The new drama series Elementary, premiering on CBS on September 27th, is a modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes. Just out of rehab, Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) has been assigned to live with sober coach, Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), and together they make a dream team for solving the NYPD’s most impossible cases.
While at the CBS portion of the TCA Press Tour, executive producer/writer Rob Doherty talked about what drives this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, what makes the character more than just a brilliant detective, how he came to be such a fan himself, how they’re approaching the puzzle-solving aspect of the show, what led them to casting a woman as Watson, and how Moriarity will be different in a modern-day world. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ROB DOHERTY: Our Sherlock is a puzzle-solver. I really think that is his obsession, to the point you might call it an addiction. In many senses, he has something of an addictive personality. In the source material, that turned into a real addiction. The original Sherlock dabbled with cocaine and opiates. Our Sherlock had those same problems, but one of the big differences is that our Sherlock hit a serious wall. I’ve always described him as someone for whom the world and life came quite easily because he could see so many things. He could take things down to their simplest elements. That makes not just investigation relatively simple, but living your life and navigating this world.
To his great surprise, the world is not as easy as he thought. Something terrible happened to him in London, and he spiraled out of control. Our Sherlock has emerged with what I think is, at his core, just a tiny kernel of self-doubt, where one previously never existed. It’s not something we are going to speak to very often, but 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 to solve puzzles, to do the right thing, and to help people. I really do think, at the end of the day, that he believes in justice. It’s not just about putting bad guys behind bars. Helping people and doing the right thing are factors that play into it as well.
DOHERTY: For me, it’s funny. I feel like I turned the dial on my television and I see Sherlock everywhere. I see his fingerprints on almost every procedural show. Not every one, but most shows have a Sherlock in them. They just happened to be called something else. What we have is a name that means something, a franchise that means something, and a mythology that people treasure and value. So, for us, there’s a lot that comes along with the character. It seems foolish to not take advantage of the relationship that was built in the books, and the spirit of the smart source material. The source material is incredible. It’s amazing work. These are stories and characters that work wherever you are and wherever the character is. Having always been a fan of the character, I’ve now seen him in the present, in the past, in the future, in comics, and in books. It tends to work. Conan Doyle knew what he was doing.
How did you come to be such a fan of Holmes, how did you come to be doing this series, and how did you come up with the twist of the show set in modern-day New York with a female Watson?
DOHERTY: I was always a huge fan of the character. It’s hard not to be. I’ve spent most my career writing for genre shows. My longest stint was a show called Medium, which had a supernatural aspect to it, but at the end of the day, had a procedural engine. This felt like a very natural fit. There’s nothing supernatural in this show, and yet Sherlock is unlike anyone any of us know will ever know. As far as the story and the genesis of the project, (executive producer) Carl [Beverly] is somebody that I’ve known for awhile, and we would meet to kick potential projects around. Carl had said he’d been thinking about Sherlock Holmes in New York City with “an Englishman in New York” vibe. I was immediately attracted to the idea 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. If so many people couldn’t put their own spins on it, I don’t know that he would exist in the popular culture, in the way he does. So, I was intrigued, but also wanted to make sure that, if we were going do this, I could have my own take on it. It took a little time. For me, it was absolutely about his drug use, which I know has been mentioned and acknowledged, once or twice, outside of the books. One of the things that jumped out at me from the books was that it never really dictated plot. It never really informed or altered the course of the story. Some of them are just throwaway lines. And his relationship with women was not great. It was very complicated. Understandably, he’s a very complicated guy. The more handholds I could find, the more excited I got about our take. Everything came together quite nicely.
DOHERTY: It’s one of the challenges of the show. I personally respect the shows that are strictly procedural. There are many on TV that are wildly successful and work a certain way. They’re just not my bag. It’s not what I like, when I tune in. These cases have to merit his attention. They have to open a very intricate piece of Origami to structure an episode for a brain like Sherlock. It’s really hard, but it’s not a good reason to not try to do it. We have a great staff. I have some stories that I’ve been wanting to do for awhile. I feel like we’re on a good track.
Watson is not only a woman, but also not white. Will viewers see the racial and cultural differences? Will that become a tension between the two characters?
DOHERTY: As we began the casting process, there was no part on the show that was race-restricted because we all felt very strongly that it was irrelevant and incidental. You find the best Sherlock you can. You find the best Watson you can. We did that, obviously. So, I would shy away from something like that. Honestly, it’s just not even in my head. If we did an episode where Sherlock met Joan’s family, it would not be about him reacting to Chinese-American culture and what’s different about it. Sherlock is a guy who’s seen it all and been everywhere, and happens to live in New York, right now. If anything, he struggles a little bit with the New York of it all, compared to London, but as far as cultural differences go and race, it’s just not going to play into it. Elementary is not going to be teaching cultural differences to the audience.
What kind of guy will Moriarty be, in this modern-day world?
DOHERTY: Wow. We want to keep all our secrets. I feel it’s important, at the end of the day, to be true to the spirit of the character. There’s a little more wiggle room with Moriarty in that, 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. Quite often, you’re dealing with his agents. 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 dominos that we will knock over before we ultimately get to him. Because I want everyone to be surprised, it’s hard to give too many clues or descriptive terminology, when it comes to Moriarty.