Sherlock Holmes: A chameleon character with ‘Elementary’ appeal

Oct. 04, 2012 | 1:25 p.m.
elementary1 Sherlock Holmes: A chameleon character with Elementary appeal

Jonny Lee Miller stars as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson in the modern-day “Elementary.” (Giovanni Rufino / CBS)


Five years ago, I pitched a brilliant idea to an editor I know: a modern take on Sherlock Holmes. Instead of shooting cocaine, he smokes pot! Instead of being a violin virtuoso, he plays the sax! Instead of Watson publishing his stories about Holmes … well, wherever he supposedly published them, he’d have a blog! And, instead of being a wounded army doctor just back from Afghanistan, he’d be a wounded army doctor just back from … whoa! Afghanistan! We could call the book “” so folks would know this wasn’t your grandpa’s Sherlock Holmes.

(Good titles are hard, people. Just ask the guy who came up with “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.”)

The editor’s response (after rousing himself from what looked like a very satisfying nap): “Sherlock Holmes is played out. Have you thought about Robin Hood?”

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(Note to self: Dust off that pitch about con man Robert N. Hood and his band of merry hacker/ninjas.)

Of course, I didn’t have to let one editor’s apathy shoot the whole thing down. But I wasn’t confident I could pull off a modern Holmes. I was already writing a series of stories and novels about a pair of cowboys who use Holmes’ methods to solve mysteries in the Old West, so it wasn’t the Sherlockian angle I found intimidating. It was writing a first-person novel from the perspective of a 21st century Brit that scared me. I’m American. Very American. Like, I-might-have-biscuits-and-sausage-gravy-for-dinner American.

sherlock Sherlock Holmes: A chameleon character with Elementary appeal

Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Martin Freeman in “Sherlock.” (BBC)

I toyed with making either Holmes or Watson a Yank and relocating the book to Washington, D.C., or Chicago or maybe New York, but, nah. Holmes belongs in London the same way Superman belongs in Metropolis, Batman belongs in Gotham and Wonder Woman belongs … where does Wonder Woman belong?

Anyway, I put the idea on the back burner. Then I put it in the fridge. Then I threw it in the garbage when it started to smell like two-year-old applesauce. In other words, I let it go. And you know what happened next: Someone else picked it up. A few someone elses.

Do I think that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, co-creators of the phenomenal BBC Holmes update “Sherlock,” were sitting at the next table when I described my idea to friends over dinner in 2007? Heavens, no! Those guys are geniuses. That they had the same idea is what tells me it was brilliant in the first place. (Plus it’s hard to imagine them hanging out at a Cheesecake Factory in Marin County.)

Do I think that Rob Doherty, showrunner of the new CBS Holmes update “Elementary,” had my editor’s office bugged? Perish the thought! TV people don’t pay any attention to silly ol’ books. (Of course, they do pay attention to TV, but let’s not get into that …) Even during that 2007 Cheesecake Factory dinner, I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody had the same brainstorm.

“If I don’t write this,” I can remember saying, “someone else will.”

Because the thing is, Holmes updates were nothing new even then.

sherlock2 Sherlock Holmes: A chameleon character with Elementary appeal

(The Asylum Home Entertainment)

During World War II, Holmes and Watson (as played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) went head-to-head with the Nazis in several Universal features. The 1987 TV movie “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” brought our hero out of suspended animation in (then) modern Boston. The 1993 TV movie “Sherlock Holmes Returns” also used suspended animation (and the recycling of stale ideas) to transport the master sleuth to contemporary San Francisco. More recently, the ultra-low-budget 2010 film “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes” pitted Holmes and Watson against rampaging dinosaurs. (An even more startling and unlikely reboot came the previous year, when Holmes was somehow transformed into Robert Downey Jr.)

And it doesn’t end there. In books and comics, Holmes has squared off against Jack the Ripper, the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, zombies, Martians, Jesus Christ and the Warren Report. He’s traveled all the way to exotic Minnesota to solve baffling crimes … five times! Fans around the world can tolerate the constant reimaginings because Holmes’ qualities transcend any particular time and place. He’s brilliant. He’s observant. He’s eccentric. He’s flawed — but he’s good. And he always has his loyal friend by his side: Watson, the stand-in for all of us who stick with Holmes through thick and thin.

So it doesn’t strike me as surprising that CBS would offer up yet another spin on the character, even if that spin is a tad familiar. The only question is this: What will the next new angle on Holmes be?

