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CBS’s Elementary vs. BBC’s Sherlock: Can an American Holmes Find a Home on US TV?

Written by Alexander Tucker   // 09/07/2012

CBS Elementary Can it find a US Home?CBS’s Elementary vs. BBC’s Sherlock: Can an American Holmes Find a Home on US TV?

Put USA’s Network’s Monk into a blender (against all his protests about the indignity of it all), pour in BBC’s Sherlock (while he calls you all manner of inventive Briticisms), add a refreshing splash of femininity with actress Lucy Liu, set everything to “puree” and you get–stylistically speaking–CBS’s new Sherlock Holmes series Elementary.

The beginning of the fall 2012 television season is upon us and most of the seasons’ fall schedules seem to be sticking to a specific formula; namely, basing new shows off of hits that have done well in the past. If some of the offerings for the end of the year seem a bit tiresome in terms of originality, one really can’t fault the networks entirely. Times are tough, and it’s difficult to find fault with the proven strategy of sticking with what’s worked for themselves–or other networks–in the past. Case in point: A “new” take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

The Robert Downey Jr. film franchise notwithstanding, there’s been a noticeable void in iconic, American, TV detective characters ever since Fox’s House M.D. (himself based on Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes) has officially retired from our tv screens. Back in 2010, BBC’s Sherlock stepped onto the scene with its ambitiously tight and clever storytelling and quickly changed the way that a fast-paced, modern detective show should look. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Warhorse, and the upcoming Star Trek sequel) as Holmes, and Martin Freeman (Hitchhiker’s Guide, and the upcoming Hobbit series) as Watson, the modern-day setting and slick production values of BBC’s Sherlock adventures truly set it apart from the rest of what then-current cop dramas were producing at the time. Its movie-length episodes and clever use of on-screen text effects instantly captured fans from all over the world. Most importantly, it managed to entrance not only long-time Doyle fans, but to secure the loyal following of that all-important demographic of young adult viewers.

Sadly, CBS seems to be grasping at a way to emulate this success with a minimum of effort. It could be because the producers of CBS’s version attempted to secure the rights to the BBC’s version and failed. They even went so far as to offer Cumberbatch the lead in the American version, yet Cumberbatch wisely turned the role down. CBS merely shrugged off the loss, decided to make a few tweaks, and then proceeded to steamroll right over the British franchise. Starring British import Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson–along with a slew of original characters–CBS is hoping that their version of the classic detective can establish itself as a hit here in the US.Elementary Poster CBS Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Joan Watson

There are, however, rumblings of dissent amongst television critics, Sherlock fans, and hardcore Doyle fans. Firstly, the series is set in modern day New York. Though not an entirely terrible decision to move the setting, it is hard not to feel that if you take Holmes away from his original London home, you take away everything that makes the character who he is and who he has been for over one hundred years. Another point of contention: Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Some might say that making Watson female is just another gimmick to set this series apart. Others feel that the gender change was executed for the specific reason of making the Holmes/Watson relationship a romantic one, and therefore easier to draw out over several TV seasons. Though, admittedly, that is a cynic’s point of view, it does seem hard to take Dr. Watson seriously if the basic precept of him (or her in this case) as a former Army doctor won’t even be a factor in Elementary. She is, instead, a former surgeon who gave up on her career after tragically losing a patient. Will this change the tone of the character or lend her more (or less) pathos? We can only await the first episode.

The first glimpses we’ve seen so far are the promotional photos that were recently released by CBS. Only barely differing from the BBC’s promo pictures, they certainly seem to be consciously channeling BBC’s Sherlock. CBS has set Miller up with a sharp plaid scarf, a look of intelligent contempt in the eyes, and plenty of side-by-side shots with Liu, all set against a glittering New York City skyline. Compare that with BBC’s Cumberbatch in flowing blue plaid scarf, alongside Freeman’s Watson against a sparkling London skyline, and you can begin to see why the producers of Sherlock have their lawyers at the ready.

Online debates have raged since word of the series first came to light, and reactions have run the gamut of emotions amongst detective fiction fans, Robert Downey Jr. Fans, and Sherlock fans alike. The main cause for skepticism seems to be based on whether CBS can hold its own in the years-long gap between episodes of BBC’s Sherlock and the wait until the upcoming Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie sequels. Other questions seem to be based on a sense of betrayal that CBS could so shamelessly replicate another country’s franchise, Americanize it, and expect to do well with it. While it’s true that The Office has been a hit in the US, can an hour-long copy of a copy really hold up?

Will I be looking forward to Elementary? Yes, though only to see if CBS has the ability to successfully navigate the deep waters of an already well-established, modern, young fandom that is known to be temperamental in the extreme. Initial press from blogs and critics seems hesitantly favorable, but we can only wait until Elementary premieres on Thursday, September 27th, 10/9c, to see if this Holmes manages to sink or swim.

Written by Kelli Koeller – Follow my podcast, “My Tv & You” at:


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