When CBS first announced it was going to do yet another TV show based on the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and his trusted companion Watson, I was dubious. Didn’t we just see Benedict Cumberbatch on PBS a mere two years ago in the exact same role? And what could possibly be done that hasn’t been done before? Well, as it turned out my doubt was unfounded, when it was announced that Watson would be played by a woman- and not just any woman, but a woman of Chinese descent, Lucy Liu.
In the show, cleverly titled Elementary, Liu plays a disgraced medical doctor. Lui explains, “I think that what happened with her, and it’s in the pilot itself, is that she actually has a patient die on her watch and she was kicked out as a doctor. I think those two things together have incredible amounts of guilt and humiliation. I think probably there’s a bit of shame in that because a person does work for a very long time to become a surgeon, so the fact that she now is a sober companion is kind of a very different place for her to be. I think there’s a lot of distance that we can travel in that for the character.”
Saying she becomes a “sober companion” may be true for her, but certainly not for the extremely “very not sober” Sherlock Holmes, whose well-being she is hired to protect.
I don’t know whether you know a lot about Sherlock Holmes or if you do not- but if you are neither an infant or senile, which is most of us, I guarantee you think you do. After all, Sherlock Holmes is certainly the most famous fictional detective ever created, and he’s been around for well over 100 years. And who among us has never quoted the fictional detective’s most famous line “Elementary, my dear Watson” at some opportune time or another.
But as I discovered recently, finding out the truth about the detective for this story about Elementary was not so easy, and actually required the investigative skills of a... Sherlock Holmes. Here’s why!
Firstly, I’ll bet you think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of our favorite lunatic detective wrote a lot of books about him, doling out the facts about his life bit by bit until a legend was born. But as it turns out, that is not true at all. In fact, Conan Doyle actually wrote only four full-length Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. Also surprising is the fact Conan Doyle only wrote an additional 56 short stories, all of which were originally published in serial form in monthly magazines, and later re-published as five anthologies. The “canon,” as the totality of the books are called by Sherlock fans, consists of only 9 books, total!
Secondly, we actually know practically nothing about Holmes, as almost everything said about him in the books, or recorded as his words, was actually written by Watson. In all, Holmes is described as being in active practice as a consulting detective for New York’s finest for 23 years, with Watson documenting his cases for 17 of them. One of the few exceptions, The Adventure of the Lion's Mane, is actually narrated by Holmes himself, as he pursues a case as a civilian, taking place during the detective's retirement.
A third major misconception is about the oft-quoted catchphrase:, "Elementary, my dear Watson." Hang on to your hats, folks, because the truth is this phrase was never actually uttered by Holmes in any of the sixty stories written by Conan Doyle. In the stories, Holmes often remarks that his logical conclusions are "elementary", in that he considers them to be simple and obvious. He also, on occasion, refers to Dr. Watson as "my dear Watson". The two sentence fragments, however, never appear together. In fact, the first known use of this phrase was in the 1915 novel, Psmith Journalist, by P. G. Wodehouse.
As you can see, there have been as many misconceptions about Sherlock as there have been miscomprehensions, and in the gap between one and the other lies the open door to an artist’s best friend- interpretation. Surely, it is this that has inspired the re-creation and re-examination of Sherlock Holmes so many times, through so many years, this latest incarnation inclued. In The Guinness Book of World Records Sherlock Holmes has been consistently listed as the "most portrayed movie character," with 75 actors playing the part in over 211 films. And that’s without counting the many portrayals of the fascinating sleuth on stage, screen and of course, on TV.
Holmes latest incarnation is of course Elementary, which will premiere on Thursday, Sept. 27 on CBS Television Network at 10/9c. The show is set in modern-day New York City, and stars a fully-tattoed, Jonny Lee Miller as detective Sherlock Holmes and as I already mentioned, Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, in a drama about a crime-solving duo that cracks the NYPD’s most impossible cases.
Dish had the opportunity to speak with the pair in Los Angeles recently, as well as the show’s Executive Producer Rob Doherty, and they all had quite a lot to say about Sherlock.
