“Elementary” Observations

Sure, he’s overcome Moriarty and even Robert Downey, Jr. But can Sherlock Holmes survive U.S. network TV?

The coming of “Elementary,” perhaps the most radical revision in the recent spate of Sherlock Holmes revivals, has spurred evidence of fan handwringing that the famed consulting detective probably could immediately spot, even under the cover of gloves. 

In the new incarnation set to premiere Thursday on CBS, Holmes is a recovering cokehead living in 2012 New York. His Watson is a Jane, not a John, though their platonic status appears likely to remain intact, despite two leads (Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu) with considerable sex appeal.
None of these changes, though, presents inherent problems – or, in some cases, particularly new twists. The BBC’s brilliant “Sherlock” successfully dropped Holmes into present-day London. Strapping Robert Downey, Jr., as we’ve noted, played Baker Street’s most famous resident as much as an action hero as a reaction hero in a recent pair of fun popcorn flicks.
Nicholas Meyer’s great “The Seven-per-cent Solution” explored Holmes’ cocaine jones in print and film nearly four decades ago. The new show’s New York locale shouldn’t matter all that much since the primary setting for any good Holmes story is the detective’s mind. As for Jane Watson, Holmes and his sidekick have the kind of relationship in which gender doesn’t necessarily come into play, especially with a prickly, asocial lead character whose single-mindedness rarely turns to sex.
Still, “Elementary” poses perhaps Holmes’ biggest challenge yet, one bigger than Moriarty or even Robert Downey, Jr.: Can Sherlock survive the production demands of U.S. network TV?
The ongoing BBC series has yielded two three-episode seasons over the last two years, with each installment drawing, to different degrees, from original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Downey and Jude Law teamed in two big-budget action flicks that debuted two years apart.
“Elementary” currently is slated for 13 hour-long installments. If the show is a success, there could be orders of 22 or so episodes per season. That raises a danger Sherlock Holmes could become a character in just another formulaic police procedural.
Not that we’re knocking formulaic police procedurals. “Law & Order,” in its various forms, has proven an entertaining success. Ditto for the many incarnations of the “CSI” franchise. Holmes, in some respects, presaged “CSI” – Doyle created a one-man Crime Scene Investigation unit, fueled by a computer-like mind and very human powers of observation, long before modern breakthroughs in forensic technology. But we’d rather see "CSI" become more Holmes-like than vice-versa.
Holmes’ fellow Brits have the right idea in keeping TV show seasons short and spacing them out. There’s a reason fans patiently wait a year or more for new mini-seasons of “Downton Abbey” or “Sherlock,” which take their time on the creative end, a practice adopted over the last decade or so by top U.S. cable dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.” CBS' "The Good Wife" is among the few dramas able to maintain a top-notch level of quality over a 22-episode season.
Those programs enjoy devoted followings, just like Doyle’s enduring character. Baker Street Irregulars from all over no doubt will be watching “Elementary” with hopes that Sherlock Holmes won’t be reduced to a regular, run-of-the-mill TV crime drama detective. As we wait to see Holmes away from home, check out a preview:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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