The Sunday Salon: Elementary

Let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes has rarely been a hotter commodity than at this moment—sure, he’s always been around, but he seems inescapable at the moment. We’ve got a successful film franchise gearing up for its third entry, to say nothing of the smash hit of Sherlock. Everybody and their mom watches it, the fandom is so ravenous that the production team can’t keep up, and it’s won awards. It’s so popular that CBS has decided to slice up a piece of the Holmesian pie for themselves in their very own Sherlock Holmes show, Elementary, coming to television screens this fall. We got our first look at the show on Thursday, and, guys… I’m concerned.

There’s been some reasonable concern that Elementary is a rip-off of Sherlock; I certainly don’t think you can argue that it’s not at least inspired. In fact, Sue Vertue, a producer on Sherlock, claims that CBS actually approached Hartswood Films to see about producing an American version of Sherlock before deciding on creating their own. But will it be a legally actionable rip-off? While it’s quite true that Holmes is in the public domain and anyone can do whatever they want to him, it’s also true that Sherlock has a very specific style all its own. Since it’s actually in production, I trust that CBS’s legal team is on top of that, but I agree with Vertue and Moffat that it’s a bit worrying.


Thursday’s short preview shows a few scenes from, presumably, the pilot episode and a few talking heads from the production. To be honest, the quality of the show doesn’t seem stellar, and as soon as the creator Rob Doherty mentions Sherlock being an alien, I sighed—a few shades too close to Sherlock. But I’m still utterly fascinated by Lucy Liu as a triple-flipped Watson; can we still maintain the essential characteristics of Watson when Watson is an Asian-American woman instead of a white British male? How would that inform the character? Lady Watson (…Doctrix Watson?) has been done before, but I don’t think I’ve seen Watson cast as anything but white in American or British adaptations. There’s so much potential there, which I’m scared is going to be wasted.

I’m scared that, instead of actually exploring what Watson would do in those situations (Joan’s experience in the military is going to be different from John’s, just to start…), Elementary has only gender-flipped Watson to mimic the successful formula for so many other crime procedurals. You know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s an eccentric consultant who doesn’t play by the rules! She’s a woman in authority forced to work with him! It’s Bones, it’s Castle, it’s The Mentalist… and it always comes with a heaping handful of unresolved sexual tension that gets resolved. Now, far be it from me to argue that Holmes and Watson don’t already come with a heaping handful of unresolved sexual tension, but that isn’t what their relationship is solely about. They’re the best and truest of friends, first and foremost, before they’re anything else. And I’m scared that Elementary, already feeling like an attempt to cash in on Sherlock’s success, will neatly slot Holmes and Watson into this formula. Perhaps they won’t, but the fact that Watson is literally assigned to Holmes here as a sober companion rather than moving in with him of her own free will makes me nervous. Adaptations that don’t visually resemble the original can be successful if they retain the heart and soul of a work. The soul of the Holmes novels has always been the relationship between Holmes and Watson, as proven spectacularly in Sherlock. Change that—make them meet-cute instead of becoming friends first, or forced to work together instead of electing to work together—and you no longer have a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. You’ve just got the names.

However, if Elementary makes them platonic best friends for life and gives me Joan ending up with Mary (be she still Mary or changed to Murray), I’ll happily eat my hat.

It’s been the first week of summer for me; I’m interning at my school’s library until the beginning of June, when I’ll be starting an actual publishing internship, which I’m very excited about. I’ve got a pile of Jane Eyre books I need to get started on, but I’ve been taking some time to catch up on my reading; this week, I finished up The Ecstasy of InfluenceRose Daughter, and I’m less than ninety pages from the end of In the Peanut Gallery With Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is better than I expected.

 The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of Elementary? Will you be tuning in (I’m definitely going to watch the first episode, at least)?

14 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Elementary

  1. I’m a little cynical about the show but I’ll check out the first episode. While I’ve never been impressed by Lucy Liu’s acting (there are OTHER Asian-American actresses, Hollywood — give them a chance!), I am fairly excited to see an Asian-American woman tackling such an iconic role. Of course, she’ll probably just be dropped into the “love interest” role, but maybe that won’t happen? I guess we’ll see.

  2. I don’t watch the BBC Sherlock, but from what I understand, the CBS team approaching them beforehand is pretty standard procedure.