“Our Sherlock is a puzzle solver,” Rob Doherty explains. I really think that it’s his obsession to the point you might call it an addiction. I think, in many senses, he has something of an addictive personality. In the source material, obviously, that turned into a real kind of addiction. The original Sherlock dabbled with cocaine, dabbled with opiates. Our Sherlock had those same problems, but I think one of the big differences is our Sherlock hit a serious wall. Obviously, something happened.”
“Something terrible happened to him in London. He spiraled out of control. And I think what we have, our Sherlock, has emerged with what I think is just a tiny kernel of self-doubt where one previously never existed. I think it's one of the things that drives him. I absolutely don't see him as a sociopath, I see him as someone who is driven, again, to solve puzzles, to do the right thing, to help people. I really do think, at the end of the day, he believes in justice.”
We asked Miller how he got involved in this project, and he told us about a meeting he had with Carl [Beverly, Executive Producer] some time ago. “He said he'd been thinking about Sherlock Holmes in New York City, Sherlock in New York, and it was just sort of ‘an Englishman in New York,’ that sort of vibe. I was immediately attracted to the idea, again, because I've just always enjoyed the character, but I also know that, as a fan, because Sherlock lives in the public domain, he's been through many, many, many hands. I think that's actually one of the upsides to the character. I think if so many people couldn't put their own spins on it, I don't know that he would exist in the popular culture the way he does.”
“So I was intrigued, but I also wanted to make sure that if we were going do this, I wanted to make sure that I had my own take on it. You want to do your own thing. You want to sort of go down in your bunker and hide yourself from everything else that's ever been done, and go look at the source material.”
Ironically, Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch (who also worked on a Sherlock TV series in the UK, and was broadcast in the US on PBS in 2010) worked together recently creating two really intense characters in Frankenstein. We wondered if Miller took advantage of Cumberbatch’s experience in creating his own Sherlock.? He replied, “Yeah. Even before this project came along -- I love the work that Benedict has done with Sherlock. So I would call him up like a groupie after every episode came out and want to talk to him about it. And we had a discussion about this project as well. It was a private discussion. Benedict has been very, very supportive, and I wanted to reassure him about how different this script was and project was. All of the other differences will kind of be apparent. That's another country and a whole lot of, you know, vibe. So -- but, yeah, we did -- obviously, we discussed it.
Needless to say, there is a lot to learn, and a lot to try to understand about Sherlock in the books. I was curious about what Miller found particularly interesting? “For me, it was absolutely his drug use, which I know has been mentioned and acknowledged once or twice outside of the books. If you read the books, it's really interesting. One of the things that jumped out at me was that the drugs never really dictated plot. It never really informed or altered the course of the story. Some of them are just throwaway lines. You know, early in a book, Watson will mention his drug use or that Sherlock got bored today and used cocaine, and that's it. You won't see it mentioned again in the rest of the book, and I love that.”
“I was looking at it as something that's a handhold. It's a handhold in our take on the character and on the franchise. Doing a little research, Holmes relationship with women was not great. You know, it was very complicated. Understandably, he's a very complicated guy. That was another handhold. New York was another. Just the more handholds I could find, the more excited I got about our take. Everything was sort of coming together quite nicely.”
Following his fall from grace in London and a stint in rehab, eccentric Sherlock escapes to Manhattan where his wealthy father forces him to live with his worst nightmare – a sober companion, Dr. Watson. With career problems of her own, Watson views her new job as another opportunity to help people, as well as paying a penance.
“I was introduced because I was offered the role,” Lucy Lui explains how she got involved. “I felt there was a great deal of pressure in signing on to something that was yet another Sherlock Holmes and Watson. So I thought, ‘well, maybe this isn't for me.’ And then when Jonny came on, which was really an exciting idea for the part, I thought it was really brilliant, and it changed the entire color of the project for me. And then I met Rob and Carl, and they were, as you can see, the nicest people on the planet. And I just thought when you work on a show, when you work in a series, you really are there all the time, and it becomes a family to you. And it's important to have that connection with somebody, and that you have a trust in them, you care about them, and you know that there's something really wonderful about how it's going to culminate. And I felt that with them. So that's how it all kind of happened.”
