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Fall TV Preview: The Sherlock Holmes of 'Elementary' is on the trail of a new idea

Jonny Lee Miller plays the detective as a recovering addict solving cases in New York, and Lucy Liu is Watson in a CBS show that is a bold experiment.

September 08, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Jonny Lee Miller stars as Sherlock Holmes on the new television series "Elementary."
Jonny Lee Miller stars as Sherlock Holmes on the new television series "Elementary." (Giovanni Rufino / CBS )

NEW YORK — Sherlock Holmes has really been through the wringer lately.

In two feature films, Guy Ritchie turned the pipe-smoking detective into a 19th century British butt-kicker who's as likely to corner criminals with his fists as with his brain. An increasingly popular BBC show restores some of the meditative qualities of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original but brings Holmes to modern-day London.

Now a new broadcast series, "Elementary," offers perhaps the most fanciful interpretation: Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) as a recovering addict and idiot savant who solves crimes with a mixture of flair and condescension (think "The Mentalist" meets Sheldon Cooper).

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Like other characters on "Elementary," the hero has the same name and some of the hallmarks of his forebears, but in a radically different context. Watson, for instance, isn't a wunderkind doctor, as he was in Doyle's four novels and dozens of short stories, but an Asian American woman (Lucy Liu) hired by Holmes' father to be the son's sober companion.

And the setting? It's modern-day New York. More specifically, it's the land of the CBS procedural, where instead of pursuing egghead-y cases about purloined letters, Holmes tracks serial killers, sex offenders and other villains of the prime-time grotesque. This is Sherlock Holmes, Les Moonves style.

Executive produced by Rob Doherty ("Medium"), Carl Beverly ("Justified") and Sarah Timberman ("Justified"), and set to debut on Sept. 27, "Elementary" is a deceptively bold experiment. Essentially, it asks if one can design a self-contained crime procedural — in which the perpetrator is always uncovered in 60 minutes, less credits and commercials — while simultaneously reinventing one of pop culture's best-known figures.

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"We feel we check off many of the boxes for what people think of as a network procedural," Doherty said. "But we also can push the hourlong show and Holmes to places they haven't gone before."

To do that, he and Beverly (who came up with the show after the other new Holmes takes) have created an unlikely caretaker relationship between Watson and Holmes (creators insist it will remain platonic) as well as an addiction back story they will tease out over the course of the season.

They also want to harness the intensity of their lead actor, known for bracing performances in "Trainspotting," "Dexter" and on the British stage.

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On a warm August day in an elegant private home in Brooklyn, Miller was pacing and muttering to himself, summoning the twitchy energy he would channel into Holmes. The actor was in the middle of shooting a scene — a monologue to a victim's family — that was not only long but also rapid-fire, and a moment earlier Miller had flubbed a line.

He paced some more, took a deep breath, then clapped his hands as though willing himself to get in the game. There's a coiled intensity to Miller that he either devised for the show or simply makes him a perfect choice to star in it.

"I can joke around too," Miller said in an interview later. "But first things first."

(Incidentally, with its stately shutters and cozy garden, the house could be the Baker Street location of Conan Doyle's original. It's not — it's the home of the family whose daughter has been abducted — but Holmes' headquarters in "Elementary" have a similar charm, a well-appointed New York brownstone that's been reconstructed on a stage several miles from here.)

Watson, for his —er, her —part, is a departure from both the doltish sidekick played by Nigel Bruce in the classic Hollywood films and Jude Law's crime-fighting complement in the Ritchie movies. Instead, as Holmes' sober companion, Liu's character is both support system and foil, which creates something more volatile.

Liu dismisses some of the bloggers who have questioned the reinvention. "To me, being a purist must be really confining," she said. "If everything is as it's always been, all we'd have is 'The Waltons.'"

Miller acknowledges he was "initially skeptical" that the world needed another Holmes. But he said he was won over by the unusual juxtaposition of Doyle's creations with a modern-day television crime-solver.

"I realized you can make something quite new in the procedural canon," Miller said. "This is a man struggling with his own genius and with his relationship with the world." (Holmes, for instance, is not officially on the New York police force but helps out anyway; the pilot intimates he had a complicated past with the department.)

"This Holmes is a little broken," Doherty said, adding that in showing Holmes' psychological scars, he believes that "We're doing something that I don't believe has ever been done before."

And there may need to be a reinvention. Conan Doyle's notion of an eagle-eye detective with some personal quirks, it turns out, fits nicely in the era of prime-time crime-solvers. But the creators know they need to push some elements in new directions if they hope to distinguish their show from all that came before.

"Sherlock Holmes has been done what seems like a thousand times," Doherty said. "That's the blessing, but it's also the curse."

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