    • oh also, it’s pretty hard to judge a show by the pilot entirely since a lot of the senior writing staff will not have been hired, etc. Shows often make significant changes from pilot to show. So there’s hope. 😉

    • For adaptation? I should hope so! But the fact that they initially approached with the intent of adapting that specific piece of intellectual property and then decided to go with their own seems a little… I dunno, off to me. It’s like if a network asked the producers of Coupling for permission to make a US version, but decided to go and make Friends instead. Technically, there’s not much similar, but the association (here already quite pronounced!) would still dog you.


  3. So much to say. Okay, *Coupling* was considered to be an attempt to replicate the success of *Friends* (then there was an American version of *Coupling*; there was also a Greek version of *Coupling,* but no one ever mentions that). I think it was polite of them to ask Moffat, et al if they wanted to be involved, but I don’t think they were bound not to go ahead if the British company wasn’t interested.

    Second, Doctrix? I know you’re trying to be cute, but you know there are female doctors and you know they are called doctors, right? I thought so.

    Third, they didn’t become friends first in *A Study in Scarlet.* They both needed someone to share digs with; on the BBC, Sherlock doesn’t seem to have any money problems, but in the book, both he and Watson needed someone to split the rent. I don’t think Watson is completely won over until the end of the book.

    Fourth, in *Bones,* Temperance Brennan is the “eccentric consultant” and has poor social skills (not that I think that of BookHolmes, but that’s how he’s portrayed), worries if things are not logical, and has emotions explained to her by the more emotional half of the team, who is ex-army.

    Not that I didn’t like your post; I did. I am hoping *Elementary* will be good. BBCSherlock hardly gives me Holmes from the stories; it’s all interpretation and change to create the character arcs the adapters want to show and tell.

    • Shows about a group of attractive youngish people are a dime a dozen, as are adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. However, when you ask someone for permission to create an American version of Sherlock and then produce your own Sherlock Holmes adaptation, it just looks weird, you know? I used the Coupling hypothetical to illustrate this. Coupling and Friends—and, presumably, Sherlock and Elementary—are distinct, but if you know the background, it feels iffy. They weren’t bound to abandon the project if the BBC rejected their idea for an adaptation, of course, but I think it may have been wiser to wait a bit and let the connection simmer down. This close and this similar, it feels awkward.

      I am absolutely aware that female doctors exist and, in English, doctor is not gendered (or, to consult the Latin from which it’s taken, is gendered male). I am merely delighted by the suffix “-trix” and was in need for a gendered version of the word to differentiate Doctor Watson from Doctor Watson. Luckily, there’s a Latin word for that scans fairly easily into English, this most flexible of languages.

      I am well aware of how their friendship progresses, as I’ve read A Study in Scarlet; you may check out my review here. In that parenthetical (dashical? Okay, I’ll stop), I’m offering two examples of how to change the dynamic—the latter is what Elementary is doing, the former is a hypothetical romantic version, where instead of becoming friends first, they meet in a romantic context. Both change the relationship too much to keep it recognizably Holmes and Watson. Hence, they are friends first in the small example. (Which isn’t, of course, to say I am adverse to them becoming romantically involved.) That’s not particularly clear; I apologize.

      I agree that in Bones, Brennan is the eccentric, while Booth is the more emotional and supportive one (and shares Watson’s status as ex-Army). But it doesn’t matter what gender is fulfilling which role in this particular procedural formula, only that the pair are ultimately of the opposite sex so they can satisfy the formula’s quota for sexual tension (and resolution, if recent developments in Bones are anything to go by).

      I hope so, too, because I would love to see Liu’s Watson fully fleshed out, but I’m not holding out much hope. I’m sorry Sherlock isn’t your cuppa. But interpreting and changing character arcs to tell the story the adaptors want to tell is what pragmatic adaptations are all about (and, even if someone sets out to do a purist adaptation, things are inevitably changed—consider Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings), and Elementary, because it’s already taking many liberties with the original text (just as Sherlock takes so many liberties with the original text), is just as liable.

      Incidentally, what’s your favorite Holmes adaptation?

      • I just wrote an (I’m sure) annoyingly long reply to you that got lost when I had to log in. One more try, then.

        Re: CBS: I believe they offered Moffat the opportunity to be involved, which he turned down, rather than asking permission. I don’t think they needed to ask permission, but your mileage may, and probably does, vary on that.

