Liu will be playing John…er, sorry.. Joan Watson in Elementary. Again, my indecision, welcome to it – I think that, on paper, this could be a somewhat interesting idea, in terms of the show being a Holmes adaptation, and I am generally excited to support the inclusion of more strong female characters on television whenever I can (and John’s an awesome character for anyone to play). However, I also consider this “twist” to be a terrible and tiresome set-up for a CBS procedural, precisely because it is the probably the safest, most predictable choice they could have made (however much they try to spin it as “risky”).

Had the series made an executive decision to have a female Sherlock, or heck, even made both characters women, that would have been much more interesting to me. That would have felt like taking a real risk with the source material, as Holmes' character has always seemed to swoop blithely past many of the "adjustments" or "experiments" foisted upon Watson's over the years (bumbling sidekick, nonentity, animated robot). I'm actually fairly certain that some adaptation has done a female Watson before, though I'm blanking on what it is and Wikipedia is no help. (Anyone know?) A female Sherlock would have been groundbreaking; it would have offered so many new opportunities to explore what precisely makes Holmes Holmes.  The more I think about it, the more I really mourn the fact that they didn’t make Sherlock a woman. That could have been so darn interesting! (I saw a random blog on Tumblr campaigning to re-cast Firefly star Summer Glau as Sherlock and I just weep for what might have been. Though, honestly, I think Liu herself would have really been an excellent Holmes.) 

As it stands, it’s a bit difficult to get that excited about yet another hour-long drama-mystery focused around a startlingly brilliant lead character and his omnipresent female sidekick who trails said lead around, telling him how brilliant he is and serving as a “humanizing influence” for his awkward, anti-social or aggressive ways.  Both of those things are basically guaranteed to happen, as a huge function of John’s presence in the stories, in addition to his general awesomeness, is to be the audience window into what makes Sherlock tick and turn the character into something we, the outsiders, can understand. We already have so many of these kinds of programs on television, on virtually every network. As a set-up, it’s tiresome and it makes the series’ premise feel mundane and average, when really, the Holmes/Watson stories are anything but.

Plus, there’s my ultimate fear - that it all eventually turns into some sort of “will/they won’t they” relationship drama with a side dose of crime fighting or mystery solving, just like the Castles, Bones-es, virtually all USA Network dramedies, and [insert procedural of your choice heres] that have come before. (Thanks a lot, Moonlighting curse.) CBS series do tend to follow a very specific formula in this regard – and it's one that’s very successful for them ratings-wise, to be sure, so I imagine that they won’t be terribly interested in messing with a format that works so well for them. Sigh. I would dearly love to be wrong about this. I just don’t think that I’m going to be.

Personal Pet Peeve: Seriously, New York!? One of the most awful things about this entire CBS Sherlock brouhaha is the fact that the network is setting their Holmes story in New York. Really!? I love the Big Apple as much as the next girl, but this is, as BBC Sherlock would say, Wrong! London is practically a character in its own right in the Holmes stories. I’d almost rather they just take the basic plots from the Conan Doyle canon and have an entire new cast of characters, or aliens, or evil twins act them out, because having the actual Sherlock Holmes dashing around New York City is uncomfortably weird and somehow feels as though the entire show is out of character before we’ve even begun.

Early word on the street says that CBS’s Holmes will still be British – a former consultant to Scotland Yard whose addiction problems land him in a New York rehab center. This backstory actually exacerbates my issue with this particular plot point even further – if they’d gone ahead and made it American!Sherlock in New York, that would be one thing (and I could at least argue with the voice in my head that New York is simply the same for American Sherlock as London is for British Sherlock). Keeping him British and in New York irks my internal “this is wrong!” meter quite a bit – is there even a Baker Street in NYC? Will Sherlock live at 221 Avenue B instead? I don't know what to believe in anymore!

This Could End Up Being a Real-Life Courtroom Drama.  While no one holds the copyright over Sherlock Holmes and John Watson anymore, it’s very possible that CBS could get sued if their modern adaptation appears to lift too many modern accessories from its BBC counterpart – which, as we all know, heavily features the use of texting, computers and other technological conveniences as major components of its stories. (And I hope they weren’t planning to dress their Sherlock in anything that looks remotely like that Belstaff…) Obviously, the casting of Liu is an attempt to prove beyond question that CBS is going in an very different direction than the BBC’s series – and thereby keep the network out of a lawsuit – but a lot will also depend on how they set up Elementary’s premise and how many “modern” elements they include. Both Vertue and co-creator Steven Moffat have mentioned the BBC is monitoring the CBS series very closely to make sure that it isn’t skirting the line too closely to their show. We'll have to see how that particular piece of the story develops - but since CBS just canceled another pilot over a legal threat from Sony, such a move would certanly not be unprecedented here.

It’s understandable that CBS wants to do everything that they can to prove that they aren’t stepping on the BBC’s toes (they don't want a lawsuit) and that the network has a vested interest in making their Sherlock stands out from the crowd, as it were (they do want ratings). But it certainly feels to me as if they have picked the most pedestrian option possible with every choice they’ve made so far. I hope that at some point, something about this show will surprise me or turn out to be legitimately interesting. I also hope that I’m wrong about its likely quality. But I rather don’t think I am. (And I’m pretty happy that we can sort of wash this out of my our collective brains for a bit when BBC Sherlock returns to Masterpiece in May.)

Well, now I’ve gone on at massive, embarrassing length about this, so now it’s your turn. What do you think? Will you watch Elementary, should it make it to your television? Is it a great idea or a hot mess?

 Sources: Deadline Hollywood, Huffington Post UK, The Independent and Digital Spy

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Twitter at @LacyMB