I have an idea … but this time I’m keeping my mouth shut till it’s done.

— Steve Hockensmith

Steve Hockensmith is the author of the “Holmes on the Range” mystery series as well as the New York Times bestseller “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls.” He can be found online at and in the real world in his office drinking too much coffee.


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10 Responses to Sherlock Holmes: A chameleon character with ‘Elementary’ appeal

  1. tbplayer says:

    This new show is just House without the medicine…. which was just Sherlock Holmes in a hospital.

  2. Fox Henry says:

    I have loved Jonny Lee Miller ever since 'Hackers'. I am afraid this will be a cult show (only one or two seasons) but I will watch every episode more than once and will buy the DVDs when they come out. It is just too bad that his talent is so under used. I can imagine Miller in so many venues. 'Elementary' is off to a good start. Give this one a chance people! It has potential.

  3. lily mathews says:

    Sadly the millions who watch this will not have seen the brilliant bbc sherlock but , the recent 13 emmy nods and the increasing awards that this show is garnering, will hopefully bring a much wider and curious audience to this astonishing show.

  4. Matthias hintze says:

    in fact this show is a total dog. it's extremely bad, it's like any random american cop show, w/ the silly crimes being so patently blah blah and holmes just rattles on a lot as if he already knows the plot, rather than using super human powers of deduction. as someone else pointed out, the recent bbc series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is sooooo good, not even compared to this dog, but soooo good on its own, it's just sad. lucy liu as a sidekick is total nonsense. i don't even get that, except it's to maybe get some female viewers. in the pilot it's also stupid.

    actually it's hard to explain how dumb the show is. i'm struggling. i was thinking, no way does this get a 2nd season.

    in a real sherlock holmes story sherlock holmes isn't irritating or annoying, he's cool. also he doesn't contradict himself.

  5. Sophie says:

    There is only one Sherlock and his name is Jeremy Brett.

    • Carolyn says:

      I toally agree with you Sophie. I grew up reading the books and then the Movies with Basil Rathbone, but when PBS Mystery started showing " The Adventures of Sherlock Holms " back in 1983 I totally fell in love. Jeremy Brett played the part to perfection, learning all the little Holmsian quirks down to a tea. He was Holms brought to life and made human, with all the flaws and foiblesof the original, but with a sense of humor and a deep abiding respect for Justice, whither inside the law or outside in providences hands. He even looked like the drawings that Sidney Paget did of the famous detective in the Strand Magazine. So many of the poses that Brett did in the series were taken right off the pages of the original stories. He was the best.
      Of course his sidekick Watson, played by David Burke in the first series, was exactally the right mix. He was smart, patient and Loyal to a fault. I was sorry when he didn't return in the later shows. Edward Hardwick picked up the role and took it on as his own, adding yet another side to the steadfast Watson. The entire series was Masterful, pun intended.

  6. Lou Zogby says:

    I have become "addicted" to "Elementary". It is smart, well acted and a great concept. While I have never been a fan of Lucy Liu, I find her to be very competent and charming as Dr. Watson. The whole idea of the new Holmes is a great idea and hope that it will be around for a while. Not like NBC's hatchet job on "Harry's Law" which was also a great show. All too often we as viewers are left with the trash they call entertainment. Let's hope that "Elementary" will be around for a while. Congratulations CBS for supporting this new show. Hope it's a big hit for everyone.

  7. Delta Brown says:

    Jonny Lee Miller is amazing as a modern Sherlock Holmes. When he played the violin at the end of the episode, my eyes welled with tears. He brings a depth to this character who is both brilliant and vulnerable. I am in love with Jonny as Holmes. Lucy Liu brings a sassy and yet tenderness to the role of Watson. What a great idea for casting. I look forward to seeing more of this wonderfully acted and unique problem solving team in the future. Bravo and encore, please.

  8. Zee Chen says:

    I love this show. It is finding it's footing and I am really enjoying it.

  9. kete says:

    It's a totally generic US crime show with totally generic lead characters and I just couldn't see any reason for calling the leads Holmes and Watson other than to cash in on the BBC!Sherlock hype. They could have been called Jones and Smith and it wouldn't have changed a thing. Also, if it's not mysogynistic to rob Watson of her competence as an army doctor to make her a disgraced surgeon, I don't know what is. Fail, CBS.

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