        I do, in fact, enjoy BBCSherlock, although the original previews left me less than impressed (“the game is on”). I have seen every episode. I can criticise aspects of it, but it’s light years beyond most of *A Game of Shadows.* And that had its moments. I am saying that all adaptations (particularly but not exclusively loose ones) interpret and change to achieve their ends. We as readers do the same in some ways. I like/love many and am always ready for more versions of SH, but Holmes of the stories (as I see him) is *my* Holmes. I enjoy Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch, Cushing, Wilmer, Howard, and more. Looking forward to Miller.

        I didn’t mean to suggest that you hadn’t read ASIS; sorry. I was trying (no doubt badly) to note that taking a job and taking a roommate is a similar action. It has a financial aspect. Both CanonWatson and Joan experienced a downfall, but she chooses to work with recovering addicts; I wouldn’t say she was forced.

        I accept your “doctrix.” I am rather fond of “actress” and “spinster” myself and, so, somewhat archaic. Also “executrix.” My apologies for the long (if it posts) comment.

      • Yeah, WordPress commenting is a bit wonky like that, sorry! And long replies are the best replies.

        Ah! I was under the impression that CBS wanted to directly adapt Sherlock, a la the US version of The Office or the various international versions of Ugly Betty; Vertue specifically says that CBS “approached us a while back about remaking our show”, rather than a offer to be involved. I don’t have any direct quotes from Moffat or the CBS production.

        Exactly! That’s what’s wonderful about adaptation; you get, in almost a more potent form, other people’s readings of the same text.

        Both are for financial straits, I agree, but I think there’s a difference between “I need a place to live; you don’t seem too crazy, and maybe you’re even interesting” and “I’ve been hired by your father to be your sober companion”. In the former, the agency is much more direct and interpersonal; after all, if Holmes is too much, Watson can always decline the room and, if he can’t turn down the room at the moment, he’s perfectly free to leave whenever he wants further into his arrangement. (Personally, I think it’s the fact that Watson doesn’t, especially given how much he gripes about Holmes and how much trouble Holmes can give him, that really shows how strong their friendship is.) But to Joan, Sherlock’s dad is her client, and Sherlock is her work. She doesn’t pick him, she’s assigned to him, and she’s stuck with him. Yes, she has choice in the fact that she decided to become a sober companion and she can, presumably, decline a client if she thinks it’s a bad idea to work with someone, but the fact remains that being around Sherlock is her job from the word go. Unless Sherlock’s dad terminates her employment in the first episode, she’s required to spend a certain amount of time tending to Sherlock. And I think that changes the tone of their friendship too much to keep it recognizably Holmes and Watson. Only time will tell, of course, but I’m not holding out hope.

        I’m also miffed about the involvement of Sherlock’s dad (what, Mycroft can’t hire people?), but I think that’s related to the fact I’m miffed at Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-Man for involving biological fathers heavily in the plots of two superheroes that come from clearly loving, supportive, and functional alternate families, rather than anything particular to Elementary.

      • I think CBS did want to remake it if Moffat, Gattis, Vertue would agree, but that they planned to do a Sherlock Holmes pilot, at least, and the remake was just one possible way. Networks usually have different possibilities they are working from. I don’t mean to say it wasn’t on the table. But I kind of want Moffat to be quiet at this point. He will say a bunch of negative things about the project and then say something along the lines of, “I haven’t seen it. I think people want me to go off on it, but I’m not going to.” (Not a quote, just a paraphrase. I can come up with the quote, if necessary.) Then he has talked about wanting *Elementary* to be good because otherwise it will hurt the “brand.” I get a little annoyed by people calling Sherlock Holmes a “brand,” but that’s just me. If the CBS show is a flop, it will get *Sherlock* more publicity, and if it is a success, it will get *Sherlock* more publicity. Moffat isn’t getting hurt. And since I would like about eight more versions of SH yesterday, it doesn’t bother me that CBS didn’t wait. I think some of the changes from things that were clearly in the books may have been made just to avoid trouble with the BBC. (CBS: But Watson had just gotten out of the army in the first story. BBC: Yes, but we made him have PTSD. PTSD is ours.) Seeing how fussed people are about Lee Miller’s scarf, I can’t say they’re wrong. Possibly this explains a father instead of Mycroft. But maybe the changes will prove fertile ground. I was excited on *Sherlock* when the Holmeses’ mother was mentioned, but then we never got to see her and she’s probably dead. Maybe Mycroft will be a sister, who knows?

