Jan 28 2009 5:47pm

The Legacy of Holmes: Television

With A Study in Scarlet, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most well-known fictional detective in the world. Holmes has become an icon, continually inspiring adaptations and reimaginings of his stories. Next year promises a new interpretation from director Guy Ritchie with Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson.

More than the spin-offs and adaptations, however, Holmes’ methods have inspired many imitators. Holmes was a keen observer, often assembling his solutions from collections of details—the type of footprints left in the mud at a crime scene, a particular type of tobacco, the smudge of ink on the inside of a finger. This focus on detail, on observation first and foremost, has been used by many popular television investigators.


USA’s mystery series is light-hearted, humorous and quirky, and while the character of Shawn Spencer pretends to be a psychic aiding the police, his true power is the power of observation. Only by noticing the smallest details is he able to fake his psychic abilities, deducing things about the crimes he investigates. Compare this to Holmes who was often thought to be a mind reader for the conclusions he would make. Sean has his own “Watson,” as well—Burton “Gus” Guster, a pharmaceutical salesman and Shawn’s longtime best friend. Gus acts much in the same role as Watson does, lacking Shawn’s observational skills but possessing his own unique abilities and point of view, helping to support Shawn in his outlandish schemes, often to his own detriment.

Shawn also has to work with and around the Santa Barbara police department, particularly two officers who rarely have an idea of what is really happening (much like in the Holmes mysteries). As a consultant, Shawn basically feeds them the solution via his psychic role.

The capers in Psych are played mostly for laughs, but the camaraderie between the two main characters and their ease with one another elevates this show above mediocrity. (Plus it has plenty of geek references).

Pysch airs at 10 PM (Eastern) on the USA network.

The Mentalist

Similar to Psych, Patrick Jane, the lead character of CBS’ The Mentalist was a fake psychic in the past, a medium in the vein of John Edwards. Using his powers of observation, he would read people, earning a successful living. However, when his wife and child were murdered by a serial killer, Jane ended up working for the fictional California Bureau of Investigation instead. Now he uses the same skills he used as a fake psychic to help solve crimes. While Jane uses a number of different techniques, including hypnotism, observation is his most useful tool.

Like Shawn Spencer, and Sherlock Holmes, Patrick Jane isn’t a police officer, though he works with them as a consultant. It’s common in episodes to have the team questioning his methods and conclusions while at the same time marveling at his strange ability to know things that seem unknowable. While Jane is arguably more personable than Holmes, able to charm and cajole people (from reading them), he is somewhat out of touch with the people around him. Many times, in the investigation of a case, he seems oblivious to the damage he causes and almost is amused by it in the pursuit of the truth.

The Mentalist airs on the CBS network, Tuesdays at 9PM.


Perhaps the most Holmes-like series on television, House is not a police or detective show, but instead a medical mystery series. However, House is very clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s detective. Aside from the similarity in names, Gregory House is a brilliant man with keen observational talents which he uses, in this case, for medical diagnosis. House is also a drug addict, a musician (piano and guitar rather than violin) and his main passion is his work investigating mystery illnesses. His Dr. John Watson is Dr. James Wilson, an oncologist at the hospital and House’s only friend. That role is also assumed by House’s team of doctors who assist him in his activities (though sometimes they resemble more closely the Baker Street irregulars as House’s street team, breaking into houses to gather information).

House is a largely unlikable man, and, like Holmes, cares only about the case in front of him, and practically nothing about the people afflicted with the strange conditions he sees. He is single-minded in his pursuit of the truth, and chooses to believe facts and observations over what people tell him. One of his favorite phrases, uttered many times throughout the series, is that “people lie.”

The series’ writers seem to deliberately invite the comparison, too. In one episode, House’s apartment was clearly shown to be 221b (Holmes lived on 221b Baker Street) and in a recent episode, Wilson made reference to an Irene Adler, who was a character in the Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” In another episode, Holmes is shot by a man credited as “Moriarty.” In a recent Christmas episode, House receives a gift of a medical book by Joseph Bell, a doctor whom Conan Doyle used as the basis for Holmes.

House airs Monday nights at 8 PM on the Fox network.


While not patterned after Holmes, the connection between Holmes’ use of forensic evidence and the modern forensic investigations can’t be overlooked. As with Holmes, the various CSI teams use facts and not hunches or intuition to solve crimes. They are taught to ignore those kinds of interpretation and to focus on the data.