Miller added, “Watson right now is still being developed. With Sherlock there's so much about him and his personality as the stories are narrated by Watson, you get bits and pieces of it. And I think that Rob has really created a nice undercurrent with the storyline of how she was a surgeon and lost her license, which gives her sort of a dark past that we still don't know about, and we may not discover for a little while. I think what we want to do is introduce the audience to the characters, and then sort of slowly unravel a little bit about her personal history.”
Lui offers what may or may not be a hint about the future, “I think the chemistry between the two of us wasn’t written at all, and it’s happening on its own. That’s something that they actually wanted to tone down a little bit and I was like, ‘I’m not doing anything. We’re just doing what’s written.’ It doesn’t say suddenly they look at each other and there’s a chemistry. That came on on its own and they’re trying to filter it a little bit, so that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to go towards a romantic turn right away.”
For Watson, the restless and relentless Sherlock is nothing like her previous clients. He informs her that none of her expertise as an addiction specialist applies to him and he’s devised his own post-rehab regimen – by resuming his work as a police consultant in New York City. Watson has no choice but to accompany her irascible new charge on his jobs. But Sherlock finds her medical background helpful, and Watson realizes she has a knack for playing investigator.
In addition Sherlock’s police contact, Capt. Tobias “Toby” Gregson (ably played by Aidan Quinn), knows from previous experience working with Scotland Yard that Sherlock is brilliant at closing cases, and welcomes him as part of the team.
Lui continues, “Originally, if you ever have read the actual literature, Watson is somebody who is incredibly observant, and all of the stories come out of what he sees and what he experiences. So it's a very fresh and wonderful take on who Watson is. Who Watson is now is also somebody who’s sort of on the sideline, observing him, because she's his sober companion. So she's not engaged in the mystery. She's engaged in him, and from that point on, you get to see how that sort of blossoms out. But that is the epicenter of where she comes from.”
For Lucy and Jonny, it must certainly be clear that this is one of the greatest friendships in Western Literature. I asked the pair what it means to have that between a man and woman?
Miller responded by saying, "I think Rob put it really well. I heard him talk about it the other week. Man and woman, I mean, the friendship is core, the partnership, and they become colleagues, partners. There's also the other reason that they have to be together, the sober companionship. But Rob said that ‘it is a man and woman, it shouldn't matter’. And there is that element, and people are going to wonder, but then wondering and asking questions is something that you really want your audience to do, isn't it?”
Of course, Doherty as Executive Producer, could have made Watson a man! Liu says, “That was kind of a given, and the only reason Rob didn't is because, in the stories themselves, you'll see that Sherlock Holmes has a bit of an awkward relationship with the other gender. And so bringing that into play, it's a constant reminder of that awkwardness and that division between being a friend -- but it's a woman. So it's sort of like in geometry there's a given, and that's now a given, and that's a very nice thing to always have, because it's like having an itchy sweater. You know you have it on, but there’s a little bit something else is going on.”
But now, let’s not beg the burning question- What about Moriarty? Is he also going to find himself living in New York City? And what kind of guy would Moriarty be in this modern day world?
Doherty explains, “Wow. I'm trying to figure out what I can and cannot say about Moriarty at this point. We want to keep all our secrets. You know, I feel it's important at the end of the day to be true to the spirit of the character. I feel like there's a little more wiggle room with Moriarty in that, again, in so many of the books, he was such a shadowy figure. I think he was described as the spider at the center of the web of crime in London."
"So quite often you're dealing with his agents. You know, he has a finger in every pie. He's the man behind the man behind the man. We may be able to make some use of that. In other words, there are a few dominoes we knock over before we ultimately get to him, but because I want everyone to be surprised, it's hard to give too many clues or descriptive terminology when it comes to Moriarty at the moment.”
But at the last second, Doherty relented, and confessed, “We officially have a plan for our Moriarty, and we look forward to introducing you to him as we go. Sherlock's father, who I'm sure you've seen referenced in the pilot episode, is also somebody we are moving closer and closer towards meeting. He will be an interesting shadowy figure in the series.”
Doherty concludes, “I mean, there's nothing supernatural in this show, and yet Sherlock is unlike anyone any of us know or will ever know.”
Be sure and catch Elementary when it premieres Thursday, Sept. 27 at 10pm et/pt
Red-haired Brit Benedict Cumberbatch is one of our favoite Sherlocks. Read what he told Dish about playing the role by clicking HERE