        I would like to see them do a mix of original stories and some updates, and if Moriarty could please, please, please not show up for at least three years, I would be so happy. I am so tired of Moriarty, I cannot tell you. I think Joan could still quit if she didn’t like her job, just as CanonWatson could go rusticate in the country; instead, she will become interested in investigation. Eventually, Holmes won’t need a sober companion, but she’ll stay on. If the series continues. Remember (and I confess I have a pro-Lucy Liu as Watson page on Facebook), the amount of viewers *Sherlock* pulled in on PBS would get *Elementary* canceled on CBS. CBS expects much higher numbers to keep a show on. But we’ll see. We will either be celebrating or commiserating in the fall. Or disagreeing. Which is fun too.

        Maybe because Sherlocks are never *my* Sherlock, I am more tolerant. Although the second Downey movie (and Jude Law should have been Holmes, anyway, but there you are). . .

      • Okay. All I’ve seen is Vertue’s comments; i don’t follow Moffat’s twitter. Legally, I think they’re fine with things taken directly from the text—as it’s in public domain. What I’ve been hearing about Sherlock is the concern that Elementary might copy visual elements specific to Sherlock itself; the cinematography, the text message layout, that sort of thing. Who knows? I’m always up for gender-flipping.

        I imagine that’s what they’ll do; I’m just saying that it changes the nature of how their relationship starts and, for me, it warps it too far to be recognizably Watson and Holmes. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of Lucy Liu as Watson. In my heart, I want her experience as an Asian-American woman in the military to be explored, for her to be as snarky and loyal as Watson is in the books, and for her to meet Mary, a cute indie singer who doesn’t take crap from Sherlock, and they shack up as Watson and Holmes remain the platonic best of bickering friends. I’m just not hopeful about it.

        Personally, I really like the casting in Ritchie’s films, but to each their own! I’m enjoying our conversation—sorry I’m a bit late in responding, had work today.

      • It’s too bad you’re not a writer on the series. Bickering friends are great. Maybe we should make up a list of demands–er, I mean, suggestions, and send it to CBS. I doubt they’ll be doing anything like what I would do if I were running the show, but *Sherlock* doesn’t either.

        One thing that bothers me about *Sherlock*–and I don’t know if I can say it bothers me about the show, per se, because, as I’ve said, I’m okay with anyone’s alternate Holmes (because none of that touches *my* Holmes), but it’s a sort of fallout from the show–is that people online keep saying Holmes would never–

        Hate being right (even though it meant someone was dead)
        Be wrong
        Admit being wrong
        Act like anything less than a superior jerk

        This bothers me because that’s not Holmes. Holmes is rude to people who sort of deserve it. He has empathy and understands things. Oh, I better write a blog post instead of going on. It’s peculiar because Moffat in interviews has stated how much Holmes cares about women, using “A Case of Identity” as an example (but not mentioning the title), but he is talking about Doyle’s Holmes; Gatiss (whose name I misspelled previously) and Moffat’s Holmes isn’t there yet. That’s because (and it’s been set up since the first episode) the arc of the show is Sherlock Holmes, a great man, becoming a good man. It’s not unreasonable; it’s just had the unhappy result of Holmes the jerk being thought of as the “real” Holmes. It makes me kind of sad.

        I am also enjoying our conversation, despite that downer of a statement made above. I did like the first Ritchie film; the second went too far into parody for a movie that wasn’t a parody. I did think Moriarty was good in the second one, and I liked the chess game of the mind. I’m hoping a certain someone isn’t really dead (and I don’t mean Holmes). Peculiar to have seen two riffs on Reichenbach in such a short space of time . . . .

      • The second Ritchie film strayed too far from the urban Gothic setting of London, which is one of my favorite things about the books and the first Ritchie film. I hear the third one is straying towards America, which makes me frown.

        A lot of adaptation franchises are going too big too fast; Nolan went for the Joker in the second Batman film, which is a bit early for the villain. I suppose it’s an outcropping of trilogies happening after the fact, rather than before…

  4. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Why You Should Be Watching Elementary | The Literary Omnivore

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