In fact, the crime scene investigators on the television series and in real life use modern versions of the same kind of tests that Holmes used, as sensational as they are sometimes portrayed on the screen. It’s highly likely that Holmes would eagerly embrace the facilities and techniques of the modern crime lab as tools for solving crimes.

Various incarnations of CSI  can be found in multiple places at multiple times on cable. New episodes air on CBS.

There are doubtless other series that I have neglected to mention, both from the present and the past. Feel free to suggest others in the comments section.

Megan Messinger
1. thumbelinablues
I was just noticing the other day how many shows have now taken the lone-genius approach; I'd add Bones and Eleventh Hour to the mix, although they're less explicitly Holmesian. (Holmes and Watson would never have joined the circus, for example.) Of the above, House is my favorite, although the grindingly predictable pacing and uneven writing are starting to get to me.

My real recommendation is to watch the Granada Sherlock Holmes television series, starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke and Edward Hardwicke as Watson(s). There are a lot of clips and a few full episodes on youtube (and a million disturbing music videos).
Arachne Jericho
2. arachnejericho
The writing of House reminds me of the original Holmes stories: some excellent pieces, some mediocre, towards the end *grind grind grind argh* but still occasional flashes of brilliance. (Although the current season tends towards excellence.)

The Sherlock Holmes movie set is apparently cursed. May it continue, say I.

(I swears to gods that there is only one decent adaptation of "The Lion's Mane" and it's definitely not Doyle's original story. It's the Bert Coules radio adaptation.)
Jeff Shreve
3. flotsamjeffsam
So, Robert Downey Jr. is quickly becoming the coolest actor I know. If he ends up in a Harry Potter film or as a Cylon on BSG, I simply don't know what I'm going to do with myself.

And I second Thumbelina's Jeremy Brett recommendation: I don't believe any other actor has been able to so accurately convey "the infernal lethargy of the cocaine bottle" as Brett.
Eugene Myers
4. ecmyers
Hey, what about Monk? I thought that was still running... At the time it premiered, it was the only detective show like it. Its use of the Holmes-brand of solving mysteries is one of the things I loved about it, along with Tony Shaloub, of course.
Rajan Khanna
5. rajanyk
I knew someone would mention Monk. I've only seen a few episodes of Monk and for some reason, the episodes I've seen haven't had much of a Holmes vibe to them. But I probably got a poor sampling.
Iain Coleman
6. Iain Coleman
I can't let a discussion of CSI go past without mentioning the wonderful crime scene investigation in The Wire, in which Bunk and McNulty go painstakingly over a murder scene, finding tell-tale clues and piecing the whole scenario togather in such a way that it is perfectly clear to the viewer how the killing took place, and how the detectives have figured this out. The dialogue for the entire scene consists of nothing but variations on the word "fuck". The pretensions of the typical CSI-style investigation scene have never been so hilariously pricked in a serious show.
Jason Henninger
7. jasonhenninger
Monk is totally Holmesian. He even has a Mycroft-like brother.
Iain Coleman
8. Cosmosis
You might also have mentioned the BBC show Jonathan Creek, which the creator has mentioned several times is reminiscent of Holmes, except here the Holmesian character is an antisocial magician's trick designer who often solves crimes using a keen sense of observation. His Watson is a crime writer; she writes about his exploits, a la Watson in the stories, although the twist here is that their romantic/sexual tension provides much of the comedy and explains their camaraderie throughout the series (since Creek would much rather just be left alone). A great show that, I think I liked a little more because of the Holmes-like qualities in it.
Rajan Khanna
9. rajanyk
@Cosmosis Thanks for the recommendation. I've only heard a little about Jonathan Creek, but it sounds interesting and a quick google shows that the first two series are available on DVD and the third should be forthcoming. I'll have to see if I can get them on Netflix.
Megan Messinger
10. thumbelinablues
Cosmosis @ 8, you know, after watching Alan Davies on six series of QI, I would LOVE to see him as the smart one in something!

Also, duh, Monk! I loved Monk and Sharona, Monk and Natalie rather less.... Monk probably made all those L.A. types go "Aha! Let's base three more shows on Sherlock Holmes!"

