Can Elementary Actually Be Viewed as a Sherlock Rip-Off?

Since we first heard of the existence of the American version of a contempoary Sherlock Holmes show; Elementary, everyone in the office shared a collective groan. (We even went so far as to make a fake mock-up poster, complete with a “What up Holmes?” catchphrase.) And though the recent casting of Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson is interesting and progressive, I still can’t help but feel a little annoyed and protective of the BBC’s Sherlock.

Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat has gotten really grumpy, too, admitting in a recent interview that the prospect of a contemporary version of Sherlock Holmes in America has him “annoyed.”

I’m mostly with the Moff on this one, but does he really have a claim to all things Holmes?

British TV shows being turned into American ones is certainly not anything  new. In rare cases the American version is better remembered and more popular than its English counterpart. For example, many people roll their eyes at me when I insist on calling The American version of The Office, “the American Office” because for most viewers in the states The Office is just The Office.

But I’m American and as good as the American Office is (or was) it is still the faux-Office in my book. And in terms of a remade British show being well received and having its own, separate following, the American Office is the exception and not the rule. For the most part these remakes are always bad, get poor ratings, and are forgotten quickly. Moffat’s very own Coupling was remade in America and was canceled faster than anyone can remember. Though one could make an argument that Friends is the American version of Coupling, it certainly isn’t officially. (For terrible recent actual remakes, look no further than Being Human and Life on Mars.)

We are NOT ripping off Sherlock/Yes We AreBut like Friends wasn’t Coupling, Elementary isn’t a remake of Sherlock. Just like the idea of 30-somethings bitching about their love-lives wasn’t invented by Moffat with Coupling, the idea of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. This puts Team Moffat is in a weird position here, because an American show is poised to potentially be a bigger hit than BBC’s Sherlock. Why? For one thing, they’ll have a bigger budget, better distribution, and likely more episodes. As much as Cumberbatch is becoming a household name among the cool kids, the audience watching Hawaii Five-O and Desperate Housewives has never heard of him, or Steven Moffat. And despite Moffat being totally in the right to be annoyed about this, he might not be able to actually do anything about it, because of the fact that most of all of the Sherlock Holmes text is in the public domain. Further, a TV series based on those characters and stories will automatically have a chance at being well-recieved (no matter who is doing it)  because the source material is just so awesome.

The plot thickens a little bit though when one considers the fact that Moffat already tried to get American studios to do Sherlock, and they said no. Instead, they seemingly stole the idea out right. But is there a smoking gun? Could anyone really prove it? 

This sort of thing happens all the time, but rarely produces a true smoking gun. Gene Roddenberry first took Star Trek to CBS, and at that time the pitch included a spaceship that could land on planets and contained families. When Lost in Space featured a landing ship with a family on CBS, some accounts say Roddenberry freaked out. Similarly, J. Michael Straczynski pitched Babylon 5 to Paramount before Warner Brothers picked it up. Oddly, Deep Space Nine came out around the same time as Babylon 5. Now, I personally don’t think Michael Piller and company ripped off JMS no more than I believe Irwin Allen ripped of Rodenberry, but this double-vision phenomenon is weird.

Right now we’ve got two Snow White movies in the form of Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. There are also dueling Beauty and the Beast shows in development. And famously, there’s that summer when you had Deep Impact versus Armageddon, two asteroid movies on a collision course with zero-relevancy. It’s possible the only reason we talk about either to this day is because there were two of them. Armageddon is way more famous, but that’s likely because of the cast and that damn Aerosmith song.

Moffat worries about the Sherlock “brand” being diluted, which really could mean two things. If the American show is a piece of crap, Moffat doesn’t want people comparing it to Sherlock. If Elementary is good, Moffat doesn’t want people comparing it to Sherlock. I don’t blame him either way.

It could be worseThe idea to do a contemporary Sherlock was cooked up by him and Mark Gatiss and they’ve done it wonderfully. Elementary, at least at present, certainly does seem like a “me too” situation. But the Sherlock “brand” Moffat refers to is also coming from him being a big fan of the Doyle canon. He’s gone out of his way to be gracious about the Guy Ritchie films in the past, and that’s because those really have nothing to do with his show. It is strange that within a few months I saw TWO versions of the Reichenbach Falls scene, and each one was vast improvement on the source material. But could we possibly stomach a third Reichenbach? Would the New York Sherlock Holmes have to grapple with some strange Moriarty on top of the Olive Garden in Times Square? Despite having a female Watson, what could the Elementary provide that Sherlock hasn’t already given me?

Despite Moffat’s concern about the repuation of the material, in the end Sherlock Holmes will be fine and likely endure another century of re-interptation and fan scrutiny. But in the short term, we might have to endure the Sherlock Wars, and Moffat might grow grumpier and grumpier as the wars rage on.   Yes, I’m on his side,  but I’m such a big Sherlock Holmes fan that I’ll HAVE to watch Elementary.

And though it’s improbable that Elementary will be good and somehow not a rip off of Sherlock, it’s not impossible.

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for He’s written about Sherlock Holmes for Clarkesworld Magazine and here on a lot.


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