And thanks, arachnejericho, for reminding me of Bert Coules; the NY library system has a few of those.

::sigh:: Robert Downey Jr. When I saw Iron Man, just a a couple months ago, I thought that maybe I could trust him. But no. Oh, well.
Arachne Jericho
11. arachnejericho
thumbelinablues, you're welcome. The Bert Coules stuff is quite the awesome.

As for the movie, I keep telling myself, well, it can't be any worse than what Phantom of the Opera fans are facing what with ALW writing a sequel. (There are two Holmes/Phantom crossovers ever published*. I've read one. I suggest that people of sound mind who want to stay that way don't. So at least there's that: Phantom-free Holmes.)

* and gods know how many unpublished.
Fred Kiesche
12. FredKiesche
I'll vote for Monk and also Numb3rs. I don't know if Numb3rs is still on, I need to "get a life" and start watching television again.

(Or maybe not...I did get through over 120 books and 800 short stories last heck with television!)
Iain Coleman
13. probookover
holmes' main legacy is surely the endless sherlock holmes tv shows and movies. i heard a rumour that sacha choen (borat) and will ferral are working on a holmes movie.

you can't beat the original though. someone's just created an audio book of EVERY HOLMES STORY! all 60.

that must have been some hella long days in the studio.
Iain Coleman
14. KathyJ
I like Monk. I wished it wasn't ending. Even though I really enjoy watching Monk, I liked it better with Sherona. I think Natalie is too whinny and not a very good actress.
Iain Coleman
15. JustDucky
I hate to be a stickler but Psych is my favorite show and his name is spelled Shawn, not Sean. Their both pronounced the same but still, it matters.
Iain Coleman
16. ibmiller
I'm still not sure why people are obsessed with House as a Holmes adaptation. It seems to me more a straightforward soapy medical drama dragged kicking and screaming into slightly better quality by the sheer power of Laurie's performance. The Holmes elements are more an endless (and endlessly annoying) stream of references and in-jokes, rather than any serious attempt to adapt the story or characters.

I think the major point in favor of this interpretation is the character of House himself - not only is he very nearly sociopathic in his obsession with solving puzzles over healing people, he constantly plays romantic games with the female characters on the show (particularly Cameron and Cuddy, obviously). Holmes, on the other hand, may have made statements early in the series about loving the puzzle for the intellectual interest only, but as his character progresses, he shows a passion for justice and helping others that far outshines his boredom-driven crime-solving. Furthermore, Holmes is both misogynistic and courteous - mistrusting women but never manipulating them, and often speaking of them with admiration (The Second Stain, Charles Augustus Milverton).

Sorry, and not like anyone's really going to read this, but I am more than fed up with the House/Holmes comparisons. Holmes is the infinitely better character, and I wish Hugh Laurie was cast in a better moral climate, so his towering talent could enlighten rather than inspire cruelty-fueled laughter.
Chris Meadows
17. Robotech_Master
How could you miss Detective Conan (aka Case Closed)? It's a terrific manga and anime inspired by Sherlock Holmes (in kind of the same way Lupin III was inspired by Arsène Lupin) and has the distinction of being one of the longest-running anime and manga series in recent years (it just celebrated its 15th continuous season). (Some of it is available commercially under the Case Closed title; the rest is fansubbed.)

It really deserves a Holmes for the Holidays post all by itself.
Iain Coleman
18. Gigi Edwards
How has no one mentioned BBC sherlock? Because its definitley the closest...
But I do love Houses subtle refrences to the story that if you don't observe you'll miss. Houses last name for example. House/Holmes (Homes)
Iain Coleman
19. random person
Glad ime not the only one who sees connections. Does it anger anyone though that people can just rip off characters? I know that the copy rights went to the public domain and all that, but still holms is suppost to be unique. Monk, Shawn and jane are all in the state of california...
Iain Coleman
20. SueQ
Fringe, because Olivia is Holmes (unique abilities, outside the box personality) Peter is Watson (the outside this universe sidekick and mate) and Walter is Mycroft (enigmatic and brilliant and powerfull in his own ways) and Astrid is all the Baker Street Irregulars (because she can deal with Walter and Peter and Olivia and not go flaming crazy). Of couse William Bell is Moriarty -- just because.
Iain Coleman
21. JYW
White Collar also follows the Holmes